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Kaplon making calls in Hollywood

Former Minor League umpire applies his trade in movies, television
January 11, 2008
It's amazing what 20 years can do for a person's perspective. When Al Kaplon was released by the Pacific Coast League, it marked the end of decade-long career as a Minor League umpire -- a career the California native most certainly would've said was far too short when it abruptly came to a halt in 1986.

There was bitterness and resentment, natural feelings for someone who had just lost the job he loved and had trained for all his life. Yet when you talk to Kaplon today, there are only trace hints of these sentiments, and even those little snippets seem more like a reflexive response than his true feelings.

Kaplon, 50, still dons the mask every now and then, playing the role of umpire perfectly. But when he puts on the mask and steps behind the plate these days, he's simply acting, having parlayed his career as an umpire into playing one in TV shows and commercials as well as the movies. He's currently starring as the referee in the NBC show "American Gladiators."

"I found that all the training I had in baseball was what I came with after I was released," Kaplon said. "I'd been doing it for 15 years. That's what I loved and what I was trained for. I had to figure out a way to turn that into making a living.

"It's not like a player moving from team to team. If you're released as an umpire, it's like [former umpire] Ron Luciano used to say, 'Umpiring is like being a king, but it prepares you for nothing.' You can't get a job, though you have 15 years of experience, so you have to create your own."

And that's what Kaplon did, relying on a grand work ethic and some hustle to become one of the more familiar faces -- whether you realize it or not -- on the little and big screens. In addition to "American Gladiators," Kaplon has appeared on "The X-Files," "Inside Schwartz" and "Leaving L.A."

His other credits include playing a referee in spots for Southwest Airlines and Cannon as well as being an umpire in commercials for Toyota, Nike and Viagra. He's done nearly 75 commercials in his post-umpiring career, most of which revolve around him being an official. The role for which he is probably best known, though, was as the referee in the cult classic "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story."

"That was my favorite part," he said. "What an experience."

An experience indeed, though one not even he envisioned when he set out on his career path at the age of 13. Kaplon admits he wasn't the greatest ballplayer as a youngster and knew eventually, in that regard, the game would pass him by. So one afternoon while he was preparing to watch the back end of a local Pony League doubleheader -- his team had played in the first game -- he was asked to serve as a base umpire.

"I went out there and the first play was a grounder to short," he recalled. "The guy was out by two steps, but I was anxious and anticipating everything and I called him safe. I have the whole dugout yelling at me but I'm thinking, 'What if he tries to steal? I guess I have to move to the infield.'

"I started thinking that there are certain places an umpire has to be, where he has to move to. It really spurred an interest."

So much so that Kaplon saw umpiring as a way of making money after school, on weekends and over the summer. While his friends were busy flipping burgers and working in grocery stores, he umpired games for the local umpiring association. The group ran clinics and if you brought friends, you saved money on the entrance fee. Kaplon corralled so many friends that he was able to attend the clinics for free.

He eventually got his driver's license and started traveling to umpire games. And when he turned 18, his local association awarded him with a scholarship to the Bill Kinnamon Umpire School.

"Right around that time, I met [Major League umpire] John McSherry," Kaplon said. "That was the biggest life-changing event I had. He became a mentor and a best friend. I instructed with him, taught at his school, even lived at his place in New York when I was there. He was a major motivating factor for me.

"I can't talk about anything I've done without mentioning John. He was one of the finest human beings I ever met. He was wonderful and quick-witted, everything but slim. And it was a devastating blow to me when he died [on the field in Cincinnati in 1996]."

Armed with McSherry's encouragement and a love of his profession, Kaplon embarked on a career that began in the independent Lone Star League in 1977. He moved to the Northwest League in 1978 and then the California League in 1979 before spending a season and a half in the Texas League. He reached the Pacific Coast League in 1981 and spent the next five seasons there before he was released following the 1986 season.

"Major League Baseball was expecting to beef up its staff because they knew expansion was coming and that they would need umpires when Florida and Colorado came in," Kaplon said. "It [expansion] just didn't happen during my era. They saw that staffs were getting backed up, and there were guys who have 25 years now in the Major Leagues who were on the verge then.

"For guys like me, it was going to be another 10 years. So it just wasn't in the stars and I see that now. Looking at it now, I never could have seen myself umpiring at 50-55 with all the traveling and battling the elements and everything you have to do to be a Major League umpire."

It was after his exit from the PCL that Kaplon earned his first spot in a movie, "Talent for the Game." He had a friend in the Dodgers organization who told him that the folks making the film at Dodger Stadium needed someone to play a second base umpire. He got the part and the rest has played itself out on screens large and small for nearly 20 years.

Kaplon eventually signed with Robby Robinson, a former player turned agent whom he knew from his days in the Lone Star and Pacific Coast Leagues. Ironically, Robinson's father, Hank Robinson, had made more appearances as an umpire on television than any other actor. That fact made Kaplon a bit hesitant.

"He was the guy that got every commercial and I told Robbie I didn't want to be his dad's competition," Kaplon said. "But he explained to me that it wasn't me against his dad. It was the camera and the ad people who pick you. After a couple of years with another agent, I decided to go with Robbie and his dad and we've been together 15 years."

He never got baseball completely out of his system, though. In 1989 he started his own production company, Official Communications, making instructional videos on how to become a better umpire, a business he's still involved in. Kaplon, who never found time for marriage with all his ventures, also went to work for Major League Baseball International in 1991, visiting countries around the globe. He was even afforded the opportunity of umpiring a few American League games in 1995 following the players' strike.

But acting was in Kaplon's blood and he was making a good living at it. He no longer needed to be behind the plate, having discovered life in front of the camera.

"My main motivation was to qualify for health insurance because my company didn't have any health insurance," Kaplon said. "[The Screen Actors Guild] has some of the best health benefits in America. And if you made $20,000 a year, you got full benefits, so my goal was to get major medical coverage and do as many commercials as possible. The more lines they would throw at me, though, the more jobs I would get."

Kaplon is hoping NBC will pick up "American Gladiators" for a full season. He gets to officiate and act, all in prime time. It's amazing what can happen in 20 years.

"I've had an interesting life, there's no doubt about that," he said.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for