EVERY DAY IS Judgment Day for an umpire. In the early days of organized baseball, team owners actually encouraged fans to harass umps who made questionable, or just unpopular, calls -- throw beer bottles at them, or even the occasional brick. The sadism of Orioles fans was especially well-known, according to the 2008 book Death at the Ballpark. "They broke the spirits of some fine men," one ump later remembered. By the end of the 1920s, at least 10 umpires had been killed or mortally wounded on the field -- in one case, an umpire was punched so hard in the face that a fragment of his jaw ripped through his brain like a spear. In 1911, a semipro player in Georgia got so tired of insisting that the umpire had the score wrong that he walked off the bench with a pistol and shot the man.
Today, the abuse that umpires take is more subtle -- but in a way just as sinister. Their mistakes are played back in slow motion by 24-hour sports networks, then piled on by talk-radio hosts and tweeting fans. Major league calls can now be challenged with instant replay, and strike zones get checked by a soul-crushing digital technology called Zone Evaluation. Death threats have been known to appear on their children's Facebook pages. Understandably, some umpires have found they need someone to talk to. And so when Pastor Dean Esskew's phone rings in the middle of the night, as it often does, he knows to pick it up and say "What's wrong?" instead of "Hello."
Pastor Dean, as folks around baseball know him, is the leader of Calling for Christ, a nonprofit ministry that for the past 11 years has tried to ease the anguish of major league and minor league umpires by keeping them close to God. Esskew is 48 and enormous, with a booming, smoky drawl and his own cologne-scented weather. He ministers exclusively to umps, piling through stadium crowds with an awkward, hammering limp acquired years ago when a horse bucked him on the farm in Oklahoma where he lives with his wife. (Debrah Esskew runs a parallel ministry for umpires' wives and girlfriends.)
Before Calling for Christ, Pastor Dean spent 20 years leading small rural churches; his dream was to preach in front of a stained glass window someday, somewhere nice. Now he flies and drives between ballparks all summer to hold informal late-night Bible groups at sports bars after games. He spends about 20 weeks on the road every season, visiting four or five crews a week. (The umpires propel him around America with their surplus of airline miles and hotel points.) Every Friday he runs a prayer call for major league umpires, every Saturday for minor leaguers. They're like regular church services, except the congregation dials in from locker rooms and hotels across the country. If Esskew notices a particular ump has missed a call-in or two, he'll hop a flight and pay the man a visit. He has appeared unexpectedly a few rows behind the dugout of the Triple-A Isotopes in Albuquerque. He has materialized at the graveside service for an umpire's father in the middle of Kansas. In the offseason, he runs a Calling for Christ retreat in Texas (annual attendance: about 60 umpires) and performs a lot of umpire weddings. He has baptized 66 umpires so far, calling them safe in the only way that matters.
Among umpires, Esskew is not just trusted but beloved. "Dean's a big teddy bear," major league ump Chris Guccione says. "You just want to hug on him." They love his playfulness -- a relief from the stoicism their jobs require. Once, Pastor Dean showed up to give a sermon in an umpires' locker room wearing a Speedo -- he'd asked a friend to bring him "the tightest one you can find for a fat man"; it said bad boy across the rump -- and announced, "I'm tired of seeing you guys naked, of seeing your butts, so now you're going to look at me!" Another time, he got the code to an umpire's garage door in Arizona and left a live miniature donkey in the man's kitchen while he was working a spring training game. The donkey crapped everywhere, Pastor Dean says. And while this story may sound far-fetched, I know it is true because one evening last summer, as the pastor and I settled into seats at Petco Park in San Diego with the umpires' families -- an encampment of women and children a dozen rows behind the Padres' dugout, conspicuously without a single item of team-branded apparel -- Pastor Dean introduced me to an umpire's wife, and she pointed at him and shrieked: "He put a donkey in my kitchen!"
