Minor League Umps Wait Years For Their Big Call
Hope springs eternal in spring training, and it's a special moment in every player's career when he finds out he has made the big league club for the first time.
Most of these players have labored in the minor leagues for three or four seasons, and making the leap to the major leagues represents reaching the apex of their vocation.
So imagine what the call to the big leagues would feel like if you had labored in the minors for eight, 10 or even 15 years. That's precisely what happened for three umpires at the end of spring training, when they found out they had been added to the full-time major league umpiring staff.
Scott Barry, Dan Bellino and Brian Knight all got the call at the end of March, making them part of a fraternity even more exclusive than that of major league players. There are just 68 full-time major league umpires, and they're like Supreme Court justices, so a year when three spots open up is unusual. The new umpires fill the vacancies created by the retirement of Jerry Crawford, Chuck Meriwether and Mike Reilly, who had a combined 86 years of experience.
Barry, 34, started his professional umpiring career in 2000. Bellino, 32, got his start in 2003. But the perseverance of Knight, 36, jumps off the page. He has umpired professionally since 1995, getting his start in the Pioneer League.
"I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Knight said from his home in California, as he prepared to travel to Philadelphia for his first series of the season. "For 99 percent of the guys who come up through the system, it doesn't work out."
Survival Of The Fittest
The minor leagues are unforgiving for everyone, but for umpires the odds are particularly stacked. Of course, Knight wasn't thinking about the odds when he got into umpiring. A Montana native, he was just out of his freshman year of college in 1994, working as a groundskeeper for the Helena Brewers. He was a communications major, but like most people his age wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life.
Knight spent time hanging out with umpires that summer, and finally one of the umps and Knight's father talked him into giving umpire school a shot.
"It was not a hard sell," Knight said. "When you're a broke 19-year-old and somebody offers to pay for something, you take them up on it."
Umpires face a numbers game from the beginning. From Knight's class of around 30 guys in umpire school, baseball's umpire development program took 10—and then 10 more each from the two other umpire schools at the time. Of the 30 who made it that far, just four got professional jobs. Knight was one of the fortunate four, so he worked minor league spring training games and extended spring before heading to the Pioneer League to begin his professional career.
"I had just turned 20; I couldn't even go into a bar," he said. "I was umpiring my first real games ever—not just professionally, but ever. I was just trying to survive."
Like the players and the managers in the lowest levels of the game, the umpires are just learning their way as well. Knight said they would often have an ejection a night, and he recalls with a chuckle when someone from the Ogden front office tried to start a fight with him in the locker room after game because he thought Knight was squeezing their pitchers.
"It's like the wild, wild West in Rookie ball," he said. "It's a big melting pot of everyone trying to figure out what the hell's going on."
But Knight survived and advanced, moving up to the Midwest League in 1996, the Florida State League in 1997, the Southern League in 1998 and the PCL in 2000. With every step, conditions improved and Knight grew more confident in his ability.
"You have to go up the ladder before you realize you can do it physically and mentally," he said. "I tell guys in A-ball, it gets better. Trust me, it gets better every level you jump to."
Now, it's a bit misleading to make it sound as if Knight and his compatriots are going to the majors for the first time. They have worked as fill-in umps in the big leagues for several years, and in Knight's case since 2001. For the last four years he has worked more than 100 major league games a season, and he hasn't actually worked a game in the PCL since 2008. He even was behind the plate for Jon Lester's no-hitter in Fenway Park in 2008.
But becoming an official member of the major league staff represents a completely new level of job security.
"The last 10 years I woke up wondering, 'What's going to happen with my career?' I still wake up thinking that way, but now I have to tell myself I've been hired," he said. "I don't think it's going to feel any different on the field, though. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I hope the title won't change that.
"I have a morbid fear of failing on the baseball field, as I think all our guys do."
Knight can't help but think back on all the days in the minors, all the guys he worked with who didn't make it. He had his low moments, as anyone would, but when he steps onto the field as a full-fledged major league umpire he'll know it was all worthwhile.
"All I know how to do is drive a UPS truck and umpire," he said, referring to the offseason job he had during his early days. "I promised by dad I was never going to quit, no matter what. I didn't have a backup plan.
"I always was confident in my ability and had a lot of help along the way. I just wanted to stay in the mix, stay on the dance floor and not mess up."