- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2015

ZEBULON, N.C. — On a sweltering summer night off Route 264, umpire Chase Eade stood in the grass to the side of home plate, sweating.

It was “Country Western Night” at Five County Stadium, and the humidity was suffocating. Sweat had soaked a ring around the inside of Eade’s hat and was dripping down his back. He was worried about sweating through the ball bag attached to his belt.

“And now…” a voice boomed in a Southern drawl, “let’s hear it for Teeeeeam Ghost Riders!”

A ballboy handed Eade a towel as four big-horned sheep appeared in left field. It was time for the main event, the pillar of minor-league in-game entertainment: The Cowboy Monkey Rodeo. The crowd cheered as two border collies galloped into the stadium from right field with capuchin monkeys on each of their backs, circling the sheep and herding them toward foul territory. Eade smiled and glanced down the first-base line, where his partner, Erich Bacchus, was looking up at the Jumbotron. Eade wiped his face with the towel.

Their dreams have brought them here, to this tiny town east of Raleigh, home to the Carolina Mudcats of the High-A Carolina League. This league represents one of the middle rungs on the ladder of Minor League Baseball, a place where the sport’s elite prospects can blossom and the rest are weeded out. Nobody wants to stay at this level — umpires included.

For every hotshot outfielder and shortstop, there are prospects like Bacchus, 24, and Eade, 26, pursuing a parallel dream. Over five months, they will drive up and down the East Coast in a rental car, living in hotels, frequenting Chick-fil-A, and officiating more than 140 games for roughly $100 a game. After the season ends, there’s the Arizona Instructional League. Maybe winter ball. Maybe a few months living with mom and dad, and a bartending job to fill the gap. Then spring training arrives, and the grind begins anew.

“It’s an adventure,” Bacchus said. “That’s one word for it. Adventure.”

In many ways, minor-league umpires face longer odds than their playing counterparts. Dusty Dellinger, Minor League Baseball’s director of umpire development, has done the math. Since 1998, roughly 50 percent of minor-league umpires have made it to Double A, where Bacchus and Eade hope to begin next season. Only 31 percent made it to Triple A. Three percent earned a full-time job in the big leagues.

Dellinger believes more major-league jobs will open up in the next few years as a core group of older umpires nears retirement, but it remains a risky path.

“If an organization releases one of their [playing] prospects, there’s 29 other organizations that might be interested,” Eade explained. “If an umpire gets released by umpire development, there’s no 29 other organizations. That’s kind of the end of your dream.”

Bacchus and Eade think about this sometimes, but not on that stifling summer night, as the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo ended and the bottom of the sixth inning was about to begin. The dogs trotted back across the field before one stopped and bent its knees, fertilizing the grass in center field. The crowd whooped and cheered as a member of the grounds crew ran out with a shovel to scoop up the problem. With the pitcher warming, Eade turned to the hitter in the on-deck circle. “Two more,” he said.

A jar of mud

The umpires’ locker room at Five County Stadium is a cramped space in a concrete building behind the right-field wall. Inside are four wooden locker stalls, a white leather couch, a mostly-empty refrigerator, an adjacent bathroom and little else.

Bacchus and Eade arrived here 90 minutes before first pitch on a Saturday in June, wearing polo shirts and khaki pants. Bacchus is lean and dark-skinned, born in Switzerland but raised in Germantown, Maryland. He played baseball at Seneca Valley High School and graduated in 2009. Eade is two years older, stocky with red hair. The son of a pastor, he spent most of his childhood in Slovakia, where his parents were missionaries.

There is a distinct rhythm to their pregame routine, and they follow it like clockwork. It begins with a jar of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud — a special type of mud, if you believe there is such a thing. The proprietors claim it’s been harvested from a secret mud hole along the Delaware River for more than 65 years, and it’s the official baseball-rubbing mud of both the major and minor leagues.

In the big leagues, umpires are not asked to perform the menial task of rubbing down baseballs, twisting the slick new leather until each ball is evenly coated and easier for pitchers to grip. Here, it is a responsibility, just like scrubbing last night’s dirt off umpiring shoes with a toothbrush. That part of the pregame routine comes next.

Like all Single-A umpires, these two are in something of an arranged marriage. They did not choose their partners, though if given the chance, they probably would have. They met at extended spring training in 2013, then worked together briefly last season when Eade’s usual partner was hit in the mask by a foul ball and sustained a concussion. They work, travel and eat lunch together six times a week. They’re close friends.

“But that doesn’t mean he’s never annoying,” Eade said with a grin. “Do you have siblings? It’s very similar.”

Eade got into umpiring by accident. He and his brother, Chad, played club baseball in Slovakia because the schools didn’t have teams, and when the umpires didn’t show up for one of Chad’s games, the coaches turned to him. Eade, then 16, was a catcher, so he had the gear. And he was American, so of course he knew how to umpire a game, right?

“Rang my brother up in all his at-bats,” Eade said. “If there were two strikes and my brother took a pitch, I called him out that first game.”

Eade grabbed a loaf of bread from a shelf in the locker room and started making a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich, his pregame snack of choice. On this particular night, he was working behind home plate and Bacchus was in the field. Every level above Single A has three or more umpires, but here, it is only two. Every other night, they reverse roles.

A clubhouse attendant poked his head in to ask if they needed anything.

“Yeah, can you crank that AC up behind home plate for me?” Eade replied with a grin.

He took a bite of his sandwich. First pitch was 45 minutes away.

Three trips to umpire school

Like any high school freshman in America, Bacchus wanted to save and buy a car, so he started umpiring local Little League games around Germantown, even working a few tournaments in the summer. Before long, he was able to make his purchase: A 1992 Pontiac Grand Am, red with a six-cylinder engine.

Bacchus paid $2,100 for that car. It broke down after two years.

“It was awesome. I felt like the bad-ass kid, but back in time,” he said with a smile. “Like, everyone had the new car, but I had the old fun car. I didn’t care.”

Bacchus had no clue that his career in umpiring would outlast that old red Pontiac. A few years later, while working on his associate’s degree, he traveled to Florida and enrolled in The Wendelstedt Umpire School, one of two league-approved schools in the country, founded by longtime former major-league umpire Harry. The other is owned by Minor League Baseball.

Umpire school is relatively straightforward. For four to five weeks, prospective umpires take classes on the rules of the game in the morning and put them to practice in the afternoon. Including housing and meals, the cost is usually $4,000. At the end of the program, the top students from each of the two schools are invited to an evaluation course held by Minor League Baseball. That’s where jobs are won.

The number of prospects picked for the evaluation course differs every year, depending on the needs of lower-level leagues. In 2012, Bacchus was one of 14 students invited to the evaluation course out of a class of 110. He was not initially offered a job. Eade went to umpire school in 2011, did not get a job, and went back in 2012 during the middle of his senior year at Liberty University, one semester away from graduation. This time, he made it through.

“That was a big decision for us, to kind of give blessing over that second time back to umpire school,” Eade’s father, Donald, said. “He had absolutely no guarantee that anything would come out of it.”

Eade began his professional career in the Gulf Coast League, while Bacchus, then 21, started in the Arizona League. Together, those two rookie leagues represent the lowest level of the minors. Stops in the Appalachian League, New York-Penn League, South Atlantic League and Midwest League followed, each a small step up from the last.

At every level, Bacchus and Eade were tested by a new batch of managers and players. At every level, they had to start from scratch, re-earning respect.

“Just worked really hard to move up the ranks,” Bacchus said. “Tried to put myself in a position every year to go up to the next level.”

Dellinger and his umpire development staff oversee that progress. Every minor-league umpire at every level is evaluated, graded and ranked against his colleagues — including his partner. Full-season umpires, like Bacchus and Eade, are evaluated in person a minimum of eight times per year. They are graded on four criteria: Technical skills behind the plate, technical skills in the field, professionalism, and their ability to handle controversial situations, such as ejections and disputed calls.

