Thursday, July 27, 2006

TRENTON, N.J. — Grant Menke lies motionless on the ground at Waterfront Park, the victim of a hard foul ball that bounced off his kneecap.

Menke is working a game between the Binghamton (N.Y.) Mets and the Trenton Thunder, but right now he can’t think about calling balls and strikes. There is just that intense hurt in his leg.

“I have taken shots off my wrists, arms, legs, mask and even my Adam’s apple,” Menke says later. “That didn’t feel too good. The foul ball off my kneecap hit just in the right spot where it sent a shooting pain up my leg.”

Menke limps back to his position behind the plate, and play resumes. It is just one of the hazards of his job as an umpire in the Class AA Eastern League. At 26, he has fended off foul balls, irate managers and ornery crowds in his quest to beat the monumental odds and make it to the major leagues.

The journey through the minors is a grind: five months spent away from home during the season, nights spent in suspect hotels, too many meals eaten in fast-food joints, too many overnight car rides to not-so-glamorous destinations like Altoona, Pa., and Akron, Ohio.

And the pay … well, that’s bush league, too.

Menke makes $2,300 a month, not much compensation for all the sacrifices — particularly the time spent away from his wife, Susie.

“If I didn’t love it, it would be stupid,” says Menke, a North Bethesda resident who has spent four seasons working in the Arizona, New York-Penn, South Atlantic, Florida State and Eastern leagues. “Umpires are a strange breed.”

Menke is a member of Crew 3 in the Eastern League, the second-highest level on the minor league baseball ladder and two steps from the majors. Crew chief Mark Ripperger, a 25-year-old from San Diego, and 23-year-old John Tumpane of Chicago complete the three-man team (only the majors have four umpires).

It had been an eventful few days for the group, which arrived at the Trenton Marriott early on a Monday morning after a day game in Portland, Maine.

Things had gotten out of hand that Saturday and had not let up since. That night’s game went 11 innings and took 4 hours, 14 minutes to complete, and Ripperger was forced to eject two players and Connecticut’s pitching coach. The crew averages one or two ejections a month, so the night’s events were particularly unusual.

“I was having fun that game until we went extra innings,” says Ripperger, also in his fourth pro season. “We are out there more than four hours. You are trying to stay focused. You know nobody likes anything you are doing. The game is tied, and you don’t feel like you are ever going to get out of there. It was kind of a drag.”

The long night didn’t end there. Umpires are required to file reports immediately after a game in which there are ejections. So instead of unwinding at a local bar, the crew did paperwork until 4 a.m.

That left little time to rest because the next day’s game was played during the afternoon. That contest went smoothly, but the groggy group just couldn’t escape Hadlock Field unscathed. The umps walked to the parking lot to begin the trek to Trenton only to discover the unofficial fourth member of the crew had been injured during the game. The windshield of their small Dodge minivan — Tumpane nicknamed the auto “Silvia” because of its silver color — had been shattered by a foul ball.

There was no place to get it repaired on a Sunday night and, with a game to work the next day in New Jersey, no time to wait either. So the trio embarked on the 380-mile trip behind glass that looked more like a spider web than a windshield. Silvia got a new windshield the next day, and the three other crew members grabbed a few hours sleep during the day. All was well when they arrived at Waterfront Park.

“The adrenaline gets going as soon as I walk out of the tunnel onto the field,” Tumpane says. “The field is immaculate. The three of us stand out there, then the managers come out. It is serious. It is game time, and we are the authority on the field. You get a beautiful facility, a big crowd, the lights are on. It’s time to go to work. When you are standing there for the national anthem, it is amazing to think, ‘This is my job.’ I love my job. …

“Do I really want to go work 9 to 5? No, I don’t. This would be awesome.”

The long, long odds

More awesome — and profitable — would be a job in the majors. Major league umpires make $90,000 to start and up to $350,000 a year. Minor leaguers top out at $17,000 for the five-month season.

Many, like Ripperger and Tumpane, live with their families in the offseason to save money. Ripperger made $8 an hour working for UPS last Christmas season. Tumpane is finishing his work toward a junior college degree.

Anyone can apply to be an umpire. All it takes its $2,800 in tuition for a five-week umpiring school in Florida, plus transportation and food. Umpires also are responsible for buying some $1,500 of equipment, including steel-toe shoes, knee pads, a chest protector and a mask.

The top 25 students of about 125 at each class at Harry Wendelstedt’s or Jim Evans’ school are selected for an official tryout, at which Minor League Baseball fills as many jobs as are open. In 2003, Menke and Ripperger were among the 28 hired.

Menke graduated from Northern Iowa and works out of season for the Senate Finance Committee. His wife is a speech pathologist at an elementary school in Silver Spring.

“I am the breadwinner right now with his baseball salary,” Susie Menke says. “And that is not saying too much.”

The chances of any minor league umpire making it to the majors are remote. There are 68 big league jobs and little turnover. Major league umpires typically stay in their jobs for 20 or more years. There was a promotion a few weeks ago: 39-year-old Lance Barksdale got a major league job after 15 seasons in the minors.