The San Diego game was a rare sellout -- the Yankees were in town. Esskew had come from Omaha by way of Las Vegas and would next be driving north, through Pacific Coast League towns, to Oakland. A moment earlier, we'd heard the public address announcer belt out the opening lineups and then quickly mutter the names of the umpiring crew -- almost under his breath, like they were the distressing side effects of a medication. Now folks were gathered at home plate to honor Yankees closer Mariano Rivera before his retirement. Retired Padres closer Trevor Hoffman was there to present Rivera with custom beach cruiser bikes for his whole family and shake the hand of the man who'd surpassed him as the all-time saves leader. History, gentlemanliness, continuity, pageantry -- all the best baseball stuff was happening, and the crowd surged to its feet to enjoy it. But when Hoffman was announced, Pastor Dean had a blank look on his face. "Who is it?" he bellowed.
The thing is, Pastor Dean hates baseball. He always has. ("I can't stand baseball! It's crazy!") It gets really boring, he says, but he's committed to watching all nine innings, to reciprocate the respect his umpires pay him when he's preaching. He understands most of the rules but remembers only a handful of players' names at a given time. He never cheers or claps, and in San Diego, when all the fans of the Padres and Yankees rose in unison for the sacred, communal ritual of the seventh-inning stretch, Pastor Dean didn't bother pulling his body out of the seat it was crammed into.
A middle-aged man and his wife, both in the kind of full-length brown friar robes worn by the Padres' mascot, made their way up the aisle, shouting along with "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Seeing Pastor Dean in his seat, the woman leaned her sun-charred, flaking San Diegan face out of her fake friar robe and sang right at him: "Root, root, root for the Padres!" She seemed to be chastising him. But the actual man of God hardly noticed. He just stared straight ahead and took a tug off his Coke.
THE CREW CHIEF for the Yankees-Padres series was Ted Barrett, a quiet but imposing veteran. He'd spent the first game at third base, where, between innings, he made a point of complimenting Padres third baseman Chase Headley on an interview he'd done on Pat Robertson's TV show. Then, within minutes of the last out, he claimed to have wiped the score from his memory.
Barrett broke into the majors full time in 1999 and, having grown up in a religious family in upstate New York, was deeply unsettled by what he saw when he arrived. "How can I put this delicately?" he says. "It was a devil's playground. It was a dark, dark time." The umpiring profession was ripped through with drinking, promiscuity and hard living. It was also openly hostile to religion. Says another ump, Rob Drake: "Umpires are all A-type personalities. You have to run the game out there, and it carries into your personal life." God was seen as a crutch. Trusting even other umpires felt like a vulnerability. The environment was competitive, hierarchical and cold. Guys were walking around with their masks on even when their masks were off.
Barrett and Drake recognized that umpiring had a way of wounding men, then slowly scratching those wounds open, and thought God could lessen the sting. In 2003, they called on the garrulous Oklahoma pastor that Barrett had been introduced to at a steakhouse after a game in Denver two years earlier. (Barrett remembers liking Pastor Dean immediately. The pastor had ordered a 48-ounce porterhouse for two, which Barrett assumed he and his wife would share. "But then his wife ordered something else, and Dean sat there and cowboyed up and ate the whole thing!" Barrett says.) The two umps asked Pastor Dean to help them start an umpires-only Christian retreat and then eventually a full-fledged ministry. Basically, Barrett says, their sales pitch to umpires was this: "No one's going to step up and vindicate you or defend you? Well, let Christ be your vindication. Guys need to realize that we work for an audience of one."
