There’s been a lot of talk lately about using instant reply in MLB. I could argue all afternoon about why I don’t like it, but that’s a post for another day. My main pet peeve, however, is when writers mention umpires only in a negative light like they are flawed creatures. People rarely talk about the thousands of calls umpires get “correct” a night, choosing instead to focus on the one “wrong” call they might have made. But I’ll stop there and continue that rant at another time. Today, though, I thought would be a good time to re-post an article published in the Hamilton Pulse this past summer. Hopefully it’ll give you insight into a different group of people who may be living a similar lifestyle to your own.
Thunder Manager Tony Franklin doesn’t agree with a call made by 1st base umpire Brian De Brauwere. Photo by Mike Dill/HamiltonPulse.com.
• Wednesday, September 12, 2012
If the road to the majors for a baseball player seems challenging, in some ways the journey for an umpire can be even more daunting.
To even be considered for a position as an umpire in affiliated professional baseball, one must first go to a professional umpire training school. There are currently two such schools that have ties with Minor League Baseball. Both are located in Florida and run from the beginning of January through the beginning of February. The Umpire School’s professional training program is approximately four weeks long while the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires’ program is approximately five weeks long.
No prior experience is necessary to attend the schools as the students are taught everything they need to know about umpiring. The instructors go over rules every day and tests are administered regularly. Generally mornings consist of class work and afternoon work is done on the field. The lessons start out basic with the two-man system and get progressively more advanced. The top graduates are invited to attend the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp (PBUC)’s annual evaluation course to see if they are ready for a job in professional baseball.
Once a student is recommended for a job, he begins his professional umpiring career at the bottom of baseball’s hierarchy in either rookie or short-season Class A baseball. Most umpires spend a year in each of the lower levels and two or three years in Double-A and Triple-A. This means, on average, it takes an umpire seven to 10 years to reach Major League Baseball. By comparison, according to Baseball Prospectus, the average Major League position player spends approximately four years in the minors before reaching the big leagues (and from 2005-2009 the average age of a player making his major league debut was 24.4 years). This isn’t terribly surprising because while players can skip levels, umpires cannot.
Life in the Minors
Like the players, umpires in the minor leagues are also waiting for their call to the majors. And like a player getting his first invite to spring training, sometimes an umpire will get to experience the major league lifestyle in spring training as well. This was the case for minor league umpire Shaun Lampe who shares this experience as his favorite umpire memory. He said, “I guess my best moment was this year when I got to work my first major league spring training game. My whole family was there, my wife was there. It was very cool to walk out through the tunnel with three guys who were major league umpires. It was kind of getting a taste of what I’m working so hard for or I give up five months a year of my life for.”
Lampe, Brian De Brauwere and Roberto Ortiz, are three umpires currently working in the Double-A Eastern League. This is Lampe’s second season in the E.L. and De Brauwere and Ortiz’ first. Lampe is the crew chief. According to Lampe, the crew chief is often someone the league president trusts and is often one of the more senior umpires in the league. Said Lampe of his role as crew chief, “Basically, I’m in charge of the crew. I’m responsible for all the ejections. Anything that happens on or off the field I’m held responsible for to an extent.”
In addition to being responsible, in order to make it as a professional umpire, one must also be mature. When asked how he keeps calm when someone is in his face yelling at him, Lampe explained, “That’s kind of just experience. You start to learn for the most part it’s never personal. Everybody’s just caught up in the heat of the moment.”
De Brauwere added, “Everybody’s just kind of playing their part. So when they’re yelling at you, they’re not really yelling at you as a person, they’re yelling at your position as the umpire. They have to do what they have to do and we have to do what we have to do. And it’s silly to get excited or angry about it, you just have to do your job.”
While this may be true, De Brauwere also wishes people would remember, “We [umpires] are people too. When people are complaining about a call, they’re just complaining about the umpire, not Brian De Brauwere or Shaun Lampe or Roberto Ortiz. Sometimes people forget that we have families and we’re people.”
It is not uncommon for an umpire’s wife, girlfriend, friends or family to come out to support him, especially if he’s close to home. And, as De Brauwere explained, “They [PBUC] try to assign us based on geography. So if you are going into a league to start the season, they’ll usually assign you to whatever league is closest to your home.” However, this is not always possible. For example, De Brauwere was promoted to Double-A in the middle of the season last year, which sent him to the Texas League. Being from Hershey, PA, the Texas League was not close to his home, but he was able to request a transfer to the Eastern League this season. For other umpires, such as Ortiz who is from Puerto Rico, there isn’t such an easy fix.
The Daily Grind
Lampe expressed frustration that average fan just assumes the umpires are locals. This is understandable when you realize they spend five months of the year on the road. While many fans recognize how grueling the schedule of a minor league baseball player can be, they often overlook the fact that the umpires are in the same situation. According to Lampe, “This year from April 3rd and September 3rd we had 11 days off, two being the All-Star Break. So on average we work three to four weeks without a day off and then we’ll have one day off.”
Although players’ and umpires’ schedules are similar, there’s one key difference: umpires don’t have a home base, they are constantly on the road. And instead of having 20-odd teammates to spend the season with, they have only each other. The umpire crew stays together all season—with the exception of promotions and injuries—and they travel in a league-owned van (seven and eight hour journeys aren’t uncommon). Sometimes they stay in the same hotel as the visiting team, but often they do not. Noted Ortiz, “We are family here,” with Lampe adding, “Yeah, you’re basically a summer family.”
While they consider one another part of a “summer family,” this doesn’t stop them from missing their real families. When asked about his worst moment as an umpire De Brauwere was quick to respond, “Just any random night on the road when you wish you were home and you’re laying in a hotel.”
Lampe added, “Especially when you have something going on at home and you have no control or you can’t get there.”
Continued De Brauwere, “You miss stuff like birthdays or concerts or whatever. That stuff’s tough.” And Ortiz added that he also misses his family especially because they’re so far away and can’t easily travel to see him.
The umpire crew usually arrives to the ballpark about an hour and 15 minutes before the start of the game. This gives them time to rub the baseballs (with baseball rubbing mud), stretch, get dressed, and mentally prepare for the game. Just as a side note, the umpire crew rotates so they will each be the home plate umpire once during a three-game series.
Focus is an essential part of being a good umpire. Noted De Brauwere, “A constant game focus is something that seems easy, but a lot of people can’t really get that all of the time. But if you can keep focused and stay in the game 100% of the time, you’re going to do pretty well.”
This is sometimes easier said than done. Ortiz explained that sometimes something will happen during the day—someone called you or something happened with your family, for example—that may distract you. “You try to keep your focus but sometimes you’re still thinking about a situation like that,” he said. “It’s fighting yourself to keep focused, keep focused on the game and do your job.” Lampe added, “And the second you let your focus down, that’s when something always happens. So you always have to make sure you don’t let that happen.”
Just because an umpire has put in the time and done a great job doesn’t necessarily mean he will reach his goal of a big league gig. There are only 70 umpire positions available at the major league level. They open up on an individual basis, usually when an umpire retires. Once an umpire reaches Triple-A all he can do is continue to work hard and wait for the call to the Show.