Before the balls and the strikes, the referees call to pray

CHICAGO – The umpires called around 3 p.m. on a Friday, calling places like St. Louis and Oakland, Seattle and Cleveland. It was time t...


CHICAGO – The umpires called around 3 p.m. on a Friday, calling places like St. Louis and Oakland, Seattle and Cleveland.

It was time to pray.

“God is our father,” Ted Barrett, a major league umpire for more than two decades and ordained Southern Baptist pastor, told the men. “He loves hearing from us, so never feel too fat or too busy to bring your little problem to him.”

The umpires on the line had endured all kinds of turmoil: anger or family problems, addiction or overwhelming grief, loneliness and the agony of imperfection. The latter two, Barrett knew, were some of the most familiar threats to their calling, ones that might surface during games that night or in the hours after.

So, for about a dozen seasons of big-league baseball, small groups of umpires met privately each week by phone to pray together, seeking the kind of community comfort hard to find when life has passed. on the road and under pressure to officiate the national pastime.

“Knowing that there is a bunch of guys getting the call and all doing the same trip and understanding what it’s like to be on this trip and pray with them, it gives a sense of community.” said David Rackley, who was the left field referee for this season’s All-Star Game.

Baseball has sometimes been a showcase for the Christian faithful. Orel Hershiser sang an anthem on the mound during the 1988 World Series (and later on “The Tonight Show”). One of his successors for the Dodgers, pitcher Clayton Kershaw, wrote a book with his wife, Ellen, on Faith. In 2018, a professor at Eastern Illinois University found that 8 percent of MLB players included at least one bible verse in their Twitter bios, a higher share than NBA, NFL, and NHL athletes

A group called Baseball Chapel has long sent chaplains to stadiums on Sundays to lead services for thousands of people across the sport, a practice that has sometimes aroused criticism. And by borrowing a marketing strategy of the minor leagues, some MLB franchises have hosted faith evenings and post-game Christian concerts over the years.

But on a daily basis, umpires are some of the most isolated figures in baseball. Farther and farther from an era when umpires were often hard-working men, some of them haunted by war, today’s full-time umpire staff consists of just 76 men who roam the country in teams of four and keep a distance from the players and managers they govern. Their lives can be like blurs of brightly lit airports, fastballs, hotels and baseball stadiums, punctuated by calls to their children’s house and the howling of dugout canoes.

Their spiritual traditions can serve as an anchor, with the lessons and lives they find in the scriptures showing them the way forward on and away from the field.

“Jesus would have been a great arbiter because he was not a milquetoast where he would have let himself be run over,” Barrett, who officiated at the funerals of some umpires, said in an interview in Chicago. “You see him standing up to the Pharisees. He could have given it back right away on the pitch.

He stopped and smiled.

“Of course he would have been perfect.”

Other arbitrators have made similar observations, followed by acknowledgments that looking after their faith is a logistical challenge in a profession that could take them from San Diego to Houston to Chicago in a week. While referees will sometimes compare scores on churches willing to welcome visitors and also offer a blessing early enough to host a Sunday afternoon game, attending just one place of worship regularly during the season is out of the question. .

The Friday call to prayer, to which referees can now be reminded via automated text messages 15 minutes in advance, is not quite a substitute. But, the arbitrators said, it delivers a steady dose of spiritual nourishment, whether it’s at baggage claim in Seattle, in a rental car in Texas, or, recently for Rackley, at a PF Chang’s restaurant in California.

“In Georgia you grew up in church, more or less,” said Marvin Hudson, member of last season’s World Series team. “I just wanted to be a part of that and make sure I stayed where I needed to be and see how the other guys were reacting too.”

The idea, said Rackley, is for the referees to feel a little less lonely.

“We hide in our cave like David did when we were attacked, and it can be the world, it can be spiritual attacks, it can be the profession when we have a high profile game and we miss a call. or let’s make a mistake, “he said.” We tend to hide in our caves, and being alone is not a good thing in this world. “

The weekly calls to referees – officials from other professional leagues have asked for advice on how to start theirs – usually have the same format. A referee greets his colleagues. Some of them identify themselves; others remain silent, their lines muted. A brief message, often adapted to the rigors of an arbitrator, follows. Then comes a solicitation for prayer requests and, finally, an intercession.

Men are usually done in about 30 minutes. But one after another, the effects of the appeal continued. Some referees worked on a book called “Multiply: disciples making disciples”, while others have regular Bible studies.

During the offseason, many umpires participate in a three-night retreat north of Dallas. Spring training brings scripture scholarships to a Cracker Barrel in Arizona.

In the regular season, many umpires pray with their crew members before the first pitch, and some say they find themselves talking to God between throws or innings. When he delivered the message on a call this season, Barrett said, he urged the referees who were working the games that night to look skyward at one point and marvel at what he considered the work of God.

“Standing out in front of 50,000 people and calling for bullets and strikes while you’re caught on TV, for me it’s impossible to do this job well, so I’m relying on God to do it for me,” said Barrett said, offering an arbiter’s version of a common refrain among Christians. “We talk about it a lot within our team: prepare yourself the best you can, then go out and do your best, and let God take care of the rest. “

With the pressure everywhere during matches, the referees said they often think about their spiritual training, especially when one of their calls is under siege. Perhaps, they said, they could be more capable of containing their own anger. The foul language they might have used in arguments years ago might now shake their minds instead. And when a call rings and a stadium roars – though Barrett laughingly admits that he sometimes thinks, “Lord forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing because we got it right” – they find comfort in the teaching that Christ himself was often unpopular.

“He was criticized for what he did,” said Hudson, who noted that players and referees sometimes “chatter” about faith when they are on the pitch. “We are criticized for what we do – not that every decision we make is just like his – but I find it heartwarming.”

The weekly gathering was part of his schedule.

“When I’m missing, it’s almost like you’re missing something for this week that you weren’t a part of,” he said. “We don’t want to miss a call from the field. It’s no different with this call: I don’t want to miss it.

Barrett, 56, knows the end of his career is approaching and he’s started to think about what the calls might look like once he pulls out of the game. Younger referees like Rackley, 39, have said they are trying to take greater responsibility for a ritual they see as nothing less than a sacred ministry.

This is so, said the referees, because of the solace that men and their faith offer each other, especially when the long season seems endless.

“As you walk the field tonight, know that the Holy Spirit gives you power,” Barrett said on Friday. “I love you guys. Jesus loves umpires.

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