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A Spring Without Baseball

(This story was published in 2003).

With the Major League Baseball season about to get underway, former professional umpire Tyler Hoffman took some time with Cyd Zeigler to reflect on his years in pro baseball and tell us about his latest project. Tyler lives with his partner of three years, Randy Lauzon, in Vancouver.

Tyler will be headed to Boston for the Homophobia in Sports Conference this weekend, and you'll be able to hear him speak on the Pro Sports Panel.

With baseball gearing up for another season, are you feeling any withdrawal?
Baseball has been my first true love. I was so passionate about it for so many years. That burning desire to make it filled my mind constantly from the time I was 12 until I went to umpire school at the age of 19; man, I was just a kid! Since leaving in 2000--each year farther away I feel the need to go back much less. Do I miss it? Absolutely I do ... I miss being on the field, the challenge the excitement ... all the ego feeding things I guess. But the three hours of being on the field isn't a trade off for the quality of life that I want to have.

What will you most miss about not suiting up to call another season of games?
The home plate meetings, the national anthem, the first pitch, a close play at home plate, and of course the arguments--those were always exciting, and challenging at the same time--a chance to really focus and show your skills.

What will you miss the least?
Without a doubt the political games, the travel, and not doing what I want socially because of my sexuality. I think I was exposed to more political games than most guys because of my involvement as a Senior instructor with The Academy of Professional Umpiring. The "games" were with some of the more senior umpires. I'm the type of guy who'll stand up for what he believes in rather than assimilate for the group, that's how I was brought up--to me it means a guy has good character. Because of that type of environment, you can open yourself up to more than most would. The travel was long, 200 days a year is a ton; it was the old catch 22 because it was the best part, too. The chance for personal growth is lacking when you're not engaged in relationships. And being gay kind of made it hard; not visiting the clubs I wanted too. There wasn't much choice anyhow; visiting towns like Burlington, Iowa and Bakersfield, California--get my drift?

Were there any umpires or players by whom you were particularly impressed with their quality of work or work ethic?
To me, work ethic is an all encompassing ideology and there is one guy that stands out and that would be Jeff Nelson. He's an umpire in MLB and when he was going up through the system he was one guy that was fully involved in his own development as well as the development of others. I can remember an extended-spring-training game in Arizona my first year. It was at least 42 degrees out at 9 in the morning. While most AAA umpires wouldn't even think twice about visiting us newbies, Jeff was there. He's a class act wherever he goes.

We often hear of the word "fag" being used to motivate players. Was it used anything like that among umpires?
Nothing that I remember. For the most part I would hear guys say something to the effect: "I don't care as long as they don't hit on me." Guys were really just uncomfortable and not knowledgeable, for the most part. The West Coast guys I think were better with the whole gay thing than the boys from the Midwest. If a guy said the word fag or faggot it was just a passing snide remark, nothing out of the ordinary.

You've said that you were expected to be a "skirt-chaser." How were those expectations impressed upon you?
Well yeah, that's what all the other guys were doing so to be part of the group or to be accepted you had to be able to "run with the boys." Toward the end of things I had earned enough respect and had enough time in that some of my actions, like not participating in group bar nights during spring training for example, weren't questioned.

You also alluded before that it was an encouraged practice to have sex with a woman in front of your partner on your minor league crew. Why and how was it encouraged? Did guys talk openly about this?
I wasn't encouraged at all. The bottom line is that in the lower minor leagues, umpires are two to a room. I know now that it's better. But then, it wasn't uncommon for one of us or both of us to bring a girl back. Sometimes it was alluded to as "showtime." For umpires, everyday was Saturday, we were like a traveling fraternity.

How common do you think married men cheating on their wives is among professional umpires?
Lets say we had 12 guys on staff at umpire school and eight of them were married; probably three were screwing around. As you move up the system, the quality of people is better. It wasn't rampant but it was sure a lot more than I was ever used to. And when you're not brought up that way, it's culture shock. You really have check your values. I was uncomfortable with it.

