6 min

Safe: by not being out

A personal memoir of the homophobic culture of professional umpiring

Credit: Tyler Hoffman

There’s a common theme that runs in baseball: “never be out!” It’s a good practice, and for those boys who are gay in professional baseball, this principle holds a lot of truth.

This is where my story comes in. Tyler Hoffman-the gay professional baseball umpire (former). I knew that this chosen profession was going to be a challenge thanks to Dave Pallone’s autobiography, Behind The Mask: My Double Life in Baseball. Pallone umpired at the major league level for 10 years before being let go for being gay (according to him).

For me, it all started when I was five years old, watching the game of the week on NBC after my usual fill of Saturday morning cartoons. I remember watching one day while the umpire at first base made his call. My curiosity piqued, something inside me clicked and I knew at that moment that I was going to be a professional baseball umpire. What I didn’t know was that I was gay and gays in professional sports are like oil and water.

At age 12, I started umpiring games with genuine passion and enthusiasm. Already, baseball ran through my veins like the very blood that kept me alive; I was hooked. More importantly, I was focussed and determined that umpiring was going to take me places. I grew up in a small town on Vancouver Island, British Columbia- Qualicum Beach, a seaside vacation destination of 5,000 people. There’s something about small towns and big dreams.

While becoming a student of the game, my own physiology was taking shape. I guess looking back on everything, I knew I was gay when I was in the eighth grade. I was having a hard enough time with Grade 8 math, let alone who I was attracted to. I struggled with the idea of being gay for many years. I had absolutely nothing to relate to. Coming from a small town the common gay stereotypes were all that I could imagine. Being a so-called jock in school: that’s what I identified with and so did my parents. Having never really had any exposure and education on what it is to be gay made the next few years confusing.

By the age of 19 I’d finished my college program but still hadn’t become comfortable as a gay male. I embarked on my life-long dream and attended the Academy of Professional Umpiring, one of two umpire schools. My dad waved good-bye as I left the airport bound for Kissimmee, Florida for umpire school with two suitcases stuffed full. Then came six weeks of a boot-camp atmosphere where we were drilled in the intricate details of umpiring professionally. Each school selects a group of 10-20 honour graduates. These graduates are then pooled together and reevaluated by the Minor League Umpire Supervisors and then, ultimately, the top 10 are given contracts to start their professional careers.

It was at this final evaluation that I was injected with the culture of professional baseball. I can remember the zealous dialogue the supervisors engaged in with me and all of the students: “You eat pussy Tyler?”

I’m sure all the straight boys loved it and felt at home. I felt awkward knowing that if I said no my acceptance into the group would be jeopardized. There was such a need to be a superhuman male or macho man all the time because these were seen as strong and aggressive personality characteristics-and that’s what baseball has identified with for over 125 years.

In one breakout session with a supervisor it was suggested that if you didn’t chase skirt they didn’t want to know about it and you’d be best not to let your fellow umpires know about it. I made it through the course and was offered a contract.

But the tone was set. Each season was no different from the one previous except I was working at a different level, with a different partner, in a different league. For five years I travelled the United States, a gay guy’s dream; a gay umpire’s struggle. With the combination of spring training, the regular season and post season winter ball (not to mention instructing at the Academy of Professional Umpiring), I was on the road for about 200 days a year. Cities like Bakersfield, California; Spokane, Washington; and Clinton, Iowa are great examples of what lay ahead on the circuit. The minor league circuit, that is: no circuit party has ever or will ever visit these places. If it hadn’t been for the Internet and my laptop, I would have had no connection the gay world. Even so, I was limited.

I wasn’t prepared for the culture of professional baseball. There was no book to read, course to take or pill to pop that would have prepared me for that lifestyle. Professional sports is all about feeding your ego. The paycheque is simply a byproduct of swelling your head and competing. Professional umpiring, like a local police force, is a paramilitary structure. There is a definite code of conduct to follow as well as an egotistical pecking order to abide by. Being one of the boys was a prerequisite to being accepted. To be accepted meant your career wasn’t going to be jeopardized. In other words, guys above you wouldn’t talk shit about you to the supervisors.

In that industry, you could piss off one person and you’d be done, game over. Umpires are constantly evaluated on and off the field by everyone in the game. It was worst during spring training; like college frat boys on a spring break, umpires have their own rituals: get drunk, pick up women and gloat. Blending into this environment wasn’t as easy as matching my shoes and belt. Umpires stick close together, take pride in their work and get assimilated into the culture early in their career. Many guys dissolve their personality and values for a shot at the big time.

After spring training came life on the road. In the lower minor leagues, two umpires make a crew. They usually share a hotel room and, again like a fraternity, do everything together-eat, sleep, work and play. In an ideal world I would have been paired up with another cute, gay umpire. Even then, the chances of us knowing that the other gay was gay would have been very slim. It’s hard to even imagine picking up a boy and bringing him back to the room for your umpire partner to watch. On the other hand, if the pickup was a women, no problem. It was a bonus if a guy got “show time.”

Playing the role grew more tiresome each season. I’d find myself making comments about women and eyeing them just to make sure the guys knew that I was paying attention to girls so that there was no doubt in their mind about my being straight. The odd time, the very odd time, I’d “pull puss” and bring them back home just to keep my name clear. It sucked.

It was even hard for an umpire to go out by himself; he’d be considered a poor team player. Either way, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As I progressed through the system I found ways around the set rules which were afforded to me due to having more experience, like having friends visiting me from out of town. This was especially true in the Phoenix area as I always had spring training and winter ball there. I was fortunate to develop some great friendships that helped me grow as a gay male. That wasn’t easy. Because of living this double life in baseball, my first few years I was very confused. I wasn’t allowed to be the person I was and this ultimately put me in denial of my being gay. I tried to force myself to be straight many times. In fact, after the end of one season I came home and threw out a handful of magazines and a couple of pornos. My headspace was so fucked up because I was wrapped up in other people’s ideals.

I left the profession. But i’m not bitter at all. Despite the homophobia around me and the self-repression, they were some of the best times of my life. I achieved a life-long dream, I was successful and worked some amazing games and met some boyhood idols. But the game didn’t allow me to grow into the person I wanted to be. I was surrounded by weak men, many of whom had drinking problems and cheated on their wives. Truth is, the game was shaping me and my life because of the ideals of some insecure, ignorant men who couldn’t imagine a different way of thinking.

My life was stagnant and not rich and I needed a change. To be fair, being gay in baseball was certainly inconvenient but not intolerable for someone who loved the game as much as did I. There are gay umpires right now in both major and minor leagues and they are living daily with the culture.

Is it getting better? Yes. Are we where we need to be? Not even close. What has to change? More guys need to come out. Why won’t they? Because their career would be in jeopardy. Why? Because of old-time thinking. Professional sports are fuelled by masculinity. Until new stereotypes are created, the old ones will linger.