- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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There was a man dressed up as a giant hot dog on the third-base line. The team mascot was a giant frog wearing swim fins. There were water balloon contests between innings.
So last Wednesday's Everett Aqua Sox game was a long way from Bob Davidson's days as a major-league umpire. But at least this was a major step up from where Bob was recently. After all, this was the Class A Northwest League, a real professional baseball league with major-league affiliates. Prior to the Northwest League gig, Davidson was umping slo-pitch softball games for $20 a pop, the first time he had to tell players to keep the beer cans off the field since working one of David Wells' starts. Sure, $20 doesn't sound like much but he could knock off three games in an evening and make $60.
Which is about what he earned Wednesday.
Compare that to the $160,000 annual salary Davidson earned as an 18-year veteran major-league umpire -- he worked the 1992 World Series and was behind the plate for Kevin Brown's no-hitter in 1997 -- before he committed career suicide by following his union leader off a cliff in 1999. "This was a mistake that money-wise, pretty much cost us everything,'' Davidson said.
In a strategy that Davidson now admits was "asinine,'' Richie Phillips had his union members submit their resignations that summer, figuring that the move would force major-league executives to meet their demands. Instead, baseball gladly accepted the resignations and hired less expensive replacements.
Many umpires withdrew their resignations and got their jobs back. Davidson didn't. He took the field the day before his resignation took effect knowing that it might be his last game for a while and he was right. He just didn't know "a while'' would last as long as the Yankees dynasty.
"I remember everything about that game,'' he said. "I wore my mask between innings so people wouldn't see me crying.''
Through arbitration and lawsuits, all but nine umpires eventually got their jobs back or agreed to retirement settlements. Davidson is one of the nine, and though they still have a lawsuit pending, he's essentially given up waiting for a court remedy. He needs to pay his bills and there aren't a lot of companies hiring 50-year-old former umpires.
"I made a mistake and it cost me my job,'' he said. "I could sit here and feel sorry for myself. But the way I look at it is I've got a second chance and I'm going to take it. I've gotten past the point where I beat myself up. And I did beat myself up for a couple years. I was very angry, very resentful, very mad. But I'm over that now.''
So he decided to work his way back to the majors the same way he got there two decades ago. Through the minors, beginning here in Everett, Boise, Bellingham and the rest of the Northwest League cities.
If Davidson does well, he'll move up to a full season Class A league next year. Then to Double-A and Triple-A. He says if all goes well, he could be back in the majors by 2008 when he is 55.
"I'm willing to do that,'' he said. "I just don't want my career to end because I threw it away.''
Davidson qualified as a minor-league umpire this spring and threw his luggage into a car with 21-year-old umpire Scott Jarrod, who was born the year Davidson first reached the majors. The two drove 20 hours to Everett to begin the Northwest League season, where Davidson will earn $1,800 a month with a $20 per diem. He and Jarrod will share a car and a room the entire summer.
"I wanted to see a different side of things,'' Jarrod said of rooming with a man old enough to be his father. "Nobody my age can tell me a lot more about umpiring that I already know while Bob can tell me more about umpiring than I probably should know.''
There were several reporters and an ESPN TV crew following Davidson when he umpired his first game last week and he was in good spirits, happy to be back on the field. But the difficult part will be in a month when no TV cameras are focused on him, when no reporters are calling him and when it seems as if no one cares about him outside his immediate family. Those seven-hour road trips from Boise to Everett are going to get very long and very tiring, very quickly.
Baseball gleefully accepted his resignation years ago. It has gone to court rather than hire him back. So what makes Davidson think the league will ask him back when he's even older in a couple years just because he worked his way up through the minors?
That answer is simple. He has no other choice but to hope.
"A darkhorse? I'm a three-legged horse,'' he said. "I know that it may not happen. There are no promises, no guarantees. But I know that if given a fair shake -- and I know baseball will give me a fair shake -- then I can do it.''
Davidson's quest may be quixotic and it would seem sad if it wasn't so admirable.
He's an umpire. This is what he does for a living.
"I've learned one thing,'' Davidson said. "I need baseball a whole lot more than it needs me.''
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2hJohn Fisher, ESPN Stats & Information