Tom Roche loads three sets of golf clubs, three gear bags and three small suitcases into the back of the black Dodge minivan. Satisfied that everything fits, he crawls into the back seat and settles in for the journey from Portland to Hartford, Connecticut.

Roche had just spent more than three hours crouched behind home plate during a Sea Dogs game at Hadlock Field. He was calling balls and strikes during an 11-1 Portland loss that included 357 pitches. The matinee game was the last in a nine-game home stand that featured two doubleheaders.

Roche, who turns 29 this summer, is among 18 men employed as Eastern League umpires. For the first time in five weeks, he will get to spend the night in his own bed. A native of Hamden, Connecticut, he is a member of one of six three-umpire crews who crisscross the Northeast from April to September in hopes of one day taking the field at a major league ballpark.

The odds are against him.

As hard as it is for players to reach the big leagues, it’s far more difficult to do so as an umpire. Nearly one-third of the players who have worn a Sea Dogs uniform eventually reached the majors, but over a 20-year stretch starting in 1998, only 8 percent of minor-league umpires made it to the bigs, and fewer than half of those landed full-time jobs.

By the time Roche’s crew pulled out of the Hadlock Field parking lot, 69 players had made their major league debut this season. Roche is older than all but one of them, 30-year-old reliever Ryne Harper of the Twins. During the same time, only two umpires had made their major league debut.

The most recent full-time MLB umpire hire was Stu Scheurwater, who was 34 when he got the call in February 2018 after appearing in 268 regular-season games in the majors as a fill-in.

“You’ve got to be persistent,” said Dusty Dellinger, director of umpire development for Minor League Baseball and overseer of all 236 umpires (two of them female) working in the minors. “It takes so many years to go through the system.”

So why do it? Why hit the road for five months at a stretch, away from home and family, stand outside in the elements for three hours a night, endure grown men yelling in your face and wait roughly eight years before maybe getting a sniff of the big leagues?

“It’s those bright lights on the big league field,” said Roche, who is in his sixth season in the minors. “We’ve all been to a major league game. Obviously as kids, we wanted to be one of the players.”

Umpiring at the big-league level is a pretty good gig. First-class travel. Salaries that start at $115,000 and range to $430,000 depending on experience. Per diem allowances of nearly $500 to cover meal and hotel costs. Four weeks of vacation in season.

That explains why turnover is so rare among the 76 MLB umpires. There were four new hires in 2017, one in 2016, three in 2015 and a whopping eight in 2014, when the expansion of video replay created new positions.

Umpires at the Double-A level earn a monthly salary of between $2,500 and $3,100, only during the season, which means a yearly salary well below $20,000. So an off-season job is necessary. Per diem is $54 but hotel costs are covered by the league, which also furnishes the minivan and pays for gas.

Because hotels generally provide a breakfast buffet and umpires, like players, eat dinner at the ballpark after games from food brought in by clubhouse attendants (who must be paid and tipped), lunch is usually the one meal for which umps are on their own. Roche is a fan of Chipotle, the Mexican grill chain.

“You’ll see players at the same restaurants,” Roche said, “and they’ll go, ‘Wuh, you guys are real human beings?’ People just think we spin up from the ground and we’re ready to go.”

At the Triple-A level, one step below the majors, umpires earn up to $3,900 per month. Roughly 16 of the 57 umpires at that level are designated as big-league call-ups, eligible to fill in for vacationing or injured MLB umps.

Roche played baseball and hockey in high school, and continued as a club hockey player at Southern Connecticut State University. He began umpiring Little League games as a 16-year-old, then stopped until he was a college sophomore and a planned summer job fell through.

At his father’s suggestion, Roche took a local umpire training class and returned to calling balls and strikes. He was 19 and making $55 to $60 per game.

“And you can do 10 games in a weekend,” he said. “So that’s pretty good.”

A sports management major, Roche was uncertain about a career. A professor who had been an umpire in pro baseball – and once ejected the public address announcer during a Florida State League game – served as a mentor to Roche, who enrolled at one of the two professional umpiring schools in January 2014 at age 23.

The monthlong Umpire Training Academy is run by Minor League Baseball out of Vero Beach, Florida, concurrent with the Wendelstedt Umpire School in nearby Daytona Beach. Roughly 30 of the top graduates from each school – Roche was among a class of 90 – move on to an advanced session and get ranked from 1 to 60.

The top 25 usually receive job offers, with another 15 coming on board by season’s end. Roche began in the New York-Penn League, which starts in June, and moved up to the full-season Class A Midwest League in 2015. He missed 2016 because of knee surgery but spent 2017 in the advanced Class A Carolina League before being promoted last spring to the Eastern League.

In the off-season, Roche works at a warehouse in Connecticut, “just to make ends meet,” he said. “I’m not married. I don’t have kids. So it’s manageable for me.”

