ESPN features pastor who loves umpires, hates baseball

In case you hadn’t figured it out — examples here, here and here — baseball ranks as a holy subject at GetReligion.

Sadly, my beloved Texas Rangers are enduring a forgettable season, much to the amusement of tmatt, a Baltimore resident and Orioles fan. Former Ranger Nelson Cruz, who signed with the Orioles in the offseason, has been one of the major leagues’ top sluggers this season, just as Chris Davis — another former Ranger-turned-Oriole — was last season.

Speaking of baseball — and one can never do that too much — ESPN The Magazine just published an amazing, 5,000-word profile of a pastor who ministers to umpires.

Former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who got kicked off our blogging island for not loving baseball enough (I kid, I kid), said this was her favorite part of the story:

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.

It’s a really fascinating story, filled with rich detail and insight into umpires’ lives that will resonate with baseball fans and people of faith alike.

A big chunk of background that sets the stage for the rest of the narrative:

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.

Trust me. Writer Jon Mooallem hits a home run with this profile. Enjoy it all.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.


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