EVERETT — Ben Bayer used to drive more than an hour from his home in Maple Valley to his summer job at Everett Memorial Stadium.
These days, his commute is even longer.
Bayer, a former gate host for the Everett AquaSox, returned this week to work the Frogs’ three-game Northwest League series against Vancouver.
Only this time, he was part of the two-man umpiring crew.
Tuesday night’s baseball game was the first he’s worked in Everett, where he used to take tickets and be one of the first employees to greet arriving fans.
“It was a blast,” Bayer, 25, said of being at his “home field.” “I was a little nervous until the first pitch, but then it was game time and my instincts took over. … It’s really cool. I used to work the gates and now I’m one of the guys on the field.”
Before he became an umpire, Bayer spent three summers (2010-12) working for the AquaSox. He wanted a job in baseball so much that he was willing to endure Seattle traffic and a lengthy commute in order to be a part of the sport.
“I loved baseball and at the time, I wanted to be around baseball,” he said. “I hadn’t really thought about professional umpiring.”
A baseball player at Tahoma High School in Covington, Bayer went on to play two seasons at Olympic College in Bremerton. After transferring to Central Washington University, he began to consider umpiring as a possible career. He met with Brian Hertzog, a Triple-A umpire from Lake Stevens, and Mike Muchlinski, a big-league ump who hails from Tacoma — as well as former umpires Mike Goebel and Dan Oliver.
“When I really met those guys, the passion they had for the game and the work ethic, I just thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool. This would be awesome,’” Bayer said. “I was going through college, not really sure what I wanted to do. I thought, ‘I’m only young once. Let’s give it a shot.’”
So he saved up some money — some of which he earned working for the AquaSox — and enrolled at the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Fla. Umpiring school can cost anywhere from $3,200 to $4,000, Bayer said, depending on tuition, meal-plan options and other factors. Bayer got a partial scholarship and completed the five-week course with about 30 other students in February of 2013.
However, even for graduates of the umpiring schools, a job in the pros is no guarantee.
“You have an evaluation where minor league baseball umpires evaluate you as you work a game,” Bayer said. “There are 65 guys, and they rank you 1-65 (based on your performance). However many job openings there are at that time, those guys get jobs. The rest have to wait till an opening comes up.”
Bayer got his first professional gig last season in the rookie-level Arizona League. This season, he earned a promotion to the Class A Northwest League. Now, Bayer and his umpiring partner, Kale Rodrigues, travel around Washington, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia in a rental car.
When he got to Everett, Bayer saw some familiar faces, including AquaSox executive vice president Tom Backemeyer.
“In all honestly, he was one of our better employees that we had anywhere in the ballpark,” Backemeyer said. “High energy, very motivated. He loved working here, loved his job. He’d be friendly with the fans and you knew that his job was taken care of.”
Bayer used to tell his boss of his umpiring dreams. In return, Backemeyer gave him a hard time.
“He had talked to me about it a little bit,” Backemeyer said. “I’d joke around with him about it and say, ‘You’re never going to be an umpire.’ … I never really believed him. He called last year and said he wasn’t coming back. He was officially an umpire. I was really happy for him.”
Bayer said the highlight of his season so far came on opening day, when he and Rodrigues started the season in Spokane.
“Just stepping out on opening day in Spokane, (it was) sold out, about 7,000 people, and just pinching myself,” Bayer said. “I said … this is awesome.’
“I love my job. I love being on the field every day.”
Of course, some days are easier than others. With no instant replay in the lower minors, arguments with players and managers can sometimes get heated.
“You don’t take any of it personally,” Rodrigues said. “If you took everything personally that was yelled at you by a manager or a player or a fan, you wouldn’t last long.”
Still, Bayer wants to remind fans that umpires are people who love baseball — just like they do.
“If there’s one thing we want people to know it’s that we’re humans,” Bayer said. “We’re sons and brothers. We’re human. We’re not some vicious villain.”
Backemeyer said he hopes AquaSox fans, who have vocalized their displeasure with umpires on several occasions this season, show some kindness as one of their own returns to Everett Memorial.
“We’re excited to have him back and I definitely want to encourage our fans behind home plate to cheer him on,” Backemeyer said. “Good or bad, I hope the fans welcome him back.”