"Professional umpire" is a career choice that requires a large amount of personal sacrifice. The stories of Brock Ballou and Cody Clark, a two-man Carolina League crew, are no exception.
Ballou, 24, and Clark, 22, are in their third season as Minor League umpires. They both began their careers in the Appalachian League in 2014, working together for the first time in the playoffs. Ballou spent 2015 in the Class A Midwest League, while Clark worked at the same level in the South Atlantic League. This season, their methodical journey up the Minor League ladder has brought them both to the Class A Advanced Carolina League.
"It was completely random," Ballou said of being partnered with Clark to form one of the league's four two-man umpiring crews. "When I saw that I'd been put with him I was pretty happy."
The path to becoming a Major League umpire is not an easy one; as it is for the players, the Minor Leagues serve as a remorseless proving ground. Low pay, fierce competition and, of course, constant travel are the accepted hazards of the profession.
Ballou, a native of the Nashville suburb of Mt. Juliet, must go long periods of time without seeing his fiancée, Anna, and their 2-year-old son, Brantley.
"It's tough," he said. "The first year, when I left, my son was a month and a half old, and when I got home he was eight months. Luckily there's Facetime now.... I can't imagine what it was like before that, when guys couldn't see their kids at all."
Meanwhile, this season has been a particularly difficult one for Clark to be on the road. The day after Thanksgiving, his father, Marv, passed away unexpectedly.
"We're not entirely sure of the cause, but he had told someone close to him at work that he had two separate dreams of him walking through the gates of heaven to greet his mother on the other side," he said. "So for me, that's confirmation of where he's at."
Clark's assignment to the Carolina League was especially fortuitous, allowing him to visit his Myrtle Beach home whenever he and Ballou are assigned to work Pelicans games. This gives him a much-needed opportunity to see his mother, Ida.
"For me, it's been hard knowing that my mom's by herself," said Clark. "She's one of the strongest people I know, but it hurts my heart when I'm on the road. To be in the Carolina League is a blessing, to be able to go home periodically when there's not anyone in the house with her. My dad had wanted to see me work in Myrtle Beach, so that's given me a lot of motivation to keep going."
As with any challenging life situation, perspective is needed. Ballou and Clark got a strong dose of that on the afternoon of April 14, when a routine drive on I-95 turned into anything but. The duo, with Clark driving, were headed to a game in Zebulon, North Carolina (home of the Carolina Mudcats) when they were startled by an inordinately loud popping sound. There was an RV traveling ahead of them, and one of its tires had just blown out.
"[The RV] started losing control," said Ballou. "Cody said, 'It's gonna flip over, and once it does we'll get [the passengers] out.' It's amazing what happened, but on this stretch of highway there's a guardrail for about half a mile. Luckily they swerved into that guardrail."
The RV had somehow managed to stay upright, but nonetheless the situation was urgent. The vehicle had ended up with multiple flat tires, one of which had flown loose from the vehicle and hit the windshield of the umpires' rental car. To make matters worse, the undercarriage had split open and debris from inside the vehicle was now littering the highway. A fuel line had ruptured as well, and the foreboding odor of gasoline permeated the accident scene. Clark, avoiding the debris, maneuvered past the RV and then pulled to the side of the road.
"We ran to the RV, but the door was jammed," said Ballou. "Luckily enough, two detectives were traveling behind us. They were out of their jurisdiction but they pulled over with us. There was an elderly couple inside the RV; the gentleman seemed OK and his wife was in the back."
Using a wrench taken from a tool box that had spilled out of the RV, Clark smashed in a window above the jammed door. As the smaller of the two, it was determined that he should be the one to make his way inside. Upon shimmying through, he found the vehicle's occupants to be shaken but otherwise OK.
"If the vehicle had caught fire, the first thought was to break the front windshield. We were trying to plan ahead," said Clark. "But I was just surprised how calm and collected they were. I think everyone on the outside of the RV was more in shock than those who were inside."
Emergency responders arrived after 15 minutes, using the Jaws of Life to open the RV door and free its trapped occupants. In the interim, Clark had helped locate the couple's three cats.
"We found one easily -- he was in the middle of the walkway scared to death," he said. "There was a second one hidden under the bed, and we had a hard time getting that one out. The third one, Oreo, he was hiding behind the couch."
Once the cats were corralled and emergency responders arrived on the scene, there was nothing further that Clark and Ballou could do to assist the elderly couple.
"As we left, they said 'Thank you' and 'God bless you,'" said Clark. "We waved goodbye, they smiled at us, we walked back to the car and that was it."
"While we were still standing there, the gentleman mentioned that he was on his way to a cancer treatment," added Ballou. "That's all he said. I hope he still got there. I don't know if we'll ever know, but that's where they were headed."
Nor do Clark and Ballou know the names of the couple whom they assisted. They would like to, however.
"My next goal is to try to contact them and create a relationship," said Clark.
Clark and Ballou have since found themselves to be profoundly affected by their unexpected I-95 rescue mission.
"I posted on Facebook about the entire incident, because there was a message I wanted to get out," said Clark. "The tool box being there to break the window, the detectives being there to slow traffic, the guardrail being there on that small stretch of road, no one being injured in the slightest -- it all pointed back toward God. I wanted to share that: God is in control."
"We were being watched over," added Ballou. "We drive miles and miles every few days and you never know what you're going to see, but that was the first accident I'd seen happen."
For Clark, the incident has only reinforced what he's learned in the wake of his father's sudden passing.
"After going through that, I didn't want to take anything for granted. I just wanted people to know the goodness of God," he said. "Everything is under control."
And through it all, the game they've devoted their professional lives to provides a daily dose of security and peace.
"Once I step onto the field, I clear my mind," said Ballou. "You don't want to take anything personal onto the field. You just go to work."
"There's this calmness to it," added Clark. "You get lost in the atmosphere and energy of the ballpark. The ballpark, in and of itself, is an escape."