When a labor dispute led most Major League Baseball umpires to resign in 1999, Gary Darling made the call to pursue a career in real estate.

Leaders of the Major League Umpires Association, the union that represented the umpires, claimed that policies adopted by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig violated its collective bargaining agreements with the MLB’s National League and American League.

Darling, who had served as a National League umpire since 1988, was among 57 of 68 umpires who handed in their resignations. Intended as a negotiating tactic to hasten a resolution to the dispute, the strategy backfired. Darling was among 22 umpires who lost their jobs when Major League Baseball accepted their resignations.

He took a crash course in real estate in Arizona, completing 18 classes in 10 days, and he earned his real estate license in October 1999.

“I came home and went to real estate school almost immediately,” he said. “I was planning on getting my umpire job back, but you never know — it never hurts to have a real estate license.”

Darling began to build up the business and in his second year he closed five home-sale transactions.

It was more necessity than destiny that drove him to real estate, Darling said. “It wasn’t like a passion to be a Realtor. It gave me a second career.”

Most Realtors, in fact, joined the real estate industry after following a different career path. About 4 percent of Realtors participating in a 2007 Member Profile survey by the National Association of Realtors trade group that real estate was their first career. About 20 percent previously worked in the management, financial or business sector, and 15 percent worked in the sales or retail sector, the survey revealed.

Darling’s past experience in baseball proved useful — he noted that one of his early clients was an orthodontist who had played baseball in the Cape Code Baseball League, a collegiate summer league. “The only reason I got his business is because I was an umpire,” Darling said.

The most exotic home he sold was a converted barn located near a runway at Chandler Municipal Airport. His largest commission check was from the sale of a $700,000 home. Some of his leads in those early days came from cold-calling or from talking with visitors to open houses.

In 2002, he got a second chance in baseball — a federal judge in 2001 upheld an arbitrator’s decision that nine of the 22 umpires who left the game in 1999 should get their jobs back and receive back pay for the time they missed. Since then, three other umpires from the group of 22 were allowed to return.

Darling, born in San Francisco and raised in Sacramento, Calif., has maintained his real estate license since his return as an umpire, and he also dabbles in real estate investment and development.

He is a partner in a Colorado company that owns some rental townhomes and is pursuing a development project in Englewood, Colo. He also has offered assistance with a family-owned commercial building in San Francisco.

While he noted that it could be a potential conflict to serve as a real estate agent for professional baseball players, Darling said he has assisted some umpires with real estate transactions over the years. “I’ve helped a few,” he said — he helped one umpire purchase a condo in Phoenix, he said, and another one bought a home in Chandler, Ariz.

Darling said he doesn’t do much work in real estate during the baseball season. His wife, Cheri, obtained a real estate license in 2003, and they both are affiliated with Keller Williams Realty in Phoenix. If they are busy, he said he will refer business to another agent in the office.

“We’re not actively out looking for buyers and sellers. We both keep our licenses active. If something comes along this winter we’ll get back in it that way,” he said, adding that they will still consider working for family, friends and past clients.

His baseball work doesn’t end until late October, he noted, which tends to be the beginning of the slow season for real estate.

He carries a computer with him when he travels, he said, and periodically checks the multiple listing service online to view listings in the Phoenix area.

Darling, who played baseball at Cosumnes River Junior College in Sacramento, said there’s no secret formula to the real estate business.

“It’s really just customer service and people skills — and you do a good job and work hard for them. It kept my family floating for two years. It’s something I’ll keep active. I’ll see what happens when I retire,” he said.

After he rejoined baseball as an umpire in 2002, Darling participated in his first World Series in 2003. He has also worked during the National League Championship Series in 1992, 2004 and 2006 and at the All-Star Game in 1993 and 2003. He is the crew chief of a four-man umpire team.

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