Before Balls and Strikes, Umpires Make a Call to Pray
CHICAGO — The umpires dialed in at about 3 p.m. on a Friday, calling from places like St. Louis, Missouri; Oakland, California; and Cleveland, Ohio.
It was time to pray. “God is our father,” Ted Barrett, a major league umpire for over two decades and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, told the men. “He loves to hear from us, and so don’t ever feel like he’s too big or too busy to bring your little problem to him.”
The umpires on the line had endured all manner of turmoil: anger or family troubles, addiction or overwhelming grief, loneliness and the agony of imperfection. Those last two, Barrett knew, were among their vocation’s most familiar menaces, ones that might surface during games or in the hours afterward.
So for about a dozen big league baseball seasons, small groups of umpires have privately convened every week by phone to pray together, searching for the kind of communal solace hard to come by when life is spent on the road and under the strain of officiating America’s national pastime.
“Knowing that there’s a group of guys that get on the call and are all going through the same journey and understand what it’s like to be on this journey and to pray with them, it gives a sense of community,” said David Rackley, 39, who was the leftfield umpire for this season’s AllStar Game.
On a day-to-day basis, umpires are among baseball’s most isolated figures. The full-time umpiring staff of today includes just 76 men who travel the country in crews of four and keep a distance from the players and managers they govern. Their lives can feel like blurs of airports and fastballs, hotels and brightly lit ballparks, punctuated by calls home to their children and hollers from the players.
Their spiritual traditions can serve as anchors, with the lessons they find in Scripture showing them a way forward on the field and away from it.
“Jesus would have been a great umpire because he wasn’t a milquetoast where he would have allowed himself to get run over,” said Mr. Barrett, 56, who has been the officiant at some umpires’ funerals. He paused and smiled.
“Of course, he would have been perfect.”
Other umpires said that tending to their faith is a logistical challenge in a profession that might have them traveling from San Diego to Houston to Chicago in a week’s time.
The Friday prayer call offers a stable dose of spiritual sustenance, whether they are at a baggage claim in Seattle, in a rental car in Texas or, recently for Mr. Rackley, an Asian restaurant in California.
In the off-season, many of the umpires participate in a three-night retreat in Texas. Spring training brings fellowships over Scripture at a restaurant in Arizona.
In the regular season, many umpires pray with members of their crew before first pitch, and some say they find themselves talking to God between pitches or innings. When he delivered the message during one call this season, Mr. Barrett said, he urged umpires who were working games that night to gaze skyward at some point and marvel at what he saw as the handiwork of God.
“To stand out there in front of 50,000 people and call balls and strikes as you’re getting picked apart on TV, to me, it’s impossible to do this job well, so I rely on God to do it for me,” Mr. Barrett said. “We talk about this a lot on our crew: Prepare the best you can, and then go out and do the best you can, and let God take care of the rest.”
Relying on God to get through games with 50,000 critics.