Did married men celebrate cheating on their wives, or did they express remorse?
Put it this way, what's done on the road is done on the road. There were no trophy presentations and guys didn't go around gloating.

While you were traveling, did you ever go on dates in the cities you were working?
It really depended on where I was. Honestly, not as much as I would have liked to. When I was stationary in towns like Phoenix for Spring Training and winter ball, yes; on the road, no. It was really difficult. There were a few times I did venture out on my own but when I got to the bar, which was probably the only gay bar in town, I was honestly better off either back in the hotel room or at some hip-hop straight bar; at least there I could look at cute boys. The Internet was really just getting started, nothing like it is now. If I had then what I have access to now, it could have been different. Even then, I could not afford to get caught.

How did you avoid getting "caught?"
Actually, I wasn't that good at that. I really messed up one night at a club we were all at during the Arizona League. A guy was flirting with me and I wasn't doing my best to diffuse it. I played it off big time, but I knew some guys were questioning it. That was real early on in my career. After that I made sure guys would create a different image of me. I even dated some girls.

Why did you wait until you retired to come out? Did you see then what a powerful statement you could have made had you come out while active?
For the most part I was out or at least in various degrees of being out, just not in baseball. I wasn't going to put the development of my career on the line. I worked so hard and was so passionate about it. In my last year, I took a leave of absence and I honestly gave a real long though about me going back and coming out simply to make a statement; at that point, I was ready. But 200 days to spend with guys that may not be receptive are long days.

What kind of repercussions do you think you would have faced from your colleagues had you come out publicly while an active umpire?
Since talking to some of my good umpire friends and telling them, they are 100% supportive and true men. They were a little shocked because I was really good at creating an image for them. If I would have known that I could count on their support, maybe I would have come out to baseball sooner. How does one find out though: that's the cat and mouse game. Some of the other guys would have made it difficult, silently. And as for my supervisors, dunno.

Did you ever tell any of them privately?
Only after I left the game

You're now developing a company called sportsMind Solutions. What is it, exactly?
SportsMind Solutions
is a personal effectiveness company specializing in dynamic seminars and business coaching. Our content encompasses the mind-set that is common in professional sports, giving the participants the competitive edge either in their personal and/or professional lives. Whether it be sales coaching, personal finance, finding your mission statement, we can help people and organizations achieve high success. My company achieves this by partnering with some amazing people.

I am the president and lead trainer. I have always challenged myself toward personal growth, starting from a very early age. In fact, when I was 5 or 6, I received my first motivational book, "The Little Engine That Could." My mother really wanted the most for me; she used to make me stand in the mirror and say, "I can, I can, I can," whenever I started to give up and quit. The word's "I can't" just wouldn't cut it with her. SportsMind Solutions has been a concept in my mind that I have always wanted to carry out and really has been with me the last five or seven years. It's exciting to making a difference in people's lives.

Tell me about the company's mission statement: "To ignite the fire within people giving them vision, passion and a spirit of adventure for life."
The mission statement of my company is my personal mission statement. I am in touch with this every day, especially when I am in the muck of things. It keeps me focused and reminds me of what really moves me.

What would be your advice to a gay teenager thinking about becoming a professional umpire?
Go for it. It's an awesome opportunity to really dig deep and challenge yourself at becoming the best you can be. Attend the Academy of Professional Umpiring, it's the best training you can put yourself through. Have a great support network and learn real quick who you can trust. Be careful, test the water first. You know it all comes down to where you are in your development as first a man, and then secondly as a gay man. Take advantages of resources like The Gay and Lesbian Professional Athletes Association. Get a laptop, you'll need it for reports anyway. Use it to establish new connections in new cities, you can chat with people like you and it's a good escape. Just don't live on the damn Internet! Make it a habit to get some alone time away from your crew; don't be so dependent on them for social excitement.