Commentary

A special Father's Day in Omaha

Originally Published: June 19, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- In the weeks after Jeff Henrichs fought hard for his life and won last fall, he visited Sutter Roseville Medical Center near his Sacramento, Calif., home almost daily for observation and treatment. There, Henrichs met a 9-year-old boy named Daniel who suffered from leukemia.

[+] EnlargeJeff Henrichs
Mitch Sherman/ESPN.comJeff Henrichs, an NCAA umpire, found himself working the College World Series less than a year removed from discovering a life-threatening blood clot.

They often talked about baseball. Daniel showed off the new apps on his iPad. Some days, he sat wrapped in a blanket for eight hours in the hospital's transfusion center.

"It was a reality check," said Henrichs, a former major league umpire. "He showed me I didn't have it near as bad as I thought."

Henrichs came home from his 10-day hospital stay on a Tuesday in October. He got a call right away from Mike Gilmore, an umpiring buddy from their time together in the Pac-10. Gilmore had endured a medical situation similar to Henrichs' experience.

"I know you, Jeffy boy," Gilmore told him. "I know how you are. You need to take it easy."

Henrichs received word the next day that Gilmore, 52, died of a heart attack. Still too weak and attached to an IV from his own health scare, Henrichs could not attend the funeral.

Eight months later, Henrichs believes he received that call from Gilmore and met Daniel by no accident.

They entered his life, Henrichs said, to help steer him to a time like this week in Omaha. The 49-year-old Nebraska native is umpiring his fourth College World Series since 2003. He serves as one of two crew chiefs, along with Perry Costello, among the eight umpires selected for duty.

Henrichs started over as a college umpire after an unceremonious exit from professional baseball in 1993. He had made it up to American League in September of that year after 10 seasons in the minors, but in November his contract was not renewed. He received no official explanation.

It has been nearly two decades since then, and Henrichs has often struggled to find peace with what happened to his pro career. But on Sunday in Omaha, as he ate breakfast on Father's Day with all three of his sons -- Tyler, 24, Tim, 22, and Scott, 13 -- for the first time in their lives, he never more felt content as a dad.

[+] EnlargeHenrich Boys
Mitch Sherman/ESPN.comHenrichs' three sons, including Scott, 13, and Tim, 22, spent Father's Day watching their dad at the College World Series.

Or as an umpire.

That night, he worked home plate in Arizona's 4-0 win over UCLA.

"A lot of guys ask, 'Where would you rather be, in the big leagues or at the CWS,'" Henrichs said. "That's a tough question, because working that game, I don't know if I'd trade it for anything. That's pretty special.

"As umpires, we're honored to come here."

Much of his perspective comes from what happened last fall.

Flying home from an umpiring camp in Springfield, Mo., in September, Henrichs felt pain in his left arm. It worsened over the next few days, so he saw a doctor, who diagnosed him with tendinitis in his biceps. But after a couple physical therapy sessions, he knew it was something else.

So Henrichs drove to the emergency room at Sutter Roseville. Two hours later, he called his wife, Kim, with the news: He had a staph infection near his clavicle and blood clots in his jugular vein and in the back of his neck.

"It was pretty shocking," said Jeff's oldest son, Tyler, who lives near Minneapolis.

The jugular clot posed an extreme risk. If it dislodged, he could die. Henrichs underwent surgery for the staph infection and required a heavy dose of Coumadin, a blood-thinning medication.

"You kind of understand it's serious when you hear the words blood clot in your jugular vein," said Tim Henrichs, a senior at Nebraska.

Doctors left the wound open below Jeff's neck. For nearly three months, Kim had to pack it and remove the gauze daily with pliers.

Henrichs lost more than 20 pounds in the hospital. He suffered a few setbacks and struggled with his blood pressure but progressed enough to return for the opening weekend of the college season in February.

[+] EnlargeJeff Henrichs
Mitch Sherman/ESPN.comHenrichs, right, worked the UCLA-Arizona game on Sunday.

He umpired Utah at UC Davis and missed his first two close calls at first base.

"I wasn't ready," Henrichs said, "but nobody argued with me. I guess only I could get away with that."

College baseball is a close-knit community. Coaches knew about his ordeal and expressed concern. But for six weeks, he said, he didn't feel like himself.

Gene McArtor, the NCAA national coordinator for baseball umpires, called Henrichs on May 21 with the CWS assignment. It's based solely on merit, McArtor said. Eight umpires are selected annually for the CWS from a pool of 600.

This was no feel-good assignment.

"As umpires," Henrichs said, "we're supposed to be perfect and get better from there."

Umpires at the big league level are supposed to be nameless, faceless. Almost robots. It's no different in college, though something about the CWS aura makes it OK to root for an umpire. In fact, ESPN stuck microphones on the umpires here. It's made for a few fun moments.

This is close to home for Henrichs. He grew up in Lincoln, 60 miles to the southwest. His parents, Jean and Phyllis Henrichs, came to Omaha for the CWS in addition to Jeff's sons and other family members.

"I cherish all the time I get to spend with my dad," Tyler said. "What happened last fall with him just made this trip so much sweeter."

Henrichs rose early on Monday to drive Scott to the airport. Scott gets nervous when Jeff umps, especially when he's got the plate. Before the game on Sunday, Scott asked his dad several times if he felt the same nerves.

No, Jeff told him. He felt well prepared.

In those moments when Henrichs' mind wanders back two decades to his stint in the big leagues, he quickly erases any regrets by looking at Scott. Jeff said his youngest son never would have been born if he had stayed in pro baseball.

"It puts into perspective how important your family is," Henrichs said, "how much people love you to get you through it."

Therein lies the theme of this CWS for Henrichs -- umpiring, family and gratitude that it all continues to coexist.

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