"Jimmy, what the hell is a rouge?"
That was the way I greeted former MLB umpire Jim McKean, who died Thursday at 73, every time he visited the press box at Tropicana Field. It would always elicit a laugh and cause those around him to smile.
McKean was so much more than just a baseball umpire.
He turned down 35 offers to play football collegiately in the United States to turn professional, and played three seasons in the Canadian Football League, playing quarterback and punting for first his hometown Montreal Alouettes, then the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He earned a spot in the league's rookie All-Star team, but by 1967 decided he was done playing football.
"I was on a one-year contract making about $8,000 [Canadian]," McKean told The Calgary Sun in a 1976 profile. "They wanted me to come back for a $1,000 raise on another one-year deal. At that rate, in 10 years time I'd still have been making nothing. That's what is was like for a Canadian."
His opportunity to become a baseball umpire came after meeting National League umpire Billy Williams after a Montreal Expos game in 1969. Williams asked McKean two questions -- if he had a criminal record and if he needed glasses or contact lenses to see correctly -- and when he answered negatively to both, encouraged him to apply to umpire school (which ironically was held in St. Petersburg).
By 1974, McKean was in the big leagues and just a couple of years later was already regarded as one of the best umpires in the game. He not only worked three World Series, but also three All-Star games, and was behind the plate for one of the funniest moments in Midsummer Classic history, when Randy Johnson intimidated John Kruk back into the senior circuit dugout.
He spent 27 years on the field, then nearly another decade as an umpire supervisor before being fired after the 2009 season.
I arrived in the Rays press box in 2011, and had known about Jim from my years producing the Rays Radio Network, but had never met the man. He was working at ESPN as an umpiring consultant, but was excited to meet an unfamiliar face. It was someone new to tell his stories to.
And I loved hearing them.
He would normally sit between me and press box supervisor Dukes Knutson in the back row before the game and tell stories about the 1985 World Series and the aftermath from Don Denkinger calling Jorge Orta safe at first base in Game 6, which helped the Kansas City Royals clinch their first World Series championship. He regaled us about getting to call balls and strikes for the first in-season interleague game between San Francisco and Texas a dozen years later.
Jim also taught me about the intricacies of officiating: how umpires rotate on plays, and what the proper way to be in the right position to make a call was.
And finally, in one of the last times I saw him in the press box, Jim finally told me what a rouge was.
"It's a single, Stevie," he said after a chuckle.
I'll miss him, and I know I'm not alone.