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Max McLeary's life is one long country and western lyric, from his unlikely occupation--he was 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 when they're drunk."
That night, a trainer shone a flashlight on McLeary's right pupil and found no sign of life until another ump on the crew suggested, "Try the other eye."
When McLeary keeps his eye on the ball, it's his left one. The right is a prosthesis. The coach of the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things, Joe Charboneau, asked McLeary if the grounds crew--after dragging the infield and changing the bases in the fifth inning--might Windex his glass eye. "Get with the 20th century," McLeary replied. "They're plastic now." To drive the point home, he removed the eye and rifled it at Charboneau, who, says McLeary, ducked it and then puked.
The 58-year-old McLeary's father was a football referee good enough to work the Orange Bowl and the Army-Navy game. Baseball is Max's sport. His palms are calloused from the loving rubdowns he has given, with Delaware River mud, to five dozen baseballs a night for the last 11 years. "I love everything about the game," he says. "The smell of cut grass, that stadium smell of concrete and beer."
Max lost his eye in Cincinnati, during the blizzard of 1977, when the pointed toe of his girlfriend's boot struck him as he stooped to steady her when she slipped on an icy sidewalk. Within two years McLeary was again leaning on batting cages in college field houses, now training his left eye to call balls and strikes without its batterymate.
Today, he says, "all my best friends are bus drivers," which only sounds like a Willie Nelson single. He spent the last decade driving 24,000 miles annually to call high school, college and minor league games. McLeary retired from the Frontier League this summer to become general manager of the Cincinnati Steam in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, where he is proving that there is, in fact, one eye in team.
The college kids, in turn, have turned Max on to newer music. "I love the Black Eyed Peas," he says, though his musical tastes run more to batting practice staples: " John Fogerty's Centerfield, Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days, Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London, which the London Werewolves played at least 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 the common column. And so at 2 a.m. in a hotel bar, a visiting manager once had an epiphany while drinking with McLeary: "I just realized why we lost tonight. We threw a lefty. You didn't see a pitch all night."
Another evening McLeary emerged from his dressing room to see that the rightfield line and lefthander's batter's box hadn't been chalked. "They told me they thought they'd save paint since I couldn't see 'em anyway," says McLeary, who likes to turn pranks around on the pranksters, in a kind of practical joker's jujitsu.