On nights when it's J.J. Bilinski's turn in the rotation to work home plate, the Panama native can be found, a few hours prior to first pitch, locked away in a small room with a few dozen baseballs at his side and his hands covered in mud.
The mud, found at a secret location along the banks of the Delaware River in New Jersey, has been used by professional umpires for over 75 years to remove the slick, shiny outer coating on each new baseball set for use in that night's game - the number that require that sort of prep work can range anywhere from five to seven dozen.
While the work itself is tedious, especially over the course of, in Bilinski's case, 72 to 75 New York-Pennsylvania League games (as he moves up the rungs towards the Major Leagues that number will most certainly grow), and undoubtedly messy, it's a ritual that each of those venerable men who have donned the umpire's uniform have performed.
J.J. Bilinski, top center, takes part in the pregame meeting with Jamestown Jammers hitting coach, Rich Arena, left, Auburn manager Gary Cathcart, right, and home plate umpire Sam Vogt before a recent New York-Penn League game at Diethrick Park.
P-J photo by Jim Riggs
It's a ritual that connects Bilinski to umpires old and new; it's a ceremony that tells him he is now a full-fledged member of that select fraternity.
And for that, Bilinski couldn't be happier.
"Absolutely (I've chosen the right career)," he said last week, a few hours prior to umpiring a contest between the Jamestown Jammers and the Auburn Doubledays at Diethrick Park. "I couldn't see myself doing anything else right now. It's really a lot of fun, and it's something that I've always wanted to do.
"I love coming to the field everyday and saying to myself, 'This is my office.'"
Though Bilinski is relatively new to professional umpiring, his rise through the ranks has been swift. After graduating with honors from the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Vero Beach, Fla., a little more than a year ago, he quickly received a call from the Minor League Umpires Association to report to St. Petersburg and start calling for the Golf Coast League - a 60-game rookie league - immediately. He spent just four weeks in the GCL, proved that he was capable of handling a more high-level of game, and was promoted to the NYP League midway through last season.
Working the NYP League takes him to ballparks from Aberdeen, Md., to Burlington, Vt., and anywhere in between.
"Traveling around the league is great," Bilinski said. "You see so many different venues. You see small market teams like Jamestown, Auburn and Batavia, and then you see a whole different aspect when you head to say, Brooklyn. It's a vast array, which is great, and it's nice to see every little thing around the league and how the system works."
Best of all, however, is that those travels also take him - every so often - back home to Jamestown, where he can reconnect with friends, family and, he is quick to point out, the people who helped him make his dream of becoming a professional umpire a reality.
"I definitely enjoy coming back," he said. "It's really fun for me to have people that I grew up watching umpire baseball, and that I umpired high school baseball with, come back and see me (at Diethrick Park) and say, 'Hey, this guy was with us at some point.'
"It's a good camaraderie with all those guys, and I always tell them, 'All the stuff I'm doing now is a direct reflection of what you guys taught me growing up, you all played an important role in my life up to this point as an umpire.'"
Now, with about six weeks of NYP League umpiring under his belt, it's hard to say when he will get the call to move on to the next level. It could happen tomorrow, or two years from now; either way, he'll continue going to the ballpark each day and, like so many umpires before him, perform that three-quarter century old routine and work to reach the ultimate goal: Major League Baseball.
"You've got to pay your dues," he said, "that's just how it is. Right now I'm here, at this level, just trying to get better everyday. That's all you can do."