It wasn’t supposed to be Max McLeary’s job to rub the baseballs before the Mavericks’ 16-2 loss to Kalamazoo Tuesday night.
That honor goes to the home plate umpire. McLeary was scheduled to work the bases.
But his partner Steve Donahue was running late. Someone had to tend to the five boxes, each containing a dozen balls, stacked in the umpires’ locker room at Taylor Stadium.
And the 56-year-old McLeary, a veteran of 35 seasons, 10 in the Frontier League, attacked the job like a go-getting rookie. He whistled through an otherwise-monotonous job with his vivid stories, gathered from so many summers spent in ballparks and taverns across the country.
Most of his tales brought a chuckle, or at the very least a smile.
There was one that wasn’t so comical, though: his personal story of a freak accident that changed his life.
Did you hear the one about the umpire with one eye?
* * *
It was the winter of 1977 and McLeary was playing in the snow with his girlfriend. They were twirling around together when she suddenly slipped.
McLeary reached to grab one of her legs, trying to balance her. As he did, Patty’s other leg reflexed wildly. Her boot struck McLeary in the right eye, causing him to fall to the ground and knocking him unconscious.
The tip of the boot had punctured the eye and McLeary would need surgery. A glass eye was put in place.
In the six years before his accident, McLeary had umpired in various places, including the New York-Penn League.
After the injury, he was out of umpiring for seven years. He started hanging around ballparks again in 1984 and re-applied for certification.
McLeary umpired high school games at the start and eventually progressed to the Mid-American Conference and Big Ten.
“I’ve turned it into a positive and just tried to outwork everybody,” he said.
* * *
“I think I’ve heard every one-eyed joke in the book, but then another one comes along,” McLeary said. He had started on the second box of balls, dipping his left hand into the container of Delaware River mud placed at his feet.
He spit into his left hand, then rubbed it together against his right. He puts the mucky solution onto the ball and polishes it with both hands, trying not to get it into the seams.
“They use this mud everywhere I’ve been,” McLeary said. “It takes the shine off the ball and gives the pitcher a better grip.”
He’s recalling the only instance when a catcall seriously upset him. It happened during a high school game.
‘Hey, Max, why don’t you use your good eye?’ a fan yelled from the stands after McLeary made a call.
The jeer was delivered in such a callous way that he thought about leaving his post behind the plate and confronting the fan.
But he ended up restraining himself.
“I’m a lover, not a fighter,” McLeary laughed.
To be sure, the times when he’s reacted to insults with good humor are numerous.
Once he was out with a visiting manager who was kidding him about his condition. McLeary took out the eye and asked him if he could do a better job.
“When they say that umpires are blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other, they’re half-right in my case,” he said.
* * *
There weren’t many close calls for McLeary to make Tuesday night as the Mavericks (11-20) lost their third consecutive game, 16-2.
Left-hander David Marchbanks, signed Tuesday morning, didn’t fare well in his debut with the club. He made a throwing error trying to retire the first batter he faced.
Kalamazoo (19-13) center fielder Darryl Blaze advanced to third on the play. He scored on a single one batter later.
The inning was punctuated by a three-run home run by Pete Pirman.
Marchbanks’ (0-1) first inning as a Maverick couldn’t have gone worse. Four runs, four hits, and two errors. One more tally in the loss column.
McLeary returned to the umpire’s locker room after the game. Another nine innings in the books.
“I’ve been real fortunate in this league,” he said. “This is my home right here.”
“We’re all in this together, that’s my philosophy,” McLeary said. “I know all the bus drivers, batboys, clubbies—just everybody. Nobody’s job is more important than anybody else. You meet a lot of great people.”
He’ll catch up with some old friends, and then get ready for his same routine today.
He’s slated to work behind the plate, which means he’ll have to rub the baseballs again.