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Trail blazer Židek laying down the law

Czech-born umpire aims to be first from nation to reach Majors
February 21, 2020

Zdeněk Židek -- that's Zee Zdenek on box scores -- knows the letter of the law in the courtroom. And also on the baseball field. Although becoming an umpire may not seem like the wildest possible dream for an American kid, it's certainly a reach when you grow up in

Zdeněk Židek -- that's Zee Zdenek on box scores -- knows the letter of the law in the courtroom. And also on the baseball field.

Although becoming an umpire may not seem like the wildest possible dream for an American kid, it's certainly a reach when you grow up in the Czech Republic. In Židek's native Pilsen, there were no baseball fields, no hardball games to call.

"There was only softball," he said. "So I started with that and then I got into umpiring, and I went all the way to the top. I went to the world championship, and then one day … well, I wanted to make a living out of umpiring. So I just Googled 'how to become a Major League umpire,' and it popped up to go to this one school and try this way. So I transferred into baseball and did what the website said, and here I am."

And where is that? Židek is preparing for his first full season umpiring in the Minors, seemingly slated to open 2020 in the Class A Midwest League. After graduating from the Minor League Baseball Umpire Training Academy, he began his march to The Show with an assignment to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last year and made his Class A Short Season Northwest League debut on Aug. 21.

"I was doing something right," he admitted.

It may seem the Major Leagues are still a long way off, but remember Židek's career path started with an obsession back in Central Europe. While studying law, eventually becoming a criminal defense attorney in his home country, Židek couldn't stop his mind from wandering thousands of miles away toward umpiring in the United States. He did what just about any 21st century person nursing a passion from afar would do; he compulsively watched YouTube videos.

It was "The Third Team," an MLB Network documentary, that forced him to face his dream head on.
"The first impulse that I got, the first kick in my back portion, there was this series just looking into the journey to the World Series of the 2014 umpiring crew," Židek said. "It's basically an hour documentary about getting the call to working the World Series. It's about Jeff Nelson, Hunter Wendelstedt, Jeff Kellogg and the rest of the crew."

Židek watched and rewatched the documentary, eventually writing subtitles in Czech.

"I did grow up playing fast-pitch softball, because here on the old continent that's the way to do [it], especially in the Czech Republic we have a strong fast-pitch community," Židek said. "So, yes, I did grow up playing, but then when I got into umpiring I started sucking, sucking at playing, and all of a sudden, I am a better umpire than I'm a player. And I wasn't a good umpire at that.

"So [the documentary] made me actually realize that this is the thing that I want to do, and I said, 'Well, I'm going to finish school first and then I'll go for it.'"

Go for it he did, and his friends and family were all behind him -- even if they didn't exactly understand the game of baseball.

Zdeněk Židek (right) came a long way to reach the Northwest League. Jared Ravich/MiLB.com

"My family, I'm forcing it onto them, so they have to understand now," Židek said with a laugh. "When I think that [my wife Andrea] starts to understand, she asks me a question like, 'What are the stones for?' meaning the bases on the ground. She's working on it.

"All of my friends that know me know that I'm crazy with my determination. My family is super-supportive. They knew I was kind of struggling with my work. ... I always wanted to be at the fields, even when I was sitting at my regular job. I always thought about umpiring, so they're all like, 'You should pursue this course, because that's your dream.'"

The dream doesn't always happen overnight, of course. Some of Židek's accented calls during umpiring school were met with expressions of bewilderment.

"I was kind of ... not laughed at, but everybody looked at me in a strange way and [thought], 'What is he doing here?" he said. "But everyone was accepting. Yes. So that was not the worst part. The worst part for me, the biggest challenge was after the first year."

After that, as Židek explains, "The doors were slammed into my face, because I had zero experience."

He had only umpired fast-pitch softball, and even though that experience included the World Baseball Softball Confederation's 2015 Junior Women's Softball World Championship, it didn't count for much in baseball. But he wasn't going to let his dream die before it even got off the ground.

"I was told, basically, 'Get more experience,' and there was nowhere to get the experience because [in the Czech Republic] it's very limited on the weekends and all that," Židek said. "So I desperately tried to get an engagement into the United States, whether it was for college leagues or whatever. ... I remember emailing, like, 15 different people and out of those 15 only three or four actually replied that, you know, of course, [they] were unable to provide me with anything because I don't have a U.S. passport."

Another obstacle, but it wouldn't stop the man with the self-described "deranged mind" -- an attribute he considers an asset to the job. The man who grew up not with favorite baseball players, but favorite umpires.

"That was my team," he said. "I never rooted for anybody. I do like Teddy Barrett because he's sort of my mentor, and I do like Jeff Nelson. They're just great personalities.

"It's hard to pick one [favorite], because they are at the top of their profession, so I kind of look up to all of them."

And although Židek was eager to escape his work as a lawyer and join those umpires, his background has helped him be better on the field.

"The legal profession teaches you the way to express yourself in a concise way, and that helps you tremendously," he said. "And, yeah, in court or ... dealing with your clients, it's managing situations, managing diversity. So that helps a lot."

Židek, already the first Czech umpire in Minor League Baseball history, is working on getting his name into the Major Leagues record books. When pressed for a call in his native language, he unleashed, "Vnitřní chycený." That's how one would convey "infield fly" in Czech. For professional purposes, of course, Židek intends to stick to English.

What brought him from the softball pitches of Europe to the ballparks of the Minors, though, can't be found in any phrase book. What brought him this far was passion.

That's understood in every language.

Brian Stultz is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @brianjstultz.