By Craig Flagg
Three guys in a van. It’s nothing like Two Men and a Truck. Except that they’re always on the move.
Three guys in a van is one way to describe life as a minor league umpire. Actually, in the low minor leagues, it’s two guys and a rental car — and long drives in the wee hours of the night.
To add a little color, let’s throw in some typical destinations: Beloit, Wisc.; Peoria, Ill.; Clinton, Iowa; Biloxi, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; and Zebulon, N.C.
Zebulon? Never heard of it? It’s the home of the Carolina Mudcats, of course. But more on them later.
This story actually begins in Middle Tennessee. Franklin, to be precise. And it’s the tale of a young one-time ballplayer turned umpire who is chasing his dream to make it to the major leagues.
At the age of 13, Brock Ballou began umpiring games in Franklin’s youth baseball league. His stepdad saw it as a way for Brock to start saving money for a car.
Jay Johnson, the league’s director of umpires, took Brock under his wing and quickly saw the potential. Seasons came and went and even after Brock went off to college, they stayed in touch.
“I just finished my freshman year of college and he took me out to dinner one night,” Ballou recalled recently. “And we were sitting there and he asked me what I was going to school for, and I told him I had no clue, I was just going to get a degree. And he looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you try umpire school?’ “I went home that night and started looking up umpire schools.”
About seven months later, in January of 2012, he found himself in Daytona, Fla., attending the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires.
Five weeks of intense class and field work led to selection time and the chance to move on — or not.
“You have to get picked by your school to go to the evaluation course,” Ballou said. “And from the evaluation course, you have to be picked (by the minor league supervisors). During school, I was just telling myself that it would be awesome to try to see what it’s like to get in there and do it. When I got picked, it was shocking.”
He continued to make the cut and was hired to work games in the Appalachian League, a 10-team league featuring minor league rookies.
Then came his first bad call — not in a game, but, rather from his boss. Ballou was informed that because of a reckless driving charge from 2010, he wouldn’t be insurable for a rental car and would have to sit out a year.
“That was devastating, to say the least, but they never gave up on me,” Ballou said.
“They actually sent me to the Coastal Plains League in 2012 so I could still have the opportunity to work baseball and not lose everything I had just learned,” he said .
A year later, insurers still balked.
“The second phone call ... kinda made me think: Am I ever going to get the chance?” Ballou said.
He got the opportunity to work games in the American Association before eventually making it into the minor league system.
“My very first year, I got to work the postseason — the playoffs and the championship series,” Ballou said. “It’s the Ivy League, you know, it’s not Triple A, but when it’s your first year, it’s kind of like, OK, I’m getting the hang of this.”
By 2015, he was working the Class A Midwest League and last season he advanced to the Double-A Southern League. There are fewer than 70 major league umpires and there are about 225 in the minor leagues, so moving up is a challenge, but Ballou isn’t deterred.
“One thing I do know is that I will not look back at however many years I spent in the minor leagues, no matter if its seven or its 12,” he said. “I’m not going to look back and say I wasted my time.”
Along his journey, he’s learned some things about baseball and also about life.
“When it comes to the whole thing, it’s the people you meet,” he said. “You meet so many people within the game.”
One person who particularly sticks out is Vincent Stio.
“I was calling balls and strikes one day, and I called a strike and, like, in the second inning, I looked over and there’s this young kid, 8 or 9, and he’s following my lead,” Ballou said, recalling a Carolina Mudcats game in 2016.
“He’s calling strikes, he’s calling balls, he’s wiping off the plate, he’s got his mask. I told the ball boy to tell his parents that I wanted to meet him after the game. Ever since then, we’ve had this friendship and bond,” he said.
Maria Stio, Vincent’s mom, said, “After they introduced themselves to Vincent, they were just telling us how they were both taken back by the fact that he was so involved in every call they made, in every move they made.”
It turns out that getting to meet Ballou and fellow umpire Cody Clark further fueled Stio’s fascination with umpiring — and it’s made him a bit of a celebrity.
“Initially, he was fascinated by the catcher, but not long after that, with each pitch, watching the umpire do his thing, he quickly moved passed the catcher to the umpire,” said Vincent’s dad, Vinny Stio. “And then once he got locked onto the umpire, that was it.
“Once he got the attention from Brock and Cody, it just took off.”
Vincent, now 10, has been welcomed into the baseball umpiring fraternity and has also been the spotlight of feature vignettes produced by CBS and ESPN, all because of that special day in Zebulon.
Ballou said that it’s stuff like a little boy’s fascination with umpiring that helps keep him going during the sixth-month grind of living out of a suitcase and being away from home, his wife and his own child.
“That, by far, is the best thing emotionally and mentally that’s happened. You don’t see kids that like umpires,” Ballou said. “That year, especially, you look forward to going to a stadium where you know you’ve got some fans and you’ve got family and friends.
“I can’t speak for every umpire, but when you’re family comes into town, it makes life a little easier.”
It sure beats three guys in a van.