Pay the slightest attention to umpires during a game and they can seem like a lost tribe wandering through a demoralizing desert. They work with the knowledge that they can be saddled at any second with the infamy that comes from a situation like "Jimmy Joyce's thing," as I heard several umpires refer to Joyce's blown call at first base in June 2010 that robbed the Tigers' Armando Galarraga of a perfect game. But what umpires mostly complain about are the private agonies of the job. Barrett says he loves his work, "but the truth is, we're treated like bases, balls and bats -- we're sometimes treated like equipment." Players play half their games at home, but for umpires, the season is one listless and circuitous road trip, and, especially in the minors, you can't always rush home if your toddler gets sick or your mother finds a lump. (In his book about umpiring, As They See 'Em, writer Bruce Weber describes how one minor league ump hung it up after the Eastern League brusquely denied his request for an extended leave of absence after his girlfriend miscarried.) The disorienting blur of all-day minivan rides and 6 a.m. flights leaves some minor leaguers clinging to the most meticulous routines. One Triple-A crew I meet described arranging the contents of their Dopp kits precisely the same way on every new hotel bathroom counter; leaving for the ballpark every day at exactly 5:30, no matter how far away they're staying; and playing three-man cribbage in their uniform socks and undershirts before every game. "I don't think umpires believe in superstitions the way ballplayers do," their crew chief tells me. "We believe in routine. It's like rules: It makes the game run."
Salaries in the minors start at $2,000 a month, so the rest of an umpire's living must be scraped together in the offseason. Some work winter ball in Venezuela, where umpires often have to be escorted off the field by security. Tripp Gibson, one of the most promising umpires in Triple-A last season, told me he was trying to line up some substitute teaching.
Major league jobs open only sporadically, like Supreme Court appointments, and many men spend years bouncing between Triple-A and the majors as fill-ins before getting a big league contract. And even when umpires hit the majors, where they make six-figure salaries, fly first class and get four weeks off during the season, the profession can strain their mental health and crumble their family lives. When I ask Rob Drake what's challenging about the job, he says: "Managing the wife, making her feel special." It's common, one ump tells me, for an umpire to come home at the end of the season and instinctually start bossing everyone around, umpiring his home life -- an insult to his wife, who's held things together by herself for the past seven months.
Meanwhile, on the road, infidelity is often an issue. Because the only place to decompress after night games is usually a bar, some umpires wind up with drinking problems. Because they live sealed in hotel rooms, others sink into problems with porn. Pastor Dean says a handful of umpires now have software installed on their laptops that allows him to remotely monitor their browsing history as a deterrent.
It turns out, Pastor Dean wrestles with a pornography problem himself. He has ever since he found his uncle's Playboys as a kid. He doesn't hide it -- the umpires need to see that nobody's perfect, he tells me -- and for the past several years, he's had it under control. But it takes discipline: He seldom travels with a computer now, and the first thing he does when he walks into every new hotel room is set his Bible on top of the TV. "So when I'm tempted, I see that Bible," he says. After all, he's on the road, and lonely, as much as the umpires are.
WHEN CALLING FOR CHRIST held its first retreat, in 2003, only six umpires showed up -- and one of them, Lance Barrett, came with his mask and equipment, thinking it was a clinic. But 11 years later, the ministry is thriving. The morning of that Yankees game in San Diego, Pastor Dean had counted more than 30 men on the ministry's major league prayer call. (There are 77 umpires in the bigs.) Last season a core group of six major league umpires worked their way through a discipling program over Skype every Tuesday.
"God is changing the lives of these men," Pastor Dean says -- alleviating the pressure but also creating more openness in the culture, joining them into a more supportive brotherhood. After San Diego, for example, Esskew called on a Triple-A ump named Brian Hertzog at Chukchansi Park in Fresno. Hertzog's father had died suddenly of a heart attack right before spring training; the first texts Hertzog got afterward, he told me, were from umpires. But now Hertzog seemed to have gone missing from the prayer calls. In Fresno, Pastor Dean took Hertzog's entire crew out to a chain restaurant named BJ's after the game and insisted all three of the umpires order the biggest size of its signature dessert -- something called the Pizookie, which the umps had been jabbering about since the moment they sat down, like broke college kids who'd been waiting for someone's parents to visit and take them out. Pastor Dean explained that a major league ump in the ministry named Mike Everitt, known as Shooter, had given him money specifically so he could treat younger guys to a good meal. "Text Shooter and tell him thank you," Pastor Dean said, and the umps all pulled out their phones.
