ESPN THE MAGAZINE: "LEST YE BE JUDGED"
Pastor Dean has baptized 66 professional umpires, calling them safe in the only way that matters.
EVERY DAY IS Judgment Day for an umpire. In the early days of organized baseball, team owners actually encouraged fans to harass umps who made questionable, or just unpopular, calls -- throw beer bottles at them, or even the occasional brick. The sadism of Orioles fans was especially well-known, according to the 2008 book Death at the Ballpark. "They broke the spirits of some fine men," one ump later remembered. By the end of the 1920s, at least 10 umpires had been killed or mortally wounded on the field -- in one case, an umpire was punched so hard in the face that a fragment of his jaw ripped through his brain like a spear. 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.
A Ministry For Umpires
Dean Esskew, lead pastor for the ministry Calling for Christ, has spent the past 10 years providing a religious outlet for professional baseball umpires.
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."
Pastor Dean, as folks around baseball know him, is the leader of Calling for Christ, a nonprofit ministry that for the past 11 years has tried to ease the anguish of major league and minor league umpires by keeping them close to God. Esskew is 48 and enormous, with a booming, smoky drawl and his own cologne-scented weather. He ministers exclusively to umps, piling through stadium crowds with an awkward, hammering limp acquired years ago when a horse bucked him on the farm in Oklahoma where he lives with his wife. (Debrah Esskew runs a parallel ministry for umpires' wives and girlfriends.)
Before Calling for Christ, Pastor Dean spent 20 years leading small rural churches; his dream was to preach in front of a stained glass window someday, somewhere nice. Now he flies and drives between ballparks all summer to hold informal late-night Bible groups at sports bars after games. He spends about 20 weeks on the road every season, visiting four or five crews a week. (The umpires propel him around America with their surplus of airline miles and hotel points.) Every Friday he runs a prayer call for major league umpires, every Saturday for minor leaguers. They're like regular church services, except the congregation dials in from locker rooms and hotels across the country. If Esskew notices a particular ump has missed a call-in or two, he'll hop a flight and pay the man a visit. He has appeared unexpectedly a few rows behind the dugout of the Triple-A Isotopes in Albuquerque. He has materialized at the graveside service for an umpire's father in the middle of Kansas. In the offseason, he runs a Calling for Christ retreat in Texas (annual attendance: about 60 umpires) and performs a lot of umpire weddings. He has baptized 66 umpires so far, calling them safe in the only way that matters.
Among umpires, Esskew is not just trusted but beloved. "Dean's a big teddy bear," major league ump Chris Guccione says. "You just want to hug on him." They love his playfulness -- a relief from the stoicism their jobs require. Once, Pastor Dean showed up to give a sermon in an umpires' locker room wearing a Speedo -- he'd asked a friend to bring him "the tightest one you can find for a fat man"; it said bad boy across the rump -- and announced, "I'm tired of seeing you guys naked, of seeing your butts, so now you're going to look at me!" Another time, he got the code to an umpire's garage door in Arizona and left a live miniature donkey in the man's kitchen while he was working a spring training game. The donkey crapped everywhere, Pastor Dean says. And while this story may sound far-fetched, I know it is true because one evening last summer, as the pastor and I settled into seats at Petco Park in San Diego with the umpires' families -- an encampment of women and children a dozen rows behind the Padres' dugout, conspicuously without a single item of team-branded apparel -- Pastor Dean introduced me to an umpire's wife, and she pointed at him and shrieked: "He put a donkey in my kitchen!"
“Once, Pastor Dean showed up in the locker room wearing a Speedo, and said, 'I'm tired of seeing you naked, so now you're going to look at me!'
The San Diego game was a rare sellout -- the Yankees were in town. Esskew had come from Omaha by way of Las Vegas and would next be driving north, through Pacific Coast League towns, to Oakland. A moment earlier, we'd heard the public address announcer belt out the opening lineups and then quickly mutter the names of the umpiring crew -- almost under his breath, like they were the distressing side effects of a medication. Now folks were gathered at home plate to honor Yankees closer Mariano Rivera before his retirement. Retired Padres closer Trevor Hoffman was there to present Rivera with custom beach cruiser bikes for his whole family and shake the hand of the man who'd surpassed him as the all-time saves leader. History, gentlemanliness, continuity, pageantry -- all the best baseball stuff was happening, and the crowd surged to its feet to enjoy it. But when Hoffman was announced, Pastor Dean had a blank look on his face. "Who is it?" he bellowed.
The thing is, Pastor Dean hates baseball. He always has. ("I can't stand baseball! It's crazy!") It gets really boring, he says, but he's committed to watching all nine innings, to reciprocate the respect his umpires pay him when he's preaching. He understands most of the rules but remembers only a handful of players' names at a given time. He never cheers or claps, and in San Diego, when all the fans of the Padres and Yankees rose in unison for the sacred, communal ritual of the seventh-inning stretch, Pastor Dean didn't bother pulling his body out of the seat it was crammed into.
A middle-aged man and his wife, both in the kind of full-length brown friar robes worn by the Padres' mascot, made their way up the aisle, shouting along with "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Seeing Pastor Dean in his seat, the woman leaned her sun-charred, flaking San Diegan face out of her fake friar robe and sang right at him: "Root, root, root for the Padres!" She seemed to be chastising him. But the actual man of God hardly noticed. He just stared straight ahead and took a tug off his Coke.