MODESTO — Three years into his professional baseball career, Derek Eaton finally got a home game on Thursday night.
No, it's not often that umpires have their own rooting section, but such is the case in the Modesto Nuts' opening homestand for Eaton, a graduate of West High in Tracy and former CSU Stanislaus pitcher.
"All baseball players have a home stadium, so half the year they get to sleep at home," Eaton said prior to Friday night's game at John Thurman Field. "Umpires live on the road the whole season and sleep in hotels every night. It's a whole different lifestyle."
And exactly the lifestyle for which Eaton signed up.
Realizing his playing career was over after finishing the 2011 season at Stanislaus, Eaton jumped into professional umpiring. He had three years of practical experience umpiring games in youth travel ball and at places like Manteca's Big League Dreams, but going to umpiring school was a whole new experience.
Not only was there a rule book to learn cover to cover, to be able to interpret backward and forward, but Eaton quickly discovered there was a correct way umpires are supposed to do everything.
For instance, as a left-hander, Eaton instinctively used his left hand while brushing off home plate.
For reasons that make sense only to the men in blue, that's a no-no.
"I was told the first day at umpiring school that I had to brush the plate right-handed, when I had done it left-handed all my life," Eaton said. "I couldn't do it at first, so I practiced every night in my hotel room until I got it right just brushing right-handed.
"Their reasoning is that you always take your mask off left-handed, and right-handers have to get used to that, so it's only right that as a left-hander I should have to learn to brush the plate right-handed."
Eaton's upward movement has thus far been fast. He earned an invitation to work rookie league ball right out of umpiring school, which is the foot in the door.
Last season he worked in the low-A South Atlantic League and was on the field during the championship series when the Asheville Tourists claimed the title. Most of those Asheville players are now Nuts.
"I got to know some of those guys and they got to know me," Eaton said. "I got a few smiles when I walked on the field on Thursday night. It's good to build that camaraderie with the players because they know what to expect from me and I know what to expect from them."
For one, they should know what they can or can't do during an argument to keep from being tossed.
"There is no magic word, but if it's personal or if he doesn't wrap it up and keep going, that's the most common reason (for ejecting someone,)" Eaton said.
After all, Eaton shares a common goal with all the players in every minor league dugout. They all want to reach the majors.
And despite his swift journey to High A, Eaton knows it will be a long time before he'll get a chance to sniff the big leagues.
"One of these players tomorrow could get moved up to the major leagues, but umpires have to show their skills at every level on the way up," Eaton said. "It's a longer process. The average for a minor league umpires is eight to 10 years before you reach the majors."
The clock really starts ticking for umpires once they are promoted to the Triple-A level.
While umpires in the major leagues might as well be Supreme Court justices for how difficult it is for them to lose their jobs, umpires have only three seasons in Triple-A to earn the big league nod, or they're out of a job.
Yes, that's harsh.
But until then, Eaton, who is single, is willing to live on the road every summer, spending his days in strange hotels and nights in minor league ballparks, all in the name of chasing the dream.
"We work every day trying to get better and move forward," Eaton said. "Once we're told that there's no spot for us at the next level, then so be it. Until then I'll keep trying to work my way up."