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How To Become a Major League Baseball Umpire
Where do MLB umpires come from?
Umpires, Refs, Blue Shirts, pick a name. They’ve been called all of those and many I refuse to print here.
Ever wonder where these guys come from? We don’t know most of their names, probably for good reason. But they can change the course of a baseball game in the blink of an eye, just like they can in all other sports.
The good ones don’t get noticed because they don’t make themselves an initial part of the game. They do their jobs to the best of their ability, and most importantly, let the players play, letting the level of that play determine the outcome of the game.
But that doesn’t always happen. And even with the advent of the instant replay at the beginning of this season, there will no doubt still be much to argue about even if it's only balls and strikes.
For the unfortunate few whose names will go down in baseball history, it probably won’t be for getting a call right.
June 2, 2010: Armando Galarraga's Imperfect Game
The most famous blown call in the annals of baseball up to this point is the twenty-seventh out of Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga's “should have been perfect” game against the Cleveland Indians. Routine ground ball, throw to first that beats the runner Jason Donald by half a step, and Jim Joyce calls him safe.
As soon as he saw the replay only a few moments later, Joyce said he knew he blew the call. (Today, the replay could have been reviewed immediately and overturned. Not so in 2010.) Only Commissioner Bud Selig could right the wrong, but he decided not to. Bad calls are part of baseball. That may well be true, but that doesn’t make it any easier for players or coaches to take it gracefully. And, as a matter of fact, many don’t. From bench-clearing brawls to the coach who kicks dirt on homeplate, (or pulls second base out of the ground and flings it into center field) many are those who have expressed their unhappiness at calls made by the officials that were, how can I say this, not in line with their thinking.
A Record of a Different Kind
One such coach holds a record of his own: most ejections from the game. Bobby Cox is the recently retired manager of the Atlanta Braves after a total of 24 years during two tours with the club. He holds the all-time record for ejections in Major League Baseball with 158 (plus an additional three post-season ejections.) Now Cox wasn’t known for having a bad temper (in spite a domestic abuse violation a few years ago.) His players will tell you Cox generally only got himself thrown out to prevent them from being thrown out of the game. In the 156 games that Bobby Cox was ejected, his teams had a winning percentage of .385.
In a July 2006 game, Cox was unable to save outfielder Jeff Francoeur from getting the heave-ho. This event was unusual because Cox was usually on the field and in the umpire’s face before a player could really get himself into too much hot water. Half the time it didn’t even look like Cox was sure of the details of the disputed call. But out he would run, placing himself firmly between the ump and his player - more than ready to do whatever it took to come to his defense.
After both men found themselves on the losing side of the argument and in the locker room, Cox offered the young player a dollop of his sage wisdom.
"I’m like, ‘What do I do?’” said Francoeur. Cox told him, “Go have a couple of cold beers and get in the cold tub or something and relax. And then you’ll probably have to write a five hundred dollar check as a fine. Or you can do what I do. Write a ten thousand dollar one and tell them when it runs out, let me know."
So, where do these umpires come from, anyway?
It’s not like we watch them come up through high school and college, and by the time they make it to the majors we know their life story. Turns out, it takes between seven and ten years calling games in the minor leagues before an umpire makes it to “The Show.” Just like the ball players they have to work their way up, gaining experience and training along the long, hard road. Before they even do that they must do something even the players don’t have to do. They have to go to school, a professional umpire training school. There are three of them in the United States that are approved by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation. Director Tom Lepperd estimates it usually takes an umpire twice the amount of time it normally takes a ballplayer to make it to the Majors.
The Umpire School schedules training for four weeks during January and February of each year, a little earlier than pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. The instructors at these umpire-owned schools are all former Major and Minor League officials. Enrollment each year is about 300 candidates and most have never worked a game in their lives.
Interested? You must have a high school diploma or G.E.D., be of proportional body weight to your height, and have 20/20 corrected vision just to apply.
· Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring
· email: firstname.lastname@example.org
· Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School
·· email: email@example.com
· The Umpire School
"From rules and mechanics to signaling, to the philosophy of umpiring," Lepperd said. "Pretty much every aspect of what it takes to become a professional umpire is taught."
The first thing they look for in a candidate is confidence – a strong presence on the field emanating good judgment and integrity. "That's very, very important because we're entrusting the integrity of the game to the umpire. So we're looking for the highest quality type of individual that we can possibly recruit," Lepperd said. "The whole integrity of the game rests with the umpire out there on the field."
Only those at the top of each class are selected to move on to an evaluation course, usually twenty-five from each school, the best sixteen percent of all those who enrolled. Much like the players, the umpires show off their best “stuff” to Class-A league presidents who have openings for new hires. PBUC representatives then have the responsibility to weed out those who don’t have what it takes at every level up to Class-AAA. At that point, Major League Baseball makes the decision about who is good enough for “The Bigs.”
Few are chosen
Major League Baseball employs 68 umpires with 225 in the minors. Those 68 hold on to their jobs, so a realistic dream for most is to make it to the minor leagues where the starting salary is $1,900 a month. Top salaries in the minor leagues are around $3,500 a month. If you make it to the Majors, an umpire can make between $85,000 and $300,000 a year. No wonder there is so little turnover. Of course, compared to the players, it’s a wonder umpires aren’t more hostile.
In full-season leagues, group medical, dental, and life insurance are provided. Hotels, transportation, and uniforms are paid for by the league. To ensure some quality control, each winter an umpire must take a comprehensive rules test. No reference told what a passing grade was. That should give most fans of the sport a little chuckle. I know I can think of a call or two from last year I'd love that umpire to learn the correct answer for over the off season.
With the small number of openings and the low turnover, it's very difficult for an umpire to make it past the minor leagues. But if it is your dream to wear the blue shirt every day, with dedication, the support of your family, and a great deal of hard work, you too may one day hear those immortal words, “Throw the bum out!”