Big-League Vision Nw League Umpires On The Road To The Show
Steve Mattingly hasn’t seen his wife of 14 months since March.
John Lomavaya, his partner and roommate, strikes up conversations with complete strangers just to “hear a different voice and see a different face.”
The two eat Coldcut Combos at the Subway on North Hamilton so often they’re on a first-name basis with Gina, the “sandwich artist.”
Although they’ve had just five days off in the past 76, they spend most of their time killing time.
The payoff - besides the $1,800 a month and 25 cents a mile as they tool around the Northwest - is that they get to preside over a kids’ game played by grown men.
Most of the time, those men, and the thousands who come to watch them play, think Mattingly and Lomavaya are incompetents.
And they aren’t afraid to tell them so, sometimes in language that would curl paint.
Welcome to life as a professional baseball umpire in the Northwest League, where the Spokane Indians play.
“It’s a blast, man,” said Mattingly, a 27-year-old Arkansas native just completing his rookie season.
“I can’t believe someone pays me to do this.” Judging from one recent day during a weeklong Spokane stint, the two fledgling umpires aren’t overworked.
Mattingly started off this past Monday by driving to the Creek at Qualchan golf course to hit a bucket of balls. He was swinging his driver so well, he decided to play nine holes.
“You should play golf whenever you get the chance,” said Mattingly, who takes his clubs wherever he goes.
But his form disappeared quickly, and he stopped keeping score after two holes.
As he drove the golf cart full-speed over hill and dale in search of his errant ball, Mattingly talked about his wife, Jennifer, and how much he missed her.
“Her support is the only reason I’m here pursuing my dream,” he said. “She’s the best.”
Mattingly won’t see her again until mid-September when the Class A playoffs are over and he goes home to Phoenix.
Back at Cavanaugh’s 4th Avenue Hotel, Lomavaya spent all morning in the room he shares with Mattingly. The 24-year-old from Tempe, Ariz., watched the movie “The Fugitive” and read the morning paper.
Fighting off boredom is the toughest part of being on the road, he said.
“We read books and write letters,” said Lomavaya, a second-year umpire. “It’s hard sometimes.”
About 12:30 p.m., the two headed for a North Side athletic club to work out.
In between sets on a leg machine, Lomavaya explained that living in the same room and working at the same job with the same person day in and day out isn’t all it’s crack up to be.
“It’s like we’re married to each other, whether we like it or not,” Lomavaya said.
Hence his habit of speaking to strangers.
After the workout, it was on to, that’s right, Subway, for a late lunch of foot-long Coldcut Combos.
Both umpires razzed a guy who was tagging along with them for ordering a six-inch sandwich.
“I thought you were hungry,” Lomavaya said.
After a quick trip to the post office and Seafirst Stadium to see whether some hats Mattingly ordered had come in - they hadn’t - the two headed back to the hotel to get ready for the game.
Lomavaya took a quick nap, then they both showered and put on clean slacks and shirts with collars for the short drive to the ballpark. The fancy clothes are required by the league, Mattingly explained.
“We’re professionals,” he said.
Once in their locker room at the stadium, which they complain is too small, they spent about half an hour getting their equipment ready.
Mattingly used a can of lemon-scented furniture cleaner and a rag to shine up his steel-toed shoes.
“It’s an old Army trick,” he said with a wink.
Lomavaya sought out the Indians’ trainer for treatment of a sore knee.
“It may be a sick day,” he joked.
Once finished with his shoes, Mattingly, who worked behind the plate Monday night, rubbed down the balls to be used in the game.
He took some special mud produced in Texas, spat in it, then rubbed the mixture onto the three dozen baseballs.
The practice takes the shine off the balls, making them easier to hold and throw, he said.
Mattingly chewed a wad of bubble gum to help him in the task.
“Otherwise, I don’t have enough spit,” he said, laughing.
The bantering disappeared once the two took the field.
The Creek at Qualchan and Gina at Subway were blocked from their minds.
Lomavaya, who worked the bases, barely said a dozen words through most of the three-hour game.
That is, until he threw a Spokane player out of the game in the bottom of the ninth for calling Mattingly a particularly profane name.
The player was upset over a pitch Mattingly called a strike.
The hometown fans weren’t happy with Lomavaya’s judgment and began raining the customary abuse down on him and Mattingly.
“What, did you go to a Catholic school or something?” one angry man shouted at Lomavaya. “Haven’t you ever heard a dirty word before?”
“Let’s get a real ump in there,” another fan said. “This guy (Mattingly) stinks.”
The ejection - Lomavaya’s first of the year - led to an exchange with the Indians’ first-base coach and provided the topic of conversation in the umpires’ locker room after the game. While they tend to tune out insults that rain down from the stands, players are harder to ignore.
“He called me what?” asked Mattingly, who wasn’t particularly pleased with the answer.
After another shower, the two dined on free, but cold, chicken sandwiches and German sausages left over from that night’s concessions.
Mattingly gulped down a pitcher of All-Sport, which was provided by the Indians.
They dressed and hustled into the night in search of a television.
The two umpires wanted to watch the local news to see if they could catch glimpses of themselves - Lomavaya calls them “lowlights” - during the sports report. Like the players they share the field with, they hope that someday they’ll be on the Major League highlights.
“Another day’s done,” Mattingly said as he slurped the last of his All-Sport and headed to his car. “It doesn’t get any better than this, fellas.”
An observer, the same one that ordered the six-inch sandwich, let out a laugh that said, “Yeah, right.”
Mattingly stopped and looked him in the eye.
“I’m serious,” he said. “It’s a great life.”
And he gets paid to live it.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos