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Behind the Mask

Major League Baseball Umpire Ted Barrett Reaches His Colleagues For Christ.

  • Author: By Amber Wiley
  • Credits: Photographs by Greg Schneider and Ted Wilcox
  • Published: July 1, 2013
  • Location: USA

CRACK! The bat smacks against the baseball pitched at 95 mph, sending an echo across the field. Although it was a great hit, today it’s not about the runs, it’s about the calls.

Darren, lead field instructor at the Vero Beach Sports Complex Umpire School, marches up to a student umpire dressed in black and grey, standing behind home plate. “You gotta be kidding me!” he yells, inches from the umpire’s facemask. “You made that call?” The student mumbles something unintelligible. “Well, you got it wrong!” Darren raises his voice: “You hear me? That’s an out!” As he stomps away, the student turns, facing the pitcher’s mound and yells, “Ball! First and third, one out!”

Standing nearby with arms folded across his chest, 6-foot-4-inch Ted nods. As a Major League Baseball umpire, he’s an honored guest. “Unless you’ve done this job, you have no idea what it’s like and what it takes,” Ted says, gesturing toward the field.

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“These guys have to be ready for the pressure.” His brow shows no furrow over kind, steely eyes and characteristically sunburned cheeks. “There are fans cussing, yelling, throwing things, managers freaking out, players yelling. There’s a lot of pressure. You have to respond quickly, and an umpire has to know the call in their head and be ready to yell it out, exactly right.”

But sometimes umpires don’t get it right. Even major league umpires, of which there are only 68 in the world. Major league umpire Jim Joyce became a household name in 2010 after he made a bad call that ruined a pitcher’s perfect game. His name and face went from obscurity to notoriety, being plastered on nearly every TV screen in America, no longer hidden behind a facemask.

Umpires wear masks on and off the field. “He doesn’t want anyone to know what’s going on in his soul because maybe other guys won’t like him or won’t want to work with him,” Ted says. “Umpires are tough.”

At an umpire union meeting in 2000, Ted handed out a business card to the other 67 major league umpires that included his story of faith. When Ted was captain of the football team in college, he met Eric Heitt, a staff member with Cru. “Eric explained the importance of staying in the Word and memorizing Scripture and [having] fellowship,” Ted says. “Cru was huge for me in my walk with Jesus and making me bold in sharing my faith.”

Handing out the cards made him nervous. “Christians are perceived as weak or soft, and that does not go well in this profession,” he says. He was worried about being ostracized: “I went home and told my wife I’d probably cut my own throat because no one was going to hire me.” Later, a supervisor told him he was the most-requested guy for an umpiring crew.

Ted stands behind an umpire-in-training and a catcher at an umpire clinic in California.

Now a crew chief himself—one of 17 in the major leagues—the 47-year-old has been umpiring for more than half his life. Previously, Ted was a sparring partner for a professional boxer, then his dad offered to send him to umpiring school as a graduation present. Ted accepted. “It was his way of luring me away from boxing,” Ted chuckles. “And it worked.”

Most people never make it to the major leagues, but Ted did. And although it’s a red-carpet lifestyle during the season—flying first class and enjoying steak dinners—that’s not his focus. Ted is married to Tina, his high-school sweetheart, and together they have three children. He also created a Christian ministry, Calling for Christ, for umpires, run by umpires.

Every umpire can relate to the constant internal and external pressures of the profession. Temptations—like baseballs—are constantly thrown at them, with late nights, five months of travel away from home and the inevitable isolation that brings. “If I want to, I don’t have to see anybody until we get to the ballpark,” major league umpire Alfonso explains. “As long as I do my job, I can do my own thing.” Alfonso knows the world of late nights, drinking and promiscuity that he experienced before meeting Ted and being introduced to Jesus by CFC pastor Dean Esskew. In a city far from home, there is no accountability. But a lifestyle lived in the dark is exhausting. One night, Alfonso decided to leave it behind. He didn’t want to live behind a mask anymore.

“To really look yourself in the mirror, take off the mask and be open, vulnerable, willing to talk with other guys, that’s not an easy process,” Ted explains. “But it’s the only way guys are truly going to learn how to have a relationship with Christ.” Last winter, minor league umpire Clay Park started a Bible study at umpire school to help facilitate this process. “I’ve been wanting to start a Bible study for awhile,” he says. “Ted pointed me in the right direction and encouraged me.”

Right now, there are six core leaders like Alfonso—major league umpires involved and spiritually mentored by CFC leaders. “The cool thing about our core group is that everything an umpire is going through, we’ve done it,” Ted explains. “A guy has trouble in his marriage? We’ve been there. Addiction problem? We’ve got a guy that’s been there, done that.”

Ted meets with major and minor league umpires to study the Bible over breakfast at a Cracker Barrel in Phoenix, Ariz.

Even if the other umpires don’t have a relationship with Jesus, they still want to learn how to get over a hurdle or struggle. Alfonso conquered an addiction after becoming a Christian; the other umpires want to know how he overcame it. The questions become an opportunity for CFC umpires to talk about Christ with their peers.

“You’ve gotta be an insider,” Ted states. “Number one, to get the respect. These minor league guys really look up to me,” he humbly admits. “I think God strategically placed me here as an insider to work at the highest level to have influence over other guys.” From there, as umpires get involved, Ted and the leaders train them to become spiritual leaders.

During the season, umpires are scattered across the country. To stay connected with each other, major and minor league umpires text message Scripture, create mass emails or make phone calls. They also see each other on TV. “I’ll be in the locker room watching an umpire friend on TV, so I’ll be praying for him,” Ted says, “and I’ll text him something encouraging.” The umpires are creating a community. “We’re all on the road, scattered throughout the country,” Ted says, “but we look at it as minor league umpires and major league umpires getting together like a church. I’m not trying to live the solitary Christian lifestyle, because it’s not going to be as fruitful.”

Every Friday, any major league umpire who wants to pray, be prayed for or simply listen can call a conference line that Ted has set up with CFC leaders. Minor league guys have a similar phone call on Saturdays. “We get a lot of guys that get on and don’t even announce themselves,” Ted explains. “I get an email with a list of phone numbers and I’ll see 25 numbers, but on the line only 15 may announce themselves.” Something about prayer is drawing a curiosity in them. They just aren’t ready to remove their mask.

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