But several umps say there is no better example of what the ministry is accomplishing than the redemption of Alfonso Marquez. Marquez was also working the Yankees series in San Diego. Born in Mexico, he came to the country illegally as a 7-year-old when his father, a tombstone carver, paid a smuggler to lead the family through a hole in a chain-link fence. In 1992, Marquez was making doorknobs for a company in California and nearly lost a finger when his glove got yanked into a polishing machine. He'd been fixated on going to umpire school since calling Little League games as a teenager and recognized his wounded hand as his chance. His workers'-comp settlement covered his tuition almost to the cent, he says.
Other umpires talk about Marquez as a graceful and intuitive natural -- the complete package of rules knowledge, good judgment and physical fluidity. He has a way of projecting supreme confidence and competence on the field without tipping into cockiness. ("God blessed me with the ability to umpire," Marquez says nonchalantly.) He shot through the ranks quickly and by 1998 had advanced to Triple-A. But after a game in Fresno, there was a message at the hotel from his wife informing him that she wanted a divorce. Marquez assumed it was a strange joke -- they'd been married only six months -- but when he tried to call home, he found that the number had been changed. "It was all job-related," he says. His wife was realizing she wanted a husband she could actually live with. He started drinking and chasing women on the road to distract him from his unraveling personal life. He'd black out, wake up and make whatever apologies were necessary, then work his game and go out and do it again.
"When I first met Alfonso," Pastor Dean says, "his eyes looked haunted, like the life had been drained out of him." In 2001, the godfather of Marquez's children, a member of Esskew's church in Oklahoma, dragged Pastor Dean to Denver to meet Marquez, at the same steakhouse dinner with Ted Barrett. Marquez liked Pastor Dean, and though he had zero interest in Jesus, he began showing up at the Calling for Christ retreat just to keep the guy happy. Often, he'd visit a mistress on the way. (By this point, Marquez had reconciled with his wife and had two kids, then divorced again.) In 2009, with a back injury sidelining him for the season, Marquez was arrested and charged with DUI in Arizona. The system shunted him into Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City jail in Maricopa County, an especially dismaying place to hit bottom. Shortly after his release, Marquez went to Pastor Dean and told him he was ready to be saved.
Marquez now makes sure his story is known up and down the umpiring ranks as a cautionary tale about life on the road. He's become a one-man Scared Straight program. "Alfonso has become one of the most godly men I've ever met," Pastor Dean says. In 2012, Marquez got a tattoo across his calf: the wooden cross on the hilltop where Calling for Christ holds its retreat.
MARQUEZ HAD A LOT of family at the San Diego series, and Pastor Dean and I sat behind his kids and their godmother on the second night. I'd assumed Pastor Dean was joking in the first inning when he'd blared "It's my birthday!" to a guy shuffling past us to his seat -- he was trying to cajole the poor guy into giving him his sausage and peppers. But it was his birthday, the ninth straight he'd spent at a ballgame since he turned 40 at a San Antonio Missions game in 2005. He explained, a little wistfully, that if he were home with his wife, they'd probably be at this family-run Italian restaurant they love. I said I was sorry. He told me not to be. "Right now, I'm exactly where I need to be," he said. But we both knew, given what was developing off the field that evening, that he wasn't sure of that at all.
That afternoon, Marquez and his family were at the beach when his mother-in-law was suddenly struck with crippling stomach pain. Eventually, they called an ambulance. Marquez's wife, Staci, and her sister were at the hospital with their mother now. All game long, Pastor Dean had been slipping his phone in and out of his shirt pocket compulsively -- firing texts, waiting for updates, offering to bring food. He was distracted, conflicted. It was unclear to him how to be most useful: Did God want him at the game or the hospital? By the third inning, he'd begun to narrate his anxieties out loud. Imagine what it's like for Staci, he said, coping with such a frightening thing in a strange city. "And if something happens, she can't call the guy behind first, her husband!"
