King of Diamonds

In the time it takes you to read this—just the word “this”—DJ Reyburn ’99 will make up his mind. In fact, in the time it takes you to read this—“this” now being this entire story—DJ Reyburn will make at least another 50 decisions. Ball, strike. Fair, foul. Out, safe. With authority, without hesitation, under intense scrutiny, from behind home plate, major league umpire DJ Reyburn decides and decides and decides.

It’s all in a game’s work for the man in blue and gray with the number 70 on his right shoulder and the Major League Baseball logo emblazoned in white on the front of his navy cap. Over the course of three hours, about the average length of a professional baseball game, Reyburn’s brain gets a vigorous workout. He’ll use his cerebral cortex to access his encyclopedic knowledge of MLB’s rules, and he’ll tax his brain’s lateral frontal pole to multi-task while making around 400 verdicts, probably more. And after each diamond-related day, Reyburn—self-assured, even-tempered, firm but quick to smile—knowingly determines this too: he’s living a dream that few achieve.

That dream—to ballpark-hop across the country to call out or declare safe the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, or Bryce Harper—was first dreamt during one late-night bull session in a dorm room on third floor of Kollen Hall. A sophomore and a centerfielder on the Hope College baseball team at the time, Reyburn and his roommate, Jay Leitz ’99, “were sitting around, talking about life and the future and I said, ‘If I could do anything for the rest of my life, I’d want to be a major league umpire,” recalls Reyburn.

“And I’ll never forget what he said. Jay goes, ‘Oh, that’s attainable. I thought you were going to say you wanted to be an astronaut or something, but you can totally do that.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I can do that. I’m going to give it a shot.’”

And with that, Reyburn made his first major-league decision. He would prepare to climb the moderately wide umpiring ladder that narrows substantially at each rung of ascension. After hitting a homerun for the Flying Dutchmen in his last college at-bat against Alma College in May of 1999 and after graduating with a sociology major in December of 1999, he went straight to umpire academy in Florida in January of 2000, a graduation gift from his parents. Five weeks later, Reyburn was one of 50 to graduate from ump school out of the 250 who enrolled. Seventeen years after that, he is one of three umpires who have made it to MLB from that class. Like minor-leaguers’ long odds of making it to “The Show,” umpires’ chances of getting to the majors similarly hover in, single percentage points.

For eight years, Reyburn worked rookie leagues, fall leagues, single to triple A leagues, and winter leagues in the Caribbean. He lived in his parents’ basement in the off-season and substitute-taught near his hometown of DeWitt, Michigan. Later, when not working a base, Reyburn worked part-time in the human resources department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he met and lives now with his wife, Cherie, and their three children, Iris, 8, Maxwell, 5, and Cody, 2.

Finally, a major-league ump got a vacation day (each of the 76 MLB umpires gets four weeks of vacation during the regular season), and Reyburn got the call to move up for his major-league debut in 2008. His memory of that exact date (June 10) and place (Oakland, California) is vivid and lively.

“It’s the Yankees versus the A’s, and I’m assigned to third base, and I still can’t believe I’m finally here,” Reyburn recollects. “When you’re working the minors, you just want to work one major-league game. You just want to get on a big-league field and say you did it. I’m thinking I just have to stand at third, not miss any check swings, get a few fair/foul balls right, and I’ll be okay.”

He would be okay but with more action than that. In the first inning, the mercurial former Yankee Rodriguez, with teammate Bobby Abreu on first base, hit a flair over the A’s shortstop’s head. Abreu unexpectedly motored past second base toward third to stretch out the single as the leftfielder tracked down the ball, eventually throwing it on a rope to the third baseman. Though the throw was a tad high and the tag on the Abreu a little awkward, the bang-bang play resulted in a typically split-second decision for the first-day, newly minted MLB ump.

“It was probably the closest call I’ve had in my life—on the fourth hitter of my first major league game,” remembers Reyburn, who actually started working as an umpire at the age of 16 in recreation summer leagues. “I called him (Abreu) out immediately, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, here we go.’ But nobody said a word. In the minors, there would have been a manager flying from the dugout to argue, but this time it was just another play and everybody went back to doing their jobs.”

Which means Reyburn got the call right as he would many, many more. He would yo-yo between Triple A and the majors for another five years after his 2008 temporary call-ups, replacing other vacationing MLB umpires before getting his permanent assignment for the 2014 season. Now, for seven months a year, Reyburn travels to every major league park in the country, weaving a lengthy national-pastime trail that requires litanies of MLB-arranged flights, rental cars, and hotel rooms. While professional baseball players get home stands, professional umpires do not. They are always on the road, which makes those 28 days of vacation during the regular season understandable and necessary. During the off-season, Reyburn is a stay-at-home dad, relishing time with his young family. His wife is a very understanding woman, he says, who single-parents sacrificially while he works in an action-packed “office” populated by thousands. “But, we also know almost anyone would take my schedule and profession,” he adds.

Stu Fritz, Hope’s baseball coach, calls his former player “a baseball junkie. Umping matches his personality very well. He’s a tenacious, gritty guy who loves the game,” Fritz says who has watched Reyburn umpire in-person every summer he’s been in The Bigs. “His professionalism is sky high, too.”

“DJ is a caring, giving, dedicated professional umpire and family man,” compliments John Hirschbeck, a 34-year MLB umpire who retired last year. Hirschbeck was Reyburn’s crew chief from the 2016 season, and the veteran ump admires his young colleague as a man “with a good temperament who handles himself well. For an umpire, the ultimate compliment is to be called a great guy who is fair and busts his tail off. That’s DJ. He cares greatly about what he does and comes ready to work hard every day. Managers and players respect that.”

“I strongly believe umpiring is my calling. This is what I’m meant to do by the grace of God,” Reyburn declares. “Sure, I love the sport but I could have stayed around it by becoming a coach instead… plus a lot more people would have liked me.” He chuckles genuinely, knowing that the best ump is an almost-invisible ump, one a fan or player hardly notices because there’s nothing to protest.

But kerfuffles happen, such as the 21 times Reyburn has ejected players and managers—including a tossing of recent World Series champ and Cubs manager Joe Maddon—for an assortment of baseball-related contentions but mostly about balls and strikes.

“I love the challenge of this work. I think calling balls and strikes is one of the most difficult jobs in officiating,” reasons Reyburn, who was selected to umpire the World Baseball Classic held in South Korea this past March. “I’m drawn to the day-in and day-out of trying not to make a mistake. Even though I know mistakes are going to happen—I am a human, of course—I just enjoy trying to go along as I can without making one.”

So, Daniel James Reyburn will make up his mind again and again, from spring to fall, with few second-guesses or regrets. Now that the 2017 MLB season has just started, so has Reyburn’s umpire’s tan (the fraternal twin to the farmer’s tan) along with his quest to be mistake-free. Those telltale signs—ruddy forearms, a focused mind—are the markings of a man who has worked doggedly to spend his career on fields of dreams.