“Our number-one thing is their attitude,” Dellinger said. “Are they willing to go out each day, give that effort with a positive attitude? Are they willing to learn, and improve, and eliminate the mistakes that you’ve made before? So that’s the big thing. … We like to see the growth in our umpires.”

‘Hey ump! You suck!’

Jordan Guerrero’s pitch sailed high and inside toward Keith Curcio’s cheek, hitting him just below the ear and popping the batting helmet off his head. In the blink of an eye, Eade flipped off his mask and threw his hand forward. Guerrero had been ejected.

Guerrero and his Winston-Salem Dash teammates were stunned. Catcher Jeremy Dowdy stepped in front of Eade, screaming in disbelief. Manager Tim Esmay jogged over, too. Eade was stone-faced as Dowdy yelled in his face and Esmay angrily poked the air in front of his chest. When Dowdy uttered an obscene phrase, he was ejected. Bacchus stepped in front of him. One minute of stomping and yelling later, Esmay was tossed, too.

“I don’t know why Jordan Guerrero was ejected,” Carolina Mudcats radio announcer Greg Young said on the air. “This is — it’s ridiculous, to be honest.”

When the umpires returned to their locker room after the game, Eade saw a text message from Dellinger waiting. News of the triple-ejection had spread, and the boss wanted to know what happened. Eade took a deep breath and picked up the phone.

There is a belief that umpires enjoy wielding their power over a game, that so-called “ump shows” have selfish motives. But few people know that ejections require them to fill out reports, written over several hours, often in the middle of the night. Each report must outline what happened, what was said, who was involved, and every detail in between. And each report is scrutinized and graded by Dellinger.

Dellinger, who spent 11 years as a minor-league umpire, said these situations play an important role in the evaluation process.

“I think the umpires, they’d like to umpire the game and nothing controversial happen. They just kind of want to lay low,” he said. “But when we’re there, we want to see stuff happen. We want to see them handle situations because yeah, that shows us, in our eyes, that they can handle stuff.”

Bacchus and Eade stayed up late to finish the triple-ejection report, writing that Guerrero had intentionally thrown at the hitter, who had paused to admire a home run the night before.

The next night, controversy found Eade again. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Curcio beat a throw to first base by a step, but Eade called him out. Mudcats manager Luis Salazar argued to no avail. “Hey ump!” one fan yelled over the boos. “You suck!”

That call was the first thing Bacchus and Eade discussed when they returned to the locker room. Dealing with blown calls is part of the job, too. Bacchus said they watch film in the locker room “religiously” in an effort to diagnose what went wrong and how it could be prevented in the future, but there’s a fine line between analyzing a missed call and letting it fester.

“I definitely want to know why I missed it. … Usually, kind of after the game, you think about it, evaluate it,” Bacchus said. “[But] there’s very few times where I lose sleep over a call. We just leave it here. You have to.”

Hundreds of miles in the rain

After a week of games at Five County Stadium, Bacchus and Eade rolled their equipment bags out of the locker room and packed them into the back seat and trunk of their silver Toyota Corolla. It was just before 10 p.m., and they had a 372-mile drive ahead.

The Carolina League spans five states along the East Coast, and on this night, Bacchus and Eade had to make one of its lengthier trips: Zebulon, North Carolina to Wilmington, Delaware. With good traffic and good weather, they figured they could make it in six hours. Unfortunately, they got neither. It was a Sunday night, and Interstate 95 had been condensed to one lane because of construction. Bacchus and Eade sat in traffic for about an hour before making a quick pit stop at a nearby Sheetz. Bacchus bought a bottled juice smoothie, Eade an order of fried macaroni and cheese.

At 2:37 a.m., the pair pulled over again at a rest stop in Virginia to switch drivers. Then, just south of Washington, the rain began to pour. Lightning shot across the sky as they cruised through Baltimore. At 4:59 a.m., they checked into their rooms at a Quality Inn in Delaware.

“A lot of people, I don’t think, know what they’re getting themselves into when they first start,” Eade said. “They [don’t] realize how much time on the road it is, and just everything from the travel to everything that goes into it.”