As long as he's been a pastor, Pastor Dean has struggled to shepherd people through life's traumas: heart attacks, miscarriages, cancer. Trying always made him feel useless, awkward -- comforting people in the throes of a crisis didn't come naturally to him. When he worked in churches, his mentors always told him: "Man, you can preach -- you're a lovable, outspoken guy -- but you just suck when it comes to visiting people." His deacons constantly had to nudge him to visit church members in the hospital: You know, he's been in there three days, they'd say. One time, the grandson of a woman at his church committed suicide, and the instant Pastor Dean showed up in the emergency room and saw the woman's face, he started explosively weeping. "It just broke me," he remembers. "It literally just broke me as a man."
"I'm a real joyful guy, and the hurt just eats at me," he said during the game. He checked his phone again, then stared back into space.
EARLY IN MY travels with Pastor Dean last season, I tried -- politely -- to bring up the obvious: how horrendously the year seemed to be going for the umpires. It wasn't even June before Bleacher Report had enough material to round up the "most brutal umpiring gaffes" of the year, and Fox Sports declared it "the worst season by umpires -- ever!" There was a string of egregiously incorrect calls that ended games, plus a few absolutely embarrassing ones, like when an entire crew failed to recognize that the Astros had made an illegal pitching change. Some umpires admitted their mistakes -- "I was wrong," Jerry Meals told a reporter after botching a play at the plate -- and some definitely did not. One afternoon in Pittsburgh, when Pirates starter A.J. Burnett threw up his arms after a close pitch was called a ball, plate umpire Eric Cooper ripped off his mask and marched right at Burnett, pointing and fuming like a drunken darts player picking a bar fight. Catcher Russell Martin actually had to step in front of the umpire, the way umpires try to intercept batters who charge the mound.
Still, when I asked Pastor Dean how the season was going for his guys, he boomed: "It's been a really good year! It's almost kind of scary. I mean, it's been going so smoothly that you're just waiting for a bump in the road." All the on-field drama didn't even occur to him, and it hardly mattered. The media call every year the worst year for umpires, he said. What made it an awesome year, in his mind, was that everyone's family was healthy, and lots of Triple-A guys were having their first kids. He could count 10 births without even thinking about it, he said, and nothing makes a pastor as happy as watching his church burst with babies. And that's what he is: the pastor of a church. All the men in his church just happen to have the same job.
This is the mission of Calling for Christ, after all: to make guys zoom out and see their lives as fully as Pastor Dean does. His complete lack of interest in the game -- the way the stature and romance of baseball bounce right off him -- is probably his greatest asset to the ministry. "We want guys to realize that it's a job," Pastor Dean says. "You do the best you can, and when you're done with it, you're done with it. You can't let it eat away at your life."
"I've been calling this the Year of Ananias," he goes on.
Ananias of Damascus has a bit part in the Bible, a cameo in the Road to Damascus story. The story, essentially, is this: Saul of Tarsus is riding to Damascus to round up the Christians and execute them when Jesus knocks him to the ground with a fierce and blinding light. It's one of the book's most famous conversion stories, but Saul's conversion doesn't come until three days later, when God sends a disciple named Ananias to find Saul and touch him. "And immediately," the Bible says, "there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized."
Pastor Dean told me: "Ananias was sent by God to tell Saul, 'Look, what you're doing, man, is wrong.' He was there, basically, to call him out. And nobody ever remembers him." Saul, having been filled with the Holy Spirit, becomes the famous disciple Paul, the one who writes parts of the Epistles and the New Testament and lays out some very real, very fundamental Christian stuff, like: "We walk by faith, not by sight." Ananias, meanwhile, is never mentioned in the Bible again. "That's the ideal of what umpires are supposed to be," Pastor Dean explained: average men who are given fleeting authority, then disappear behind their word.
