June 1993 (1) - Love Your Umpire

Jocko Conlan. Thomas Connolly. Cal Hubbard. William Klem. Not exactly household names, but they're Hall of Famers. They reached the pinnacle of their profession, and they're enshrined in Cooperstown. But they are part of a group who toil in relative anonymity. They're the other four guys on the field -- the umpires.

To be a major league ump is to belong to a group even more exclusive than the U.S. Senate. Fewer than 70 diamond cops patrol the green fields of the big leagues. To become an MLB umpire, one does not just show up at the ballpark. Just like the players, umpires must learn their craft and work their way up through the minors.

To be considered for the training program, some basic qualifications must be met, including a high school education, physical fitness, good eyesight (with or without correction), and strong interpersonal and communication skills. Recommended background includes a command of both English and Spanish, and strong business, management and social skills.

Most aspiring arbiters are male, and they get their first formal training at one of three professional umpire schools owned and operated by major league umps. Starting every year on the first Monday in January, students spend five weeks focusing on the rules of the game, positioning, making calls, and even human relations. From this crop, the best 50 or so are selected by the Major League Umpire Development Program to participate in the ten day Umpire Evaluation Course, usually conducted at Boardwalk & Baseball. After that, all prospective arbiters are ranked by the Evaluation Committee, composed of big league umps and the development staff. Only the crÂ≤me de la crÂ≤me are recommended to the rookie and Class A league presidents for any job openings.

Even with a policy of 2 years maximum at any level (except AAA) it's a long haul. If an umpire gains favor as a major league prospect, he may stay at AAA up to four years. That translates to an average of eight seasons beating the bushes. With pay starting at $1,700 per month, you really have to want to be an umpire.

In the pre-union days, umpires had a mandatory retirement age of 55. Now they can go on calling balls and strikes as long as they want, and many current umpires have over 20 years of major league service. With more umpires working longer, fewer jobs open up at the big league level. Only 1-2% of the men in blue that start in the minors ever make it to The Show. (Interestingly, that's the same percentage of players who make it.)

It's no wonder an MLB ump wants to hang around. As AL adjudicator Joe Brinkman says in The Umpire's Handbook, "The umpire has the best seat in the house, even if he has to stand." Imagine being able to watch a major league game from the infield! Starting pay in the majors is $65,000, but there are MLB umps now earning up to $200,000. Compensation also includes three 1-week vacations during the season and $195.50 per diem to cover expenses.

Fine dining and accommodations can only partially make up for a grueling lifestyle. Crews of four umpires work and travel together for the entire season, logging thousands of air miles. A crew seldom works more than one team's visit during a homestand. Moreover, umpires are always on the road. While the teams play half of their games in their own friendly confines, umpires never have that home field advantage.

So, umpires live out of their suitcases, which carry a minimum of four uniform changes. Not only are clean duds required for every game, they must be prepared for a wide variety of weather. All components of an umpire's uniform are standard issue, except gloves.

It has been said that if the umpires go unnoticed, they are doing a good job. Like the players, umpires have positions to cover and have assignments on virtually every play. Just for fun, watch the umpires move around on a fly ball to the outfield with a man on base. Most crews have an elaborate and cryptic system of hand signals that allow them to communicate as the situation on the field changes. With a runner in scoring position, watch their hand jive that lets each crew member know who's going where. Their secret code seems to work, since it's rare to see an umpire out of position.

The Major League umps are a dedicated and hard-working bunch, and they deserve every fan's respect. Let's retire "Kill the Umpire!" and replace it with "Nice call, Blue!"

©1993 - 2007 Douglas T. Dinsmoor


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