Between spring training, the regular season and the playoffs, Bacchus and Eade estimate they will umpire close to 170 games this year. In 2014, Bacchus worked winter ball in Colombia, pushing his total closer to 200. In both cases, that’s more than seven months on the road, with few days off and, unlike players, no home base. Umpires do not have the luxury of “home games.” Their luxury is a hotel room with a couch.

Seven months on the road also means seven months away from girlfriends and parents and siblings, seven months of missed weddings and brothers’ high school graduations. Bacchus and Eade agree that it’s both the best and worst part of their job.

“I’ve been to places, where baseball’s taken me, that I would never even have thought of going,” Bacchus said. “I love to travel, but we’re away from family. That’s the hardest one. Big time.”

It’s not only hard for the umpires themselves. Bacchus‘ girlfriend, Courtney Hyde, goes weeks without seeing someone that she once saw every day. They grew up on the same street, attended the same high school and have dated on and off since they were teenagers. When Bacchus wanted to rekindle their relationship more than two years ago, his career gave Hyde pause.

“Honestly, his job, his umpiring job, that was a big factor for me in whether or not I wanted to get back into the relationship,” Hyde said. “You do have to trust each other. That’s the hard part.”

If there is a silver lining, it’s that Hyde lives within driving distance of Woodbridge, Virginia and Frederick, Maryland, two of the Carolina League stops. Eade’s parents, who now live in Huntsville, Alabama, are not so fortunate. Their best opportunity to see Eade is still a seven-hour drive away. Even if they make that trek, the experience of watching their son work from the stands is a strange one.

“When do you cheer for him? You never really can,” Donald Eade said. “It’s difficult to go and try to watch your child, your son, achieve in his profession and everybody in the park’s chewing him out.”

Friday’s, Modell’s and no regrets

In three months, the season will end and the minor-league umpires will scatter. Some will work the fall league or winter ball, briefly prolonging their years, but all of them will face the gap — that dreaded time between one season and the next.

Minor-league umpires don’t live on the brink of poverty, but they’re not rolling in money, either. Monthly salaries are outlined in their collective bargaining agreement and are requisite with experience. As fourth-year umpires in the Carolina League, Bacchus and Eade make $2,200 per month during the season. Their hotel rooms, rental cars and gas are all covered by the league, and they receive a healthy per diem for meals. But they also have to purchase their own equipment, among other challenges.

“We pay taxes in the states we work in,” Bacchus said.

“So our tax returns are a headache,” added Eade.

Most minor-league umpires live with their parents between seasons. Almost all of them need to find offseason jobs to supplement their income. Eade taught at umpire school one year, then spent one winter as a bartender at TGI Friday’s, the same job he had in college. Bacchus has worked part-time at an indoor training facility in Gaithersburg. He applied for a job at Modell’s in November, with hopes that he could work there upon his return from Colombia. The store didn’t get back to him until last month.

“I was like, oh, interesting, you want me now? It’s a little late,” Bacchus said.

Filling this gap between seasons is a challenge, just like driving from Zebulon to Wilmington in the dead of night, or staying stone-faced after a questionable call as the boos and obscenities rain down. The prize is a six-figure salary and the prestige that comes with being a major-league umpire, the fulfillment of a dream. But there’s no promise of that.

When an umpire reaches Triple A, he is evaluated by Major League Baseball and a retention policy comes into effect. If big-league evaluators do not express interest in an umpire after two or three years, that umpire is released. This prevents a logjam, Dellinger explained, to ensure that younger umpires can advance and get their shots.

Bacchus and Eade know this. They know they are walking a risky path, investing so much in the pursuit of a goal that could evaporate, just like that. They accept it.

“We talked about this the other day,” Bacchus said from the umpires’ locker room in Wilmington. “If we both got fired right now, I wouldn’t regret a thing.”

A few days later, Bacchus and Eade were in Frederick, their third city in five days. It was Pat Sajak bobblehead night, and the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo was soon coming to town. Eade strapped on his chest protector. Bacchus adjusted his hat and looked at the clock. Another sweltering summer night was waiting.

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