Anybody who regularly drives in Florida on I-75 in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area knows the trip during the morning rush hour on their way to work can be an adventure. For Gulf Coast League umpires Takahito Matsuda and George Riedel, their ride down I-75 to Bradenton on Thursday morning was more adventurous than either could have imagined. It was just plain "wild."
Matsuda was driving the duo south in Gibsonton, about 15 miles from downtown Tampa, at about 9 a.m. when traffic came to a complete halt.
"We're going down 75 and, all of a sudden, right in front of us, everybody hit the brakes," Riedel explained. "We're in the fast lane. They hit the brakes to where we needed to pretty much come to a full stop."
Matsuda pulled their car over to the shoulder. Riedel said he didn't see anything going on in front of them, so he looked to the north side of I-75 to see if something happened over there.
"As I looked across the highway, the plane in the air caught my eye because it was probably only 30-40 feet off the ground at this point," Riedel recalled. "I look up and I see the plane coming down with its landing gear down."
"The plane was coming towards us, and I was just nervous and surprised," Matsuda said.
The plane, reportedly a 2004 Piper Saratoga II TC that was losing oil, successfully landed in the grass median of the highway. According to Riedel, the pilot then tried to put the body of the plane right along a guardrail so the pilot side wing would safely clear the guardrail. In doing that, one of the plane's wings clipped a road sign.
"As it was coming down, it hit the ground, bounced off the ground, and hit the ground again," Riedel said. "When it hit the ground the second time, the wing on the pilot's side hit the sign and ripped off and went flying off. Then the plane kept driving and it rode the guardrail to stay upright and finally came to rest a little bit behind us. It was crazy."
"The plane landed on the middle of the highway and it went passed us," Matsuda recalled. "And then so George said, 'Stop, stop, stop the car.' We had to go out. So I stopped the car and we went out to the plane."
By the time the men reached the plane with several others, the pilot and two passengers, who were unharmed, had already opened the door.
Reidel said he and another guy "kind of put our hands out and helped them get off the plane and onto the ground."
Luckily the plane did not catch fire. Everyone got away from the aircraft, just in case it did.
By that time, the authorities had arrived. Since nobody was injured and no statements were needed from either, Matsuda and Riedel were free to continue the remaining 45 minutes of their drive to work the GCL Pirates-Phillies games in Bradenton. The teams were scheduled to continue a suspended game at 11 a.m. and then play a seven-inning contest after that. (The Pirates won both contests.)
"We had a game to get to," said Riedel, who is from Rockaway, N.J. "So it was like, alright, everyone's okay, cops are here, they say they don't need us or anything, let's get to the game. We don't want to be late."
It was an exciting start to the day for the two first-year umpires.
"It's good because we got a doubleheader today, so I'm all amped up already," quipped Riedel from the umpire's room before their first game at Pirate City. "I'm definitely ready to work this doubleheader more so than normal."
Matsuda, who is from Seiyo, Ehime, Japan, said he was very surprised by the incident.
"I'm thinking 'Oh, here is America, ya know?'" Matsuda said with a laugh. "I've never seen a private plane on the highway.
"Today was a wild day," he added. "We have just a couple games [left] in this season, but today must be the most wild day in this season."
Steve Densa is the Executive Director of Communications for Minor League Baseball.