Years later, I’ve got that dream job … sort of

At my worst, one thought kept me from being a total failure.

If all else fell apart, I could move to Texas and work a few months as a ranch hand. During that time of ridin’ and ropin’, I would study baseball rules so I could become a professional umpire.

This thought carried me in the months after I graduated from college in 1976 without a job. My profession of choice – journalism – had been flooded with talented do-gooders. Everywhere I applied, positions were being filled instead by idealists who imagined themselves bringing down a corrupt president or ending a needless war in Southeast Asia.

Ken Bradford

Me? Instead of ideals, I had a brand-new bachelor’s degree and humdrum clips from a college newspaper. I did not resemble a real writer.

I had moved back to my parents’ house, sent out inquiry letters and created a stack of rejections in return. In my upstairs bedroom, I listened to somber music on my stereo.

But I had seen an ad in a sports magazine saying the 1977 class at the Al Somers Umpire School was accepting applicants. If I could get to Daytona Beach, Florida, by mid-January, I could become a caller of balls and strikes, fairs and fouls, outs and safes.

I preferred to think of this as a change of direction rather than an admission of a botched life. 

My childhood dream had been to play professional baseball. But when I reached the age of 13, I had to start saving for college by spending my summers in hayfields instead of on baseball diamonds.

I gave it one last try in the spring of my freshman year of college by joining the junior varsity baseball team. I had some raw talent. But so did the other young men, who also had summers of grass stains on their knees instead of hay chaff in their socks. 

I could hit, run and throw, but I hadn’t seen a lot of left-handers with pickoff moves. I played too shallow in the outfield. I swung at curve balls in the dirt. I had too much to learn and no one with the patience to teach me.

I kept thinking about Al Kaline, the all-star right-fielder for the Detroit Tigers. By age 20, in 1955, he was the runner-up in the American League most valuable player voting, batting .340 with 200 hits, 27 home runs and 102 runs batted in.

I turned 22 in 1976, and I clearly was no Al Kaline. Baseball had no place for late bloomers. If I was going to make it to the major leagues, it would have to be as a writer or as an umpire.

As it turned out, I veered away from umpiring as well. That November, I found a job opening no one else wanted, with the smallest daily newspaper in Indiana. I spent a year there and then nine months in Fort Wayne before I returned to South Bend.

I worked at the Tribune here for 31 years, five of those as an assistant sports editor. I never covered a major league baseball game. I spent a lot of late nights editing stories written by others, but I wrote about just two professional sports events – a Chicago Bears game at Soldier Field and a minor-league basketball game in Fort Wayne.

I retired nearly a decade before the pandemic hit. When we locked ourselves in because of that, I spent a few days reorganizing keepsakes in my basement. In one of the file folders, I found my Al Somers brochure.

It reminded me of some unfinished business. Over the years, I have stepped in as a volunteer umpire for baseball and softball at the Little League and junior high level. Usually, it was a case where no one else was available or that someone didn’t show up.

I play in a slow-pitch softball league for ages 52 and older. Last fall, we were told that there is an umpire shortage. I signed up for training.

The training wasn’t what Al Somers would have offered. We talked a little bit about the odd things that can happen in slow-pitch softball. We did a little pretend work, showing how we would signal an out or a foul ball. Then I paid $22.50 for a hat and $17 for a shirt, and now I’m an umpire.

It’s satisfying work. There is a physical component to it – getting your body to a place where you can see a tag play at second base, for example. But I’ve found the biggest challenges are mental. These simple games have a lot of rules, and some of them make very little sense. 

Meanwhile, you can’t lose count of how many outs there are, which inning you’re in or whether a team has used up its allotted three home runs in the game. I know this because all this happened within my first six games. 

If you make a single mistake, every call you’ve made during the game is suspect. And you can do your job perfectly, but then you find out that you didn’t notice the centerfielder wore his hat backwards, which is a violation of park rules.

I’m not terrible, but I’m not an all-star candidate here. I earn the $27 I get for each game but, at age 68, I don’t have a lot of time left to figure this stuff out. Just as I was no Al Kaline in the Seventies, I’m no Al Somers in 2023.

Umpiring was a valuable part of the dream, just like playing in the major leagues.

I’m glad I had a thought that kept me from thinking I was going to be a complete failure. But there’s a problem with an if-all-else-fails plan. I realize I could just as easily have failed at this too.