What if you made your living passing judgement? What if you, on the rarest of occasions (and without the intention of doing so) passed judgement incorrectly? (Maybe one time in 100). What if, for each “one” time, you were mercilessly berated and held responsible for ruining the “day” of tens of thousands? Keep in mind, you were absolutely stellar and were cheered (albeit unwittingly) the other 99 times. It doesn’t matter though. That one time? It can’t possibly be made up for by the other 99 cheers you heard because, honestly?, those cheers were for someone else. That one miscue? That was ALL on you, and tens of thousands let YOU know. Welcome to the life of the professional baseball empire.
Enter Dean Esskew – in his not to be missed ESPN the Mag article, coming July 7, Jon Mooallem introduces Dean Esskew as follows, ht – CB:
…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.”
Esskew, 48 (a longtime pastor in Oklahoma) left the “conventional” pastorate in 2003 to start “Calling for Christ”, a church (if you will) for gentlemen who spend 7+ months every year (with the exception of one four week break) on the road, on planes, in hotels, and in front of countless thousands who see them as an “accessory item” (per Mooallem) like the balls, bats, and pine tar. Esskew has over 60 minor and major league umpires involved CFC. Ted Barrett and Rob Drake, two MLB umpires working with Esskew, talk about their “eye opening” first season in the majors:
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.
Mooallem goes on to tell the story of one night last season with Esskew in San Diego at a Padres’ game where Tedd Barrett was umpiring 2nd base and fellow CFC crew mate Alfonso Marquez was manning 1st base. There are times at a Major League baseball game when there is a story behind a bad call on the base paths that no fan could possibly fathom:
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!”
… 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.”
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.