Editor's note: Isabelle Minasian is a lifelong Mariner fan, and her Senior Thesis was on Roberto Clemente, which qualified her for scholorship to attend the upcoming SABR Convention in Miami. We are thrilled to have her. Welcome, Isabelle.
Every year it seems like the quality of umpiring in the MLB gets worse; there are more questionable calls, and accounts like Mariners Strike Zone work overtime tracking missed calls, both inside and outside of the strike zone. Whether it is true that umpiring has worsened, or simply that we are increasingly exposed to technology that make their flaws more apparent, the fact remains that, until robot umps rule the world, baseball games are often in the hands of flawed mortals like ourselves. What is it that differentiates these men from everyone else? How is it that these men are chosen to carry the responsibility of the game in their hands? And yes, it would be good to mention that we are talking exclusively about men because, at this point, no woman has ever officiated a regular-season MLB game. If you would like to feel worse about that fact, check out this article Anyway, let’s take a look at how these men on the field, who hold such power over the game and, subsequently, the emotions of thousands, get their start.
For the purposes of this article let us imagine a man named George. George is a 24 year-old baseball enthusiast with a slightly misguided sense of justice, unshakable self-assurance, and elaborate hand gestures. He was a Little League ump in high school and has recently decided to take the plunge and quit his job as a FedEx deliveryman to pursue a career as a Major League umpire. The MLB page breaks the process down into five, easy sounding steps.
1. Enroll in school
2. Get noticed
3. Finish at top of class
4. Begin assignment in lower league
5. Wait for ‘The Call’
It sounds a bit like becoming a professional baseball player, without the athletic talent (although a small box in the corner does suggest that "some athletic ability" is required. George runs occasionally and, up until last Friday, lifted heavy boxes for a living- this is not a concern for him). The only step that worries George is number 5, wherein he must wait an ambiguous amount of time to be called up to officiate an MLB game. He’s startled to find that the competition appears fierce, given that there are only 68 umpires in the big leagues but 225 more in the minor leagues waiting to take their spots. He wonders whether umpiring is actually a cutthroat field. Have there been cases of umpire sabotage, or even umpire murder, to progress up the ladder? It should be noted that George has been known to spend weekends binging Law and Order.
However, once he has enrolled in Umpire School, George will no longer have time to marathon crime shows because he will be immersed in five weeks of intensive umpire training. There are two umpire schools, the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School and the Minor League Baseball Umpire Training Academy . Of the two, the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School is the oldest and also recognized as the most attended professional umpire school in the world as per its website, so it is there that George sends his $150 registration fee. He will have to pay the remaining $2,300 by the start of the program, in addition to the cost of a flight from his hometown in Gary, Indiana to Ormond Beach, Florida. Fortunately a "Full Pro Style Umpire Uniform", including the ideal-for-Florida poly-wool pants, is included with the cost of the course.
During the five weeks of early January until mid February George will share a room with another aspiring umpire at the Daytona Beach LaPlaya Inn and Suites as he undergoes 240 hours of instruction, including officiating high school and college games. Of the ten courses he will take, George is most looking forward to "Handling Situations (Field Work)", wherein he can apply what he learned from the Rules of Professional Baseball in a real game setting. "Professional Ethics and Protocol" also sounds intriguing, although it requires by far the fewest clock hours. He will be graded on the expected plate and base fundamentals, but also on his hustle, coordination and appearance. Perhaps now is a good time to shave his goatee; Grandma Alice will be so pleased.
If all goes well, and George finishes the course within the top 15 percent of his class, he would hopefully be selected to attend the Minor League Baseball Advanced Course. From there he would be recommended to Rookie and Class-A leagues, and thus begin his umpiring career. Years later, once he has reached Triple-A (and potentially offed a few competitors along the way), there may be a quiet Sunday afternoon when his phone rings while he is en route to In N’ Out. It will be an unfamiliar New York number and his hands will shake as he answers; it’s The Call. He’ll race home, animal style fries long forgotten, to pack and organize for the flight, and soon he will find himself on an umpire’s biggest stage, preparing to officiate a game of major league baseball.