Minor league umpires belong to a union, which formed in 1999, and are in Year 3 of a five-year collective bargaining agreement. One stipulation is that full-season umpires get individual hotel rooms instead of sharing.

“So you have your time away from each other,” Roche said. “We’ll go to lunch together, we’ll go to the gym together, we’ll play golf together. So we get our fair share of time together and apart. You need a good balance.”

Jacob Metz, the crew chief, is from the Seattle area and is in his third year in the Eastern League. Matt Carlyon, from Pennsylvania, snagged one of the league’s two openings this season. He worked the Class A Florida State League last year.

The other 15 EL umpires this season hail from places as varied as Japan, Australia, Ontario, California, Texas and Colorado.  Roche and Carlyon are among the seven who live within the league’s geographic footprint. The others are from Ohio, Maryland and New Jersey.

Roche and his crew opened the season in Akron, Ohio. Before arriving in Portland on May 2 for the start of a Sea Dogs home stand, the trio drove seven hours from Trenton, New Jersey. After the series in Hartford, they headed to Manchester, New Hampshire, and then to Bowie, Maryland. They get nine days off during the season.

At one of the doubleheaders in Portland, an umpiring supervisor was evaluating their performance.

“We get seen 12 games per year by two different evaluators,” Roche said. “He shows us video of ourselves, goes over what occurs that day. There’s always stuff to improve upon.”

Roche hasn’t had too many gaffes. He winces when he recalls an incident from his first summer in pro ball: With runners on base he was stationed in the infield and there was a play at first. He spread his arms wide, palms down, to signal safe and bellowed “Out!”

“I just had a brain fart,” he said. “So I had to fix it. He was clearly out. No one really argued, but it’s that thing of being focused all the time.”

Carlyon has lost his footing a time or two on wet grass.

“Slipping is always a danger,” he said. “I’ve called somebody out from the seat of my pants before.”

During the Portland home stand, Roche’s girlfriend came to visit. They went to Fort Williams Park, ate lobster rolls and sampled local craft beers. Because of the chilly spring, Roche and his crew used their golf clubs only once, last month in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“You have your (discouraging) days, obviously,” Roche said. “You just have to think of the bigger picture, and what you’re striving for. And that’s not just umpiring, that’s for any dream that you want to pursue.”

Dellinger, the director of development, was behind the 20-year umpire study, which showed that only half of those hired into professional baseball advance as far as Double A. Dellinger himself spent five years in Triple-A and between 2005 and 2007 was among those called up to the majors.

“It’s hard,” Dellinger said. “I lose guys because they have a bad attitude, or they do something off the field that gets them released. Some guys can’t handle the travel. Some guys, they’re just not good enough. Their peers are just better.”

Dellinger has released 20 umpires in each of the past two seasons. Two decades ago, in the wake of a failed negotiating strategy involving mass resignations, there was a purge and subsequent hiring binge at the major league level of 22 umpires.

“They’re probably going to retire in the next five years or so,” Dellinger said. “So it’s a tremendous time to be ready. I think over the next 15 years, things are going to be really good for minor league umpires.”

Roche, Metz and Carlyon will see the Sea Dogs again in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in early June and return to Hadlock for six games later in June. They will visit each of the 12 Eastern League parks at least twice each, for a minimum of nine games.

This trip may soon fade from their memories, or perhaps not. They worked nine games in an eight-day stretch. They met with a supervisor, and rehabilitating Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia introduced himself, as is customary in baseball.

“They have a tough job, and it doesn’t matter what level,” Pedroia said. “I find out what their name is and say Hi. We’re all human beings.”

Roche reached Double A after only three seasons in Class A. Another umpire who grew up in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut, spent five years in Class A before finally earning a promotion to the Double A Texas League. Dan Iassogna stuck with it, and is now in his 16th year in the majors. He worked the 2012 and 2017 World Series.

“For every umpire, it’s such a long road because we don’t have any home games,” Iassogna said Saturday after working behind the plate Friday night in a 14-6 Cubs victory over the Nationals that lasted more than four hours. “The hardest time for me was those last couple of years in A ball.”

Iassogna turned 50 earlier this month. Not until his eighth year in the minors did he get called up to fill in at the major league level and wound up doing so for more than 600 games. His break came 12 years into his career when a 49-year-old umpire decided to retire because of health reasons.

“I got lucky,” Iassogna said. “It’s so tough because there’s only 76 of us, and the only way to get there is when somebody dies or retires.”

Iassogna and Roche have never crossed paths, but if they do, the veteran would pass along the same advice he was given by the first major league umpire he ever met, John Hirschbeck, who also grew up in Connecticut and retired after the 2016 season. Hirschbeck told Iassogna, then a college student at UConn, that umpiring in the majors is being part of history every night.

“So if I ever met Tom Roche,” Iassogna said, “I would tell him the same thing. Keep working hard because it’s worth it.”