“It was the first opening since 2003, though,” says Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. “Two or three openings would be a big year. One is more likely.”

Crew 3 has risen to the Class AA level quicker than most. Umpires typically spend closer to two seasons in the low Class A Midwest and South Atlantic leagues, plus advanced Class A circuits like the Carolina League.

Menke originally was slated to work in the Carolina League and Tumpane in the advanced Class A Florida State League. That changed after the umpires went on strike for better conditions. The walk-out lasted until June, and the umpires gained little in the end: $100 more a month.

As a result, many umpires at high levels chose to retire, and those who remained were promoted. Those advancements are likely to stop now that Class AAA is stocked with young umpires. Umpires at that level have three seasons to show major league potential or be released. They can, like Barksdale, stay longer if they serve as temporary replacements in the majors.

“I didn’t realize how difficult it was to get there until I got into the game,” Ripperger says. “The best umpire doesn’t always get there. It’s just who is in the right place at the right time. Not only do you have to be good, you have to be at [Class] AAA at the right time, and you have to be at your best at the right time for them to give you a look. A lot of good umpires have been released just because there were no spots.”

Some umpires put in 10 or more years, then get unceremoniously dumped. They dedicate their lives to the game only to be left looking for other work.

“The biggest downside to chasing this life is it is hard to have another career,” Ripperger says. “It is hard to have a backup. The biggest downside is some guys are starting over at 30 or more years old. And I don’t really know what I want to do other than this. I wouldn’t know where to go.”

Menke is thankful he has his college degree and likely will pursue a graduate degree if umpiring doesn’t work out. He plans to stick with it as long as he thinks he has a realistic chance of reaching the majors.

His wife takes a wait-and-see attitude.

“I am excited for him, and I try to be as supportive as possible,” Susie Menke says. “Every once in a while I get kind of down. But, hey, it could be worse. If he was in the [armed] services, I would have to be concerned about his safety. Here the worst I have to worry about is him being hit by a foul ball.”

Tumpane plans to finish junior college — he is one course shy of getting his degree — sooner if he is out of baseball, later if he reaches the majors.

“If I were able to work one big league game that I knew that I earned, it would all be worth it,” he says. “Some guys don’t like having continental breakfast 140 days in a row or don’t like wishing their wife happy birthday from 600 miles away or miss out when there is a newborn at home. I have just been lucky I haven’t run into any of that. I kind of have an open path to give it everything I have right now.”

An average day

That path typically produces more drudgery than excitement.

Menke wakes up around 9 or 10 a.m., his partners closer to noon. Menke always tries to see the sights and particularly likes state capitals. He visited the building in Harrisburg, Pa., but is shut out in Trenton.

The three might exercise in the hotel gym if there is one and go out to lunch on their $25 per diem. But mostly there is a lot of sitting around. Hopefully, a day game will be on television. Menke reads the Bible and surfs the Internet for finance committee news from Washington.

“I try to be as productive as I can be on the road and keep my mind working,” Menke says. “I do a lot of reading.”

They leave for the park about 90 minutes before game time, then get some more rest in the small umpires’ locker room. They hit the field about 10 minutes before the game.

“That is like my cup of coffee before work,” Tumpane says of the atmosphere. “I played high school basketball, and it is the same adrenaline. The juices get going, and it is time to go to work.”

The most taxing spot is behind the plate, where the umpire is involved in every pitch. Field umpires usually make only a handful of close calls, but the plate umpire can become a villain on any one of several hundred ball-strike calls.

“Some nights it feels like work, some nights it feels easy,” Ripperger says. “Most of the time it’s fun. We don’t want to be just consistent. We want to be consistently right. If we miss a pitch here or there, you just hope it is not in the critical part of the game and that there are not a lot of them. Usually a good game is when there are a lot of pitches and you miss less than five pitches.”

After a game, the three take quick showers and eat a meal provided by the home team. The food is considerably better at the higher levels: They get specially cooked food instead of whatever was left over at the concession stands.

As players give autographs outside the park, Crew 3 climbs back into Silvia. If they aren’t heading to a new town, they go back to the hotel, then to a local watering hole to rehash what went right and what needs improvement.

“I am kind of a unique breed in that I don’t drink at all,” Menke says. “I have never drunk any alcohol ever. And a lot of umpires drink a lot. I hang out and everything. I enjoy going to a bar that has television and appetizers. I am kind of the designated driver of the group.”

The sessions typically don’t last long; the establishments often close not long after they arrive. Then it is another day of continental breakfasts, killing time and calling baseball.

“The camaraderie is what makes it fun when you are on the road,” Ripperger says. “I like being on the road. I like traveling to different places. I like the challenge of working. You feel the sense of power and authority. It is nice. It is your game. That is kind of neat.

“But I also just love baseball. I love the game. I love being around the game. I will do whatever I can to try to stay around it.”

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