Umps follow same road as players

'Prospects' toil anonymously hoping to make 'The Show'

An umpire gets instructions during a yearly evaluation. (Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation)

By Benjamin Hill / | May 14, 2010 6:00 AM

There are 30 Major League organizations, and yet Minor League Baseball is comprised of prospects from 31.

The 31st organization is one that operates in nearly complete anonymity: the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation. This is fitting, comprised as it is of individuals whose primary baseball goal is to never draw attention to themselves. Nonetheless, the men in blue aspire to the Major Leagues with the same intensity and focus exhibited by the players. It is the PBUC's job to get them there.

The PBUC is easy to overlook, but its mission is nonetheless important. The organization describes itself as being "responsible for the training, evaluation and recommendation for promotion, retention or release of all umpires in the Minor League Baseball system throughout the United States and Canada."

In other words: For aspiring arbiters, the road to the Major Leagues is paved, maintained and regulated by the PBUC. The organization is headed by executive director Justin Klemm, whose nine-year career as a professional umpire culminated in part-time work within the Major Leagues. Now, much of his work involves helping others achieve similar, if not greater, success.

"One thing people don't necessarily realize is that umpires are on a development track that is very similar to the players," said Klemm. "They're almost the same age as the players, working their way through the system, and they're there for the opportunity. No one wants to be a Minor League umpire for the rest of their life."

The road to the Major Leagues is long, and equipped with none of the short cuts that may be available to top-ranked prospects, such as skipping entire classifications of play en route to "The Show". The first step is to attend one of two accredited umpiring schools, both of which are run by former Major League arbiters: the Wendelstedt Umpire School and the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring.

The top 25 percent of each school's graduating class, totaling approximately 50 students, is referred to the PBUC. These top performers then participate in the PBUC's intense 12-day evaluation course, which takes place each March. Those who display the most potential during this stage are then chosen to fill Minor League job openings, which average about 35 each season. Of these approximately 35 hardy souls, one or two will be skilled -- and lucky -- enough to one day snag a full-time Major League position.

"So much is contingent upon openings at the Major League level, and there are so many steps to go through in order to get yourself in that position," said Klemm. "Even once you're in Triple-A, there are additional processes: the Arizona Fall League, Major League Spring Training and Major League fill-in work. There are just 68 full-time Major League umpires. So while the numbers are much smaller [than players], the reward is the same."

In one sense, Minor League umpires are very much alone as they begin their professional odysseys. While players can find comfort in team camaraderie, rookie umpires work in two-man crews while attempting to maintain order in what can be a hostile atmosphere.

But PBUC staff members are putting an increasing emphasis on the evaluation process, making efforts to regularly stay in contact with umpires throughout the season. Minor League Baseball executive vice president and COO Tim Purpura has helped to spearhead this effort, drawing on his experience as general manager of the Houston Astros.

"Being very familiar with the player development model, [Purpura] wanted to apply that model to umpires," said Klemm. "He's been the driving force behind PBUC enhancing its evaluation methods."

The PBUC's six evaluators -- all of whom have extensive professional umpiring experience -- travel the country throughout the season. Their duties include providing feedback and support to Minor League Baseball's 220 umpires, as well as answering rules questions and responding to ejection reports.

Based largely on these first-hand observations, umpires receive both mid- and end-of-season rankings that show where they stand in relation to the number of umpires currently working at that level of the Minors. The rankings are divided into four categories (each with its own set of subcategories): working home plate, working the bases, consistency of attitude and handling of non-routine situations.

"Once you get up to Double and Triple-A baseball, there's usually a very small talent difference among the umpires," observed Klemm. "So the little things begin to matter more and more, whether it's someone's hustle or attitude or appearance. For example, a guy may be excellent when it comes to balls and strikes, but he may be lacking somewhat in physical conditioning. And that may put him a small step behind his peers."

Despite this hyper-competitive culture, Klemm maintains that umpires shouldn't be concerned with the performance of their colleagues.

"It's an interesting dynamic," he said. "On the surface it may appear that you're competing against the guy you're working with, but in reality everyone is simply competing against themselves."

A young prospect

Gabriel Morales worked as an amateur umpire for eight years before finally taking the plunge and enrolling in Jim Evans' umpiring school.

"I started out at the youth level and eventually progressed to doing high school games," said Morales, now in his second season as a professional. "Along the way I met a few umpires who had worked in the Minor Leagues, and they would tell me I had a legitimate shot of making it, at least to the Minors.

"The more I thought about it, the more I thought 'Now's my chance,'" he continued. "I had graduated college and wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I didn't have a wife or kids or any financial responsibilities that would prevent me from pursuing this."

After successfully navigating through the intimidating 1-2 punch of umpire school and the PBUC evaluation course, Morales was placed in the Rookie-level Arizona League. After six weeks working the backfields of sprawling Spring Training complexes, he received a callup to the far more boisterous atmosphere of the Class A Advanced New York-Penn League.

"There was a considerable difference between the two," said Morales. "In Arizona it seemed to be understood that we were all starting out, the umpires and players, and that winning didn't matter as much as development.

"The last game I worked in Arizona, there were maybe a dozen people there," he added. "But my first game in the New York-Penn League was a weekday morning in Staten Island, with about 6,000 people and lots of kids on field trips. The difference really hit me in the first inning, after I called a strike and there was a lot of applause. The applause wasn't for me, of course, but the thought was 'This is what baseball is supposed to be like.'"

2010 marks Morales' first full-season campaign, which he is spending in the Class A South Atlantic League.

"It's been interesting to see how seriously the coaches take the game here," said Morales. "When you're an amateur, you're doing it in your spare time, and it's a way to give back to the community. But here you're dealing with coaches who have given their lives to baseball. They don't care if [umpires] show up on time, hustle and know the rules. They see that every night. They're operating on a high level and expect everyone around them to do the same. The seriousness with which they approach the game can really increase the intensity of the arguments."

