"PEOPLE THINK it’s just ‘Ball,’ ‘Strike,’ ‘Safe,’ ‘Out,’” says Hunter Wendelstedt, a National League umpire. “But it’s not like that.”
Too true, as I learn during several humbling days at the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires in Ormond Beach, Florida. Even "safe" or "out" is no sure thing. There’s a drill at the school in which an instructor fires the ball to first as a runner races down the base path. Every armchair ump in America considers this play routine, and it often is. But in this drill the instructor times his throw to make the play tighter than white on rice.
Watching, I get a quarter of the calls wrong. Three instructors, professional umps, are monitoring the drill, and every time someone makes a mistake all three give the correct signal simultaneously and casually.
“You don’t get to be a professional umpire unless you have good judgment,” says Harry Wendelstedt, who owns the school with his son Hunter and was a National League ump for 33 years before retiring in 1999. “And you don’t get to be a major league umpire unless you have exceptional judgment. By the time you get to the major leagues”—typically after seven to 12 years in the minors—“you’ve got the consistency, because you’ve seen thousands and thousands of pitches and plays.”
The mental and physical rigors of the first two weeks have sent a dozen students scuttling for home and confounded the remaining 140. “I’ve been around baseball all my life,” says Brian Coble, 22, whose father, Drew, is an American League ump, “and the most difficult thing about this school is realizing how little you really know about baseball.”
The students range in age from 18 to the late 40s, but most are in their 20s. A few came with the modest aspiration of umpiring high school or college ball, but the majority are chasing a grander dream—to turn pro and move up to the Bigs.
“I wasn’t good enough to play baseball,” says Sky Borie, 20, from Chico, California, “so I came here to pursue the next best thing.”
Brian Wright, an earnest 22-year-old from Kingwood, Texas, is here for the second time. “I want it more than life itself,” he tells me. “You spend three hours a day on a ball field and get paid for it—it doesn’t get much better than that. And I see the way people here look at these professional umpires; I’d like people to look at me like that some day.”
THE WENDELSTEDTS' school has trained more major league umps than any other program. In March it will send this year’s best 25 students to an evaluation camp run by professional baseball. An equal number will come from the other certified school, the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. About 40 will be offered jobs, most in the lowest rung of the minors, the Rookie Leagues.
Few will reach the majors, and those who do will pay a lot of dues in the minors first. Big league umps fly first class, work in four-man crews, and make between $86,000 and $260,000 a year, plus bonuses. Umps in Rookie and Single-A ball, on the other hand, work their tails off in two-man crews, taking the plate every other night. They endure more grief than major league umps because they make more mistakes, and because younger players tend to have shorter tempers. After a game they drive to the next town, which might be 10 hours away, where they share a cheap hotel room. They make about $2,000 a month. During the off-season they work as substitute teachers or waiters or high school sports officials.
If they show that they can control the game, control themselves, and never misconstrue the rules, they may move up a level every two or three years. By the time they reach Triple-A, where the salary ranges from $2,500 to $3,400 a month, they may have been kicking around the minors for six years and still be years away from the Big Show. As more than one of the school’s instructors told me, “You gotta love the game.”
THE SCHOOL'S morning classroom session features blackboard instruction on some thorny issue and a test on the rules. The rulebook is baseball’s equivalent of, combined, the Talmud, the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, and the Code of Federal Regulations. It contains hundreds of Byzantine clauses and sub-clauses in fastidious prose. Every finicky rule can be traced to some conniving player or unforeseen incident that once threw a game into chaos. Chaos is an umpire’s mortal enemy, and the rulebook is his sword and shield against it. Charlie Reliford, the school’s energetic chief instructor and an 18-year veteran in the National League, provides scholarly interpretations of the text.
After the morning skull session, students report to the diamonds. During the first two weeks of the five-week course they undergo intense field instruction about fundamentals such as positioning, signal mechanics, timing (“Pause, read, react”), and voice control (“Louder! You gotta sell it!”). In the afternoon they play “control games,” in which instructors concoct complicated situations that the students must recognize and unravel. From the third week on, the students get tested in live action, umpiring high school and college games—the only games on earth where the loudest cheers are for the umpires (by their classmates).
One morning I join a drill focused on balks and obstruction. The rulebook devotes more than three pages to balks, a tribute to the ingenuity of pitchers who constantly invent devious new ways to gain an unfair edge on batters and runners. For instance, if a pitcher doesn’t come to a complete stop during his windup before throwing to the plate, that’s a balk. But if he stops twice, that’s also a balk. If he stops with the ball over his head, balk. And once he comes to a full stop, if he so much as flexes a knee, dips a shoulder, or twitches anything at all, it’s a balk. These are just a few possibilities an ump must watch for.
“At the same time,” says Andy Roberts, a Single-A umpire who’s tutoring me, “you have to be thinking about potential pick-off plays, potential obstruction, a potential ball out-of-play on an overthrow, a potential hit, and a potential steal.” I won’t go into the labyrinth of sub-clauses lurking beneath those seemingly simple words “obstruction,” “out-of-play,” and “overthrow.”
When it’s my turn as field umpire, with runners on first and second, my mind is clanging with possibilities. The pitcher (actually a Double-A ump named Steve Cox) goes into his windup. Behind me Roberts whispers, “There’s the balk! Call it!”
So I do, loudly, though I have no idea why. But I do know what comes next: I raise my arms, yell “Time,” then point forcefully at each runner in turn and shout, with a tremendous authority I do not feel, “You! Third base! You! Second base!” It turns out that Cox snuck his foot off the rubber during his windup. I’m glad the plate ump missed it too.
“You have to be a good field umpire,” says Larry Vanover, a National League ump, “but behind the plate is where you make your money, because you control the game from there. If you can’t do that, you’ll never move up.” In umpiring, Vanover adds, “Everything is geared to knowing what you see.”
When it’s my turn behind the plate in the batting cage, Danny Cricks, a Double-A ump in the Southern League, shows me the checklist he uses to evaluate students: Stance, Timing, Tunnel Vision, Blinking, Flinching, Mechanics, Voice, and Judgment.
I proceed to violate nearly all of them. My initial stance, cowering behind the catcher, cuts off my view of the outside corner. Cricks moves me into the exposed slot between the batter and catcher and asks how it feels. “Like I’m going to take one right in the face,” I say, which no doubt would lead to poor marks under Blinking and Flinching. Steve Cox works on his anti-flinch/anti-blink by lying in his hotel room with his mask on, throwing a ball up, and letting it land on his face.
I take my stance in the slot. The pitching machine flings one at 75 miles per hour, pokey for professionals but plenty zippy for an amateur wearing bifocals. “Ball low!” I yell. Mistake, says Cricks—don’t explain or describe your call unless you like arguments. As the next pitch hits the catcher’s glove I instantaneously shout, “Ball,” but realize a split-second later that it was right down the pipe. “Think first,” says Cricks, “then call it.”
I make other mistakes, too, like dipping my head to follow a low pitch. “If you don’t keep your head steady,” warns Cricks, “it can make you miss the knee pitch and call it low. Follow the ball into the glove with your eyes.” I slowly improve, and am relieved that in the cage I don’t have to worry about details like runners, balks, checked swings, foul tips, shouting managers, and crowd noise.
Cricks and Vanover are kind enough to say that I did well, which I modestly accept because it’s no use arguing with an umpire. After seeing how complicated the job is, I’ve vowed never to boo an ump again. At least not until some presbyopic lunkhead miscalls a play for the Yankees against the Red Sox.
©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.