Making The Right Call

Umpiring clinic shows versatility of new facility

CARY, N.C.--When Triple-A International League umpire Damien Beal worked the plate the night of June 16 at the Indianapolis-Durham game, he was not only calling balls and strikes but also showing off his best stuff for Cris Jones.

Jones is an umpire supervisor for Major League Baseball and responsible for evaluating Triple-A umpires and building a pool of those qualified for a callup to the majors. Beal has his dream, and Jones will help decide if he is ready for the spotlight.

But during the day before the game, Beal and Jones wore the same uniform, as both served on the faculty of an MLB Umpire Camps clinic in North Carolina, helping nearly 100 campers seeking to hone their skills.

The clinic was one of the first of its kind operated by MLB—a single-day event and free of charge to any umpire from any level. It was also the first event at the USA Baseball's new national training center in Cary.

Umpiring education is one example of the types of non-game activities expected to be held at the new complex. Training seminars for groundskeepers, scorekeepers and coaches will be added to the schedule, in keeping with the mission as a teaching facility.

"As the governing body for amateur baseball, we have a responsibility not only to athletes but also to our people off the field," said David Perkins, director of marketing and licensing for USA Baseball. "We are dedicated to promoting the game of baseball, so we see this as a teaching hub."

The umpiring clinic was also a chance for the USA Baseball staff to test the complex before the official opening and Tournament of Stars, Perkins said. Four groups of participants rotated to four different 70-minute sessions: classroom in the bleachers, base work, plate work and two-man crew fundamentals.

"This facility is so conducive to this event because of the four fields operating at once," said Cathy Davis, umpiring administration specialist for MLB and in attendance to help build the network of umpires.

Jeff Norris of Durham, N.C, who has officiated high school and American Legion games for four years, came to the clinic "to work on the fine points" of his umpiring. He said he had called a game every day in the week before, and he would like to rise to the college ranks—if his wife would agree to the travel.

"We are happy to be here to help (each student) become part of a profession or a vocation or a hobby—whatever it means for each of them," said Dick Runchey, chairman of the American Baseball Umpires Association and the director of umpires for international baseball, which includes selecting the men in blue for USA Baseball games. "I call it the greatest fraternity in the world.

"We give them a lot of information in a day, but if they can take one thing back with them to use during the season, we've done our job here."

Learning From Experience

One day offers an introduction, a chance to whet the appetite or maybe more importantly, to meet some of the most experienced umpires in the game. Rich Garcia, a 25-year major league ump and an umpire supervisor since 2002, brought name recognition. He was the most senior of a large group of experienced instructors at the Cary clinic. By many counts, the faculty on hand totaled around 300 years of umpiring.

"We think it's the most diverse staff—probably a record for North Carolina," said Rich Rieker, an MLB umpire supervisor after a nine-year big league career and the person charged with operating the non-profit MLB Umpire Camps, new in 2006. (The next camp will be in Long Beach in November.)

Field drills were run to demonstrate the home-plate umpire's job in covering first when a ball is hit to right field. Another had the campers pivoting between second base and the mound to focus on first with a runner leading off, a common move in the two-man system.

"You can't assume you're going to have a pickoff and you can't assume you're going to have a steal," Garcia bellowed. "That's why you have to be ready for either."

Presentations ranged from staying in shape through the rigors of a long schedule to practical tax advice specifically for umpires. No matter the topic, the instructors treated the students as if each had the passion to follow the dream all the way to the top. They repeatedly emphasized the integrity essential to the job.

"They are instilling in the amateurs the way of life of the big league umpire," said Brandon Holland of Johnston County, N.C.

"It doesn't matter if they are little league or major league—all umpires love the game," Davis said.

Dreaming Of The Majors

Just as each player's goal is to rise through the minor leagues and earn an opportunity at the big league level, the same is true for umpires. The Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. tells minor league umpires to expect at least seven years in the bushes before they get consideration for the majors, but with so few available positions in the majors it may take much longer.

The path for a professional umpire starts with one of the two training academies in Florida. Each is independently operated by a former major league umpire—Jim Evans and Harry Wendelstedt—but each has a curriculum approved by PBUC. The training runs for five weeks every January and February.

PBUC selects the top graduates to participate in an evaluation course, after which the students are ranked and recommendations are made to minor league presidents. Just like players, most start at either the Rookie or short-season level, and salaries start at $1,800 a month and range as high as $3,400 at Triple-A. Umps also receive promotion premiums when advancing to Double-A and Triple-A. Those working in full-season leagues are provided medical, dental and life insurance.

While progressing through Double-A, an umpire is monitored by PBUC. Rules tests are given in the winter, and each ump gets two written evaluations during the season. The juiciest assignment is the Futures Game, for which four Double-A umpires are selected. It gives them exposure to a four-man crew for the first time.

"We see it as a real springboard for them," Davis said.

Once an umpire reaches Triple-A, that's when Jones, Garcia and the MLB supervisors begin to take notice. The best are selected for the Arizona Fall League and then invited to call big league spring training games. This puts an umpire in line for the last step—an assignment to be called up on a part-time basis.

"It gets really exciting at the Triple-A level," Jones said. "They are on the cusp. They can smell it. They work with guys who are going up and down. They are almost there, but they have to clear a big hurdle. Those positions at the big league level are rare and those guys love their jobs."

Just 70 umpires hold full-time major league posts. Jones, the Triple-A coordinator, spells out how the odds favor a player over an umpire when comparing the journey to the top level.

"It's a tougher road," he said. "A player can get released but still have 29 other clubs. We only have one club. Unfortunately if they don't make it with this club, their professional dreams are over and they'll probably pursue a more amateur level of umpiring."

Beal, 34, with 12 years of professional experience—from the Gulf Coast League through the Midwest, Florida State, Carolina and Southern leagues and now the IL—was invited to work spring training in 2007. "The goal is, of course, to get the contract."