And the stress of dealing with apoplectic coaches is only exacerbated when PBUC evaluators are in the stands, observing the umpires' every move.

"Earlier this season we received a heads-up from the crew that had worked the day before, to be on guard because an evaluator was in the stands. Not that you'd do anything different, just to be aware," said Morales. "And sure enough, in the first inning I had to make a tough call on a batted ball, fair or foul. The manager immediately came out to argue, and knowing there was an evaluator in the stands watching all of this added to the stress. But you can't think about it, because the game moves fast. You just put it out of your mind and keep on going.

"But the feedback we receive is very helpful," he added. "I've had a couple of ejections this year, and after each one I got a call from a PBUC evaluator. We go over the scenario, and I'll get feedback and advice on how to handle the situation in the future. So, in a sense, they're always out there looking out for us."

An umpires' schedule naturally includes a lot of down time, providing an opportunity for plenty of reflection.

"My [umpiring] partner and I are always talking to one another, running plays in our head after games," said Morales. "One thing specifically that I'm working on is my demeanor, which can appear lax at times. I can't necessarily change my personality, but I can change the way I stand between pitches and between innings, or where I keep my hands and arms during an argument. I want to project more confidence and assertiveness, to combat any perception that I'm too laid-back."

Morales will have plenty of time to work on such matters, aware that he's still in the beginning stages of what he hopes will be a very long professional journey.

"I can't even imagine working at Triple-A right now, that's the furthest thing from my mind," he said. "I've started at the bottom rung, but if I keep working hard, keep my nose down, and do what I'm told, then I'll be rewarded."

Here Morales pauses, aware that his profession is one in which nothing can be taken for granted.


On the cusp

Cory Blaser is an umpire who Morales would do well to emulate, a nine-year veteran currently serving as a Triple-A crew chief. One glance at Blaser's resume immediately signifies just how much of this country his job has allowed him to see, as the veteran ump has worked in the Arizona, Northwest, Midwest, Carolina and Eastern Leagues en route to his current Pacific Coast League position.

Blaser has also enjoyed memorable stints in the high-intensity Venezuelan Winter League, prospect-laden Arizona Fall League and Major League Spring Training. But the undisputed highlight of his career thus far occurred this season, when he was called upon to work a Major League doubleheader in his hometown of Denver, Colo. This was a watershed moment and treated as such. A large contingent of friends and family traveled to Coors Field for the occasion, briefly subverting the oft-repeated observation that "no one comes to a game to see the umpire."

"I went to umpiring school just after I had turned 20, and I had always thought to myself that if I could just work one game in the big leagues then it will all have been worth it," said Blaser, whose father worked as a high school umpire for 20 years. "It's something I will cherish forever, but at the same time it makes me even hungrier. To start filling in on a regular basis is my next goal. It's what I've been training for my whole career."

Despite reaching the pinnacle, Blaser stresses that umpiring is a profession in which there will always be much to learn.

"You start out in the lower levels within a two-man system; there's a lot of ground to cover and you're always working to get into the best position you can," he said. "Then another challenge comes in Double-A, learning the three-man system. The supervisors were always great at giving us tips on how to cheat to different spots based on how a play is developing. The next stepping stone is the four-man system. You'd think it would be easier, but there are just so many different angles and ways to get into position. That's something I'm still learning. Every day I'll run plays through my head, thinking 'Well, maybe if I had taken another half a step back I would have seen it better.' ... In a lot of ways baseball is repetitive, but it's also a crazy game in that you're continually dealing with situations you've never seen before."

For umpires at Blaser's level, landing a spot in the Arizona Fall League can be greatly beneficial. The AFL is known as a developmental hub for baseball's top prospects, but the umpires assigned to work in the circuit are equally well-regarded.

"I've learned so much working in the Arizona Fall League over the past two years," said Blaser. "For six weeks, you're getting seen every day by a Major League Baseball umpire supervisor. ... Guys who have worked in the World Series are evaluating and instructing you every single day. I've been able to take away an incredible amount of knowledge from the experience."

And while there will always be three outs in an inning and usually nine innings in a game, umpires must remain aware of the technological and philosophical shifts that occur as baseball evolves and adapts in the 21st century.

"Crew consultation is being stressed more than ever now in Major League Baseball, especially because now there are so many cameras at the stadiums. It's about getting the call right, not about pride," said Blaser. "PBUC has done a great job in making sure that everything that happens in the Major Leagues filters down to us, so that we can adapt. We all need to be on the same page, because the Major Leagues is where we're all trying to go."

Nothing is guaranteed

Of course, most Minor League umpires won't make it to that Major League pinnacle.

"I've known guys who suffered concussions and were unable to work and others who ended up with a serious girlfriend," said Morales. "Because of that, living six months on the road didn't appeal to them anymore. We're all looking to make it, but at the same time, you never know what could happen."

Klemm, meanwhile, is faced with the unenviable task of releasing approximately 15 to 20 underperforming umpires after each season.

"It's the worst day of the year, having to notify guys of their release," he said. "But if there is a positive, it's that we all honestly know what it feels like. It's part of the business."

Klemm notes that, perhaps not surprisingly, many former umpires go on to careers within law enforcement.

"There are many parallels between the two jobs," he said. "Both require quiet, strong leadership and the ability to handle criticism and pressure situations."

But before trading in one blue uniform for another, all a Minor League umpire can do is work hard while never taking anything for granted.

"You just take things day by day and never look too far down the schedule," said Blaser. "For those three hours each day, I'm going to bust my butt. I just want to be able to look in the mirror and say I gave it all I had."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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