Another Home Town Story
May umpiring his way through the minors
By Peter Jackel The headlights of his Honda Accord have illuminated road signs during so many nights during the last two years, from Williamsport, Pa. to Batavia, N.Y., from Kissimmee, Fla. to Mahoning Valley, Ohio and from Midland, Mich., to Clinton, Iowa.
Like any baseball umpire working the lower reaches of the minor leagues, Ben May has put countless miles of twisting country roads behind him. And maintenance issues are starting to crop up with his trusted set of wheels, which should pile up another 12,000 miles or so within the next four months.
“She doesn’t start up like a Honda should, but I deal with it,” said May, a 2000 St. Catherine’s High School graduate.
Nevertheless, May always manages to reach his destination for another game as he tries to climb the ladder of a career that has so little room at the top. And that’s just something any prospective major-league umpire must deal with as he tries to distinguish himself in a workforce of numerous others who harbor the same aspirations.
The reality is that there are no road signs that direct you to the top in this profession. You had just better be exceptionally talented, patient and lucky — with luck competing with talent as the biggest prerequisite.
“By the numbers, it’s actually tougher to get to the big leagues as an umpire than it is as a player,” said Bill Topp, vice president of Racine-based Referee Magazine. “There are only 68 Major League Baseball umpire positions and, historically, there’s not much turnover.
“An average year might only have one or two openings. Some years there aren’t any. It may take a decade or more of minor-league work before an umpire is even considered by the majors. But umpires like Ben generally do it for the love of the game and honing life skills that they’ll carry forever.
“They have to be strong mentally and physically to make it and get lots of support along the way.”
So May continues from city to city in the Class A Midwest League, making a couple thousand dollars a month, with $28 per diem meal money and the federal mileage rate of 55 cents a mile thrown into the deal. How far this road takes him won’t be revealed for perhaps five or 10 years and, in the meantime, about all he will be promised is this:
Wearing cumbersome umpire gear during the doubleheaders that are still common at the minor-league level, even when the mercury soars into the 90s.
Being the recipient of some cheap shot from an anonymous voice in the dugout or stands and just having to take it.
Having to block out the sting of a foul tip and refocus on calling balls and strikes.
Having to deal with some manager with the disposition of an Earl Weaver or Billy Martin who screams into his face not necessarily because May made the wrong call, but because this manager wants to energize his sluggish players with passion.
And all along, May will be fighting for his livelihood in this most competitive of occupations. If he wants the men at the top to even know he exists, let alone excels at what he does, he can’t afford to relax one second or allow anger to impede focus.
“It can be hard to work the plate in the dog days of summer in mid-August and know you have another game right after it,” May said. “But that is what characterizes the good umpires from the great ones.
“You can never afford to look lazy in this job, no matter what the perception of umpires is. If you look bored or are not hustling, your job is at risk.”
As much as impassioned fans may beg to differ, umpires are almost always correct with their calls. They wouldn’t last in the minor leagues if they didn’t.
Yet, they are branded with stamps of incompetence just because it’s convenient. Ah, if only fans knew the whole story.
“When I worked in the New York-Penn League (in 2007), I had a manager come out and argue a play at the plate,” May said. “He was the home-team manager whose team was on defense. I called the runner out on a close tag play for the third out of the inning.
“The manager runs out of the dugout and passes all his players, who are coming off the field. He asks me, ‘How could you call him safe? There’s no way! Come on, Ben! He tagged him right there!’ I replied, ‘Hold on. I called him out! There’s three outs!’
“He sheepishly responded with a smile on his face, ‘Well then, why am I out here?’ ‘I have no idea,’ was my response.”
Occasionally, his job provides him with a sense of power that he finds ironic.
“The thing that makes me smile about this job is a guy can come to the plate who just signed a $6 million-dollar contract and can take a called third strike by a guy who makes in a month what this guy makes in an inning and he has to take it,” May said.
On any given day this summer, May will pack his gear into his car from another unglamorous destination — say, Clinton, Iowa.
“It is no treat to get to Clinton,” he said. “There is a Purina Dog Chow company that makes half the city smell like cooked puppy chow,” he said.
And May will keep traveling and traveling until there are ultimately no more miles to travel.
“If I can get to Triple A in about five years, that will put me at age 33, which I can deal with,” he said. “There is such an unpredictability of turnover in the minor leagues that it doesn’t make sense to worry about it.
“If I did worry about my performance, it would probably be affected – adversely, of course – and no umpire can afford that.”
The Ben May File
NAME: Benjamin Joseph May
BORN: Jan. 23, 1982 in Racine
HIGH SCHOOL: St. Catherine’s ’00.
LAST BOOK I’VE READ: “Cannery Row”
favorite movie: “The Big Lebowski”
favorite tv show: “The Simpsons”
greatest influence: My dad, because he taught me the importance of attention to detail.
greatest pleasure in life: Jumping out of an airplane.
what scares me more than anything: Jumping out of an airplane.
biggest goal: Becoming a major-league umpire.
UMPIRING EXPERIENCE: Gulf Coast League (2007), New York-Penn League (2007), Midwest League (2008-09)
WHY AN UMPIRE?: “I used to umpire our neighborhood pick-up games at Kaiser Field in Elmwood Park. And sometimes I would play and nobody would umpire. This caused some really drawn-out arguments sometimes. That might have annoyed me enough to want to do it more. But I hate to think I was annoyed into becoming an umpire. I just think I enjoy order and I like to be the one who brings it, on the field, at least.”