When Andy Dudones graduated from Walsh University and was faced with the ''What do I do now?'' question, his answer came out of left field.
Or more accurately, from behind home plate.
Armed with a degree in communication and four years as a part-timer in the Akron Beacon Journal sports department, Dudones expected to get a job in journalism. But when the Walsh catcher attended Akron Aeros games, he always ''watched little things that other people weren't watching.''
So Dudones was struck with the admittedly crazy idea of going to umpire school.
''I got lucky enough to make it,'' he said.
Now 27 and in his fifth year calling balls and strikes in the minor leagues, the Springfield High School graduate came home this past weekend for his final appearance of the season at Canal Park. As excited as he was to see his family, friends and girlfriend Ashley Dillon, Dudones and the two other members of his crew had to drive their company-issued van to Akron after a 7:05 p.m. game in Trenton, N.J., Thursday night.
Nothing about his chosen profession has been easy. Lonely nights in hotels on the road, Spartan stadiums in the rookie league, the pressure to be sharp for 142 games during the dog days of the season, even the criticism from fans, media and bloggers can take their toll.
''When you're not having your best game, I don't sit there and mope around,'' Dudones said. ''If I make a mistake, I think about what caused it, what judgments can I make. It's best not to stew. That outlook definitely helps me improve. And it's a lot better on the soul, too.''
While it takes at least seven to 10 years to make it to the major leagues because advancement usually hinges on retirements, Dudones knows he's defied the odds just to get this far.
In January 2006, he enrolled at the Harry Wendelstedt School in Ormond Beach, Fla., one of two Florida academies for prospective umpires. After completing a five-week course, the top prospects from each school are selected for an evaluation course and ranked at the end.
''That's how you get placed or they tell you, 'Good luck next year,' '' Dudones said.
After two weeks in the Independent League during a minor-league umpires strike, Dudones was sent to the Appalachian League, the lowest level of rookie ball. There he found the first of two parks he ranks as his all-time worst, Bowen Field in Bluefield, Va.
''It was miserable,'' Dudones said of the park, originally constructed in 1939 and rebuilt after a 1973 fire. ''The park is in Virginia and the hotel was in West Virginia. From the environment to the locker-room space, it was bad.
''Looking back I was glad to be there. At no point did I ever want to seem unappreciative, but that was definitely the worst place.''
In 2007, Dudones was assigned to the South Atlantic League, then promoted to the Carolina League in midseason. That's where he found another place he dreaded, Kinston, N.C., home of the Indians' high Class-A affiliate.
''Kinston is in a bad area,'' he said. ''Usually when you leave there's an Applebee's or something. In Kinston you've got nothing. I remember when we got the schedule, the first thing I looked at was how many times I was in Kinston.''
Strong family backing
During his 21/2 years in the Carolina League, he worked an all-star game, pitting the California and Carolina Leagues in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He said that was not a reward for his ranking, which is done three times a year, but merely chosen by who was in the vicinity.
But it was a fun place to visit for his parents, Janine, a teacher in Norton, and Richard, an employee of Goodyear in Akron. During the summer, the couple travels to their son's games, picking up pennants and T-shirts as souvenirs along the way.
''We're kind of outcasts; we try to lay low when everyone's yelling at him,'' Janine Dudones said. ''We get in conversations and they say, 'Which team are you following?' and we say, 'Neither, our son's the umpire.' They say, 'Oh, really.' ''
Dudones has gotten used to the verbal barbs, at least from fans. He also has been physically injured twice, first in the Appalachian League when he took a backswing over the top of his head but stayed in the game. The second kept him out a week last year after he was hit in the hand by a pitch.
Asked if it was a fastball, Dudones said, ''Definitely.''
''I remember not wanting to look down. When I looked down, it looked like a giant marshmallow,'' he said. ''My partner took over behind the plate and we took a player from each team to fill in on the bases.''
Dudones has had his share of run-ins with managers, as well. He was heavily criticized by the Asheville Citizen-Times after a bizarre game in May 2007 in Asheville, N.C. He called three players out for batter's and runner's interference and for stepping out of the batter's box with two strikes. He also ejected the Asheville manager and made a game-deciding call on catcher's obstruction. Citizen-Times reporter Jason McGill labeled Dudones ''an umpire with a penchant for taking center stage.''
Dudones has learned much since then.
''Looking back at the first year I was so clueless,'' he said. ''Even the little details like shaving, having a clean haircut . . . looking the part is very important. It's a lot easier to command respect.''
This season, Dudones was promoted to the Eastern League. His mother said he expects to stay in Class AA for two or three years. The parks are newer, the locker rooms nicer, the refrigerators stocked with a wider range of beverages. But he's still coping with the demands of the travel.
''This job has definitely helped me mature into a man,'' Dudones said. ''But it's a little tougher being away from home, being isolated. The nights in a hotel room can get pretty lonely. That's the toughest part. Everyone is excited at the beginning of the year. But when you get in the dog days, it starts to get hot, you've got to work hard even if you don't feel like it. It's part of the professional integrity of our job.''
It takes lots of time
Dudones could also find his patience tested during a slow climb to the majors. Of the 68 full-time umpires in Major League Baseball this year, the four promoted took 12 to 17 years to reach the bigs. Major-league umpires' salaries range from $90,000-$370,000, depending on length of service. According to Milb.com, the minor leagues' Web site, Double-A umpires earn between $2,300-$2,700 per month.
But an off day a week ago when Dudones attended his first game at the new Yankee Stadium helped him keep his eye on the prize. The major-league umpires left free tickets for his crew and showed them around.
''Awesome,'' Dudones said, and he wasn't just referring to the stadium. ''There was a Class AAA callup umpire working the plate. Watching him work, seeing how polished and good he was, you see it really does happen. Somebody's got to make it.''
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.