More than 12 years into his journey, Ben May could be so close and he could still be so far away.
That’s the catch about being an aspiring Major League Baseball umpire. Even if a prospect has the stuff to put himself into that position, the turnover on top is so rare that a sense of futility often comes into play for those waiting in the wings for a permanent job in The Show.
And that prospect could find himself log-jammed into traveling the backroads to minor-league parks for years, waiting for that elusive phone call.
The rules of this treacherous road are simple: Do your job well and then wait. And wait some more. That call might come after 10 or 15 years. And maybe it won’t come at all.
May, a 33-year-old Racine native who graduated from St. Catherine’s High School in 2000, understands these rules even after he attained the status of a substitute umpire at the major-league level in 2014. And even though the 80 or so games he worked in the majors this season are nearly triple the assignments he received last year, May can only see that as progress, not a promise.
“I’m really happy because last year I was saying if I could double the amount of games I got from 30 to 60, I would be very happy with that,” said May, who lives in Milwaukee during the offseason. “But now I’ve tripled it and I hope my supervisors are happy with me. That makes me really happy.”
May has certainly earned the respect of some of the most highly-regarded umpires in the major leagues. Dale Scott and Dan Iassogna, who have both earned World Series assignments in their careers, like what they’ve seen when they’ve worked with May.
“I’m so happy Ben has more than doubled the amount of games worked this year over last — and rightfully so,” said Scott, a major league umpire since 1986 who worked the World Series in 1998, 2001 and 2004. “Both on and off the field, since we worked together in replay this year, Ben has shown continued drive to learn and grow as an umpire. His focus and professionalism are evident every day.”
Iassogna, who broke into the major leagues in 2004 and worked the 2012 World Series, admires May for how well he has endured through two seasons of shifting between the major and minor leagues.
“I believe that working up and down between (Class) AAA and Major League Baseball is the toughest job in all of sports officiating,” Iassogna said. “You’ve got to be tough, dependable and ready to work at all times.
“Ben May has all of those qualities. Guys look forward to him joining the crew and it was great to see him get 80 games this season.”
But then May has proven he has the emotional mojo to handle this kind of work. Because he once decided to come back for more against considerable odds.
It was 2003 when May was a 21-year-old kid at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Kissimmee, Fla., chasing his childhood dream.
Part of the training is camp instructors replicating the verbal abuse an umpire can endure after making a close call. And it wasn’t long before the then- unsteady May was the target of plenty of rage.
“It is kind of like a boot camp,” May said. “They were hard on you and if you were screwing up, they let you know. They try to act like managers and put you in scenarios you would encounter in minor league baseball and they would argue with you.
“I remember they set up a catcher’s interference with the runner stealing home from third base and I couldn’t get the rule quite right. I was tripping over my words with the instructors and everything compounded.”
May recalls about 110 umpire students in that camp. About 30 were selected to continue. He was not one of them.
But after returning to Marquette to earn his degree, which he did in 2005, May delved into umpiring once again starting in 2006. Nine years later, he could be so close — and yet so far away.
“I still think it could be pretty far, quite honestly,” May said. “There’s still a lot of guys ahead of me and I need to focus on being consistent and not screwing anything up administratively or on the field.”