Max McLeary'slife is one long country and western lyric, from his unlikely occupation--hewas a one-eyed umpire--to his smoke-cured quotes, as when he says,"Everyone's got a story about a one-eyed guy that they like to tell whenthey're drunk."
Seven years ago,while McLeary was working a Frontier League game in Ohio, his face mask wasshattered by a foul ball that left him--wasn't this a Hank Williams Jr.song?--unconscious in Chillicothe.
That night, atrainer shone a flashlight on McLeary's right pupil and found no sign of lifeuntil another ump on the crew suggested, "Try the other eye."
When McLearykeeps his eye on the ball, it's his left one. The right is a prosthesis. Thecoach of the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things, Joe Charboneau, asked McLeary if thegrounds crew--after dragging the infield and changing the bases in the fifthinning--might Windex his glass eye. "Get with the 20th century,"McLeary replied. "They're plastic now." To drive the point home, heremoved the eye and rifled it at Charboneau, who, says McLeary, ducked it andthen puked.
The 58-year-oldMcLeary's father was a football referee good enough to work the Orange Bowl andthe Army-Navy game. Baseball is Max's sport. His palms are calloused from theloving rubdowns he has given, with Delaware River mud, to five dozen baseballsa night for the last 11 years. "I love everything about the game," hesays. "The smell of cut grass, that stadium smell of concrete andbeer."
Max lost his eyein Cincinnati, during the blizzard of 1977, when the pointed toe of hisgirlfriend's boot struck him as he stooped to steady her when she slipped on anicy sidewalk. Within two years McLeary was again leaning on batting cages incollege field houses, now training his left eye to call balls and strikeswithout its batterymate.
Today, he says,"all my best friends are bus drivers," which only sounds like a WillieNelson single. He spent the last decade driving 24,000 miles annually to callhigh school, college and minor league games. McLeary retired from the FrontierLeague this summer to become general manager of the Cincinnati Steam in theGreat Lakes Summer Collegiate League, where he is proving that there is, infact, one eye in team.
The college kids,in turn, have turned Max on to newer music. "I love the Black EyedPeas," he says, though his musical tastes run more to batting practicestaples: "John Fogerty's Centerfield, Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days,Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London, which the London Werewolves played atleast six times a game," he says.
That's London,Ont., of the Frontier League, from which McLeary has reaped endless anecdotes.He calls them "antidotes," which they are in a way--a cure for thecommon column. And so at 2 a.m. in a hotel bar, a visiting manager once had anepiphany while drinking with McLeary: "I just realized why we lost tonight.We threw a lefty. You didn't see a pitch all night."
Another eveningMcLeary emerged from his dressing room to see that the rightfield line andlefthander's batter's box hadn't been chalked. "They told me they thoughtthey'd save paint since I couldn't see 'em anyway," says McLeary, who likesto turn pranks around on the pranksters, in a kind of practical joker'sjujitsu.
And so he oncetapped his way to home plate with a white cane, which he leaned on like CharlieChaplin while going over the ground rules. "It was Shriners' Night,"McLeary says in his defense. "There were clowns and go-kartseverywhere."
Max's son, Marty,is a 6'5" pitcher who appeared in three games for the San Diego Padres in2004. He's now with the Indianapolis Indians, the Triple A affiliate of thePittsburgh Pirates, whose logo is a swashbuckler missing his right eye. Martyand Max are another remarkable chapter in baseball's father-son history--CyYoung and Cyclops, the ace and the one-eyed jack. "I've heard 'em all,"says Max. "Don't worry, you're talking to a guy who can dish itout."
The San DiegoChicken once waved an eye chart at McLeary from the first base coaching box.Max squinted, then threw up his hands in mock exasperation. Only when theinning ended did the Chicken learn, to his horror, that Max is half blind. Themortified bird apologized profusely.
Last monthone-eyed football ref James Filson sued the Big Ten, claiming it unfairly firedhim after he worked conference games for five years with one eye. "God setsthings up in a crazy manner, and we can't always understand why," saysMcLeary. "But I am a living testimonial that you don't need two eyes toumpire."
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Marty and Max McLeary are another remarkable chapterin baseball's father-son history--Cy Young and Cyclops, the ace and theone-eyed jack.