Umpires feel compelled to be perfect and poised, to control the chaos that plays out in front of them, and they worry they'll be attacked or humiliated if they fail. They're like all of us, in other words, but more so -- more put-upon yet more dignified, because they ask for that responsibility night after night. To survive, an umpire has to learn to make his calls and then block it all out: the replays and criticism, as well as his own fear and self-recriminations. He has to vanish back into the story of his own life and learn to find his real purpose there. Major league ump Chris Guccione -- who five years ago had no religious beliefs but met Pastor Dean and "just got really fired up for Jesus" -- says: "There's just a feeling of ease now, when you realize there's something so much bigger than what you feel is the biggest thing in your life -- something so much more grand."
When you're the highest power on the field, you need to kick your troubles up to an even higher power. Maybe only something as big as God can make baseball feel small.
PASTOR DEAN LASTED six innings. After nearly two hours of fidgeting and checking his phone, he got the name of the hospital from Marquez's daughter and left.
Hospital visits are totally routine stuff -- "Pastor 101," he says -- and yet this would be the first one he'd done in at least a decade. He was nervous, and midway through the cab ride there, he started laughing. How crazy his career had become that it took him six innings to realize what any other pastor would have known right away: Of course he was supposed to leave a baseball game and go comfort a congregant's family in the hospital. He was sounding more steadfast now, bucking himself up. "Drop me at the emergency room," he boomed to the driver. "I'm going to visit somebody."
But his sense of purpose crumbled seconds after he arrived at the hospital and discovered he couldn't talk his way past the reception desk. He had his elbows on the desk and his head cradled in one of his giant palms, trying to figure out his next move, when a voice behind him said: "Dean?" It was Marquez's wife and her sister -- they'd run out for tea and snacks. Pastor Dean snapped himself together. "You didn't think you were going to send your mother to the hospital and not have me come by," he said, then gathered up both women in a hug. They thanked him for coming. He said, "This is what I do." Then he followed them through the door to see their mother and pray.
The ER waiting room was quiet, mostly. In one corner, a nurse was saying, "David, David," trying to rouse an unconscious young man wearing a flowing white sheet and a pair of Warby Parker glasses. Across the room, an older Latina woman in a velour sweatsuit was wedged into a chair on her side, breathing deeply, grasping her husband. Above her was a flat-screen TV. The Padres game was on. Just seconds after Pastor Dean disappeared behind the door, the TV showed a tight close-up of umpire Ted Barrett, chewing his gum expressionlessly. Behind him, you could hear a thrum of very loud boos.
It was the top of the ninth by now. After catching a line drive, Padres center fielder Alexi Amarista had whipped the ball back to first to double up Curtis Granderson, who'd been running on the pitch. The throw beat Granderson easily, but Barrett -- who was working second base and had sprinted over to first to get a look at the play -- called him safe. The TV ran replay after replay, all of them showing that Barrett had missed the call. "He's out! He's out! He's out by a lot," one of the color guys said smugly. Before long, the broadcasters locked on to the really embarrassing part: Visible in every replay, standing perfectly still behind the first-base bag, was Alfonso Marquez, the actual first-base umpire. "Why is the second-base umpire coming over to make a call when the first-base umpire is standing right behind the base?" one of the broadcasters said. It was what umpires call a rotation play, and it happened so fast that it's hard to say whether Marquez had actually done anything wrong. But it looked horrible -- like Marquez had never even moved, like his mind was elsewhere. "Marquez!" the broadcaster kept saying. "He's standing right there behind first base!"
There were more replays -- slower ones, from different angles. The manager was arguing. An exasperated voice on the TV said again: "Marquez is standing right behind first base!"
Suddenly, in the back of the hospital waiting room, a small, pudgy man with a soul patch who'd been pacing the way people do in emergency rooms -- trepidatiously, powerlessly -- reared back and shouted at the television. "That's an out! Come on!" he said.
If you were anyone but the umpire, you'd think it was life and death.
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