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.