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The calling

Would-be umpires, they study the rules and nuances. They suffer fiery tempers and stinging catcalls. All for the love of baseball.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published February 15, 2004

photo
[Times photos: Fraser Hale]
In the batting cage, instructor Rusty Barrett, left, checks the student umpire’s stance during a drill at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. Travis Cochran of Kansas City, Kan., is the catcher while Jim Coon of Vail, Colo., practices calling balls and strikes.

photo

KISSIMMEE - It's late in the game on a drizzly February afternoon at the Houston Astros' spring training complex. As usual, everyone is all over the umps.

"Do they have a designated umpire?" yells a bench coach. "If so, bring him in, will you?"

"C'mon, make the call! Bear down! You're better than that," another coach shouts at the man behind the plate.

The umpires ignore the sniper fire. But just then, manager Scott Higgins leaps from his bench and charges toward base umpire Phil Mulroe.

Higgins, doing a mean impression of Devil Rays skipper Lou Piniella, seems livid that the young ump has invoked the infield fly rule on a popup that drops in shallow leftfield, costing him a key out.

"NO WAY!!!" bellows the 6-5, 240-pound Higgins, virtually foaming at the mouth as he leans into the ump's face. "SOMEBODY HAS TO SEE THAT! IT WAS ON THE OUTFIELD GRASS! WHOSE DECISION IS IT?"

Mulroe, lean and shorter by a half-foot, stands his ground and calmly reaffirms his call. "WELL, IT'S WRONG!" roars Higgins.

Now the batter is baiting home-plate umpire Mike Patterson. "Hey change it. You know that he missed the call," hitter Darren Hyman says.

Back near second base, the tirade continues. Mulroe calmly walks away; a half-crazed Higgins pursues, then abruptly wheels toward his dugout - but not before muttering a personalized term of nonendearment.

It could have been any golden oldie expletive from a list that umpires refer to as the Magic Words, all of which trigger the same instant outcome.

"YOU'RE DONE!" yells Mulroe, thrusting his hand into the air with a flourish.

"Oh, that's great, just outstanding," Higgins grouses, storming off the field.

"Are you happy now?" Hyman taunts home-plate ump Patterson. "You should have changed it. Get the call right. It's what they teach you in umpire school."

In fact, that is precisely where we are today.

* * *

Sandwiched between the bustle of U.S. 192 and cow country, four manicured baseball fields showcase a most unusual sight: people running around everywhere in blue caps, blue polo shirts and gray slacks, with frequent shouts of "Heezout!" mingling with seabird squawks in the cool Kissimmee air.

In the shadow of Disney World, it's just another day at Umpire World.

The proper name is the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. The roles of managers, coaches and players are all played by pro umpires, who take over the Astros' training facility at the Osceola County Stadium and Sports Complex.

Each winter, they put about 150 aspiring umps through a grueling five-week program under the scrutiny of Evans, a retired 28-year American League umpire known for his cool manner with such legendary hothead managers as Billy Martin, Earl Weaver and Dick Williams.

Talk about an intense reality show. Evans' school is one of only two routes to an umpiring assignment in the minors and majors. And each year, the hopefuls - mostly male, ranging from 18 to 64 - come from all over the United States and as far as Japan, Korea, Canada, France and Australia.

About half simply want to hone their skills for amateur umpiring jobs; the rest are hoping for jobs in the pros. Like Mulroe, a 20-year-old girls softball umpire from Portage, Ind. He won't forget his infield fly experience with Higgins. Mulroe learned afterward that his call was incorrect. Reason: The shortstop did not use "ordinary effort" to catch the ball before it fell to the grass.

"Believe me, it's not a lot of fun having Scott Higgins, all 6-foot-5 of him, in your face," he says. "But I thought I'd made the right call."

To make the trip, many candidates have saved up their cash, received gift money from family or are sponsored by a sports association. Aside from travel costs, they pay $2,495 for tuition and a shared room and $300 more for their blue-and-gray duds, accessories, books, manuals and meals.

They bunk at a Quality Inn, train for eight hours at the complex, study videos of their performances at night with instructors, then start over at 8 a.m.

"Most of them have never been in the situations we throw at them," Evans says. "So I try to train them so thoroughly that nothing will ever surprise them."

Such as Higgins, suddenly charging the field again. A new round of chaos is about to erupt.

* * *

On the mound, pitcher Chris Hubler - actually a Triple A umpire - appears to have concealed a small object in his hand, perhaps a tiny file to doctor the ball illegally.

Plate umpire Stewart Kohler, a leather salesman from Los Angeles, demands to see what Hubler is holding. Hubler refuses and backs away as Kohler tries to grab his hand.

"DON'T GRAB ME! I'M NOT ALLOWED TO TOUCH YOU!" shouts Hubler.

"HE'S TRYING TO STRIP-SEARCH MY PITCHER!," yells Higgins, racing to the mound.

In the commotion, Kohler, still trying to reach for Hubler's hand, accidentally bumps into Higgins, and the manager falls on his back in a heap. The contact appeared to be barely a brush, but Higgins is writhing and moaning, "My neck! My neck!"

The theatrics would be humorous, except the instructors aren't smiling, and Kohler realizes that the situation has spun out of control.

"Get the trainer out here," calls out Evans, in the role of coach, jogging to the mound.

"He pushed me, he pushed me," Higgins yells.

Trainer Ria Cortesia, actually a Double A umpire in the Southern League, huddles over Higgins and shouts: "Call the ambulance!"

By now, pitcher Hubler has managed to ditch the file in the grass, but Kohler sees it. "YOU'RE DONE!" he shouts at Hubler.

Kohler has warned Evans to back off, but when he doesn't the ump ejects him, too.

"Man, I've heard of aggressive umpires, but that's ridiculous!" Hubler says, stomping off the field.

End of exercise.

Back behind the fence, Evans offers his assessment. "The umpire kept pursuing the pitcher - you don't do that," he says. "You ask them to empty their pockets. But you don't start digging in their pockets and this or that. He thought he was being aggressive, but that's not the way to handle it."

The proper protocol: If the pitcher refuses to cooperate, summon the manager to get the pitcher to cooperate. If he doesn't, then you toss him.

Soon after, umpire-in-training Kohler gets a one-on-one evaluation of his inning of work from Rusty Barrett, a Rookie League umpire.

"Even though it was role-playing, it felt real," says Kohler, 37, who is not angling for a pro job. "I was caught up in it, trying to figure out what to do. I did what I thought I was supposed to do, but now I know what I should've done. I did hold my ground, though. If you don't do that, you're finished as an umpire."

* * *

D.J. Reyburn, a Class AA umpire, watches the students closely from an evaluation table on the third-base line.

"I think fans assume we just pop up out of a hole in the ground when it's time for a game, and then go back into the hole when the game's over," says Reyburn, 27, of Dewitt, Mich. "Most people have no clue about what we do or the training that's needed."

Like all 25 assistants on Evans' staff, Reyburn is a graduate of the academy. Higgins is the senior alumnus, missing the cut in 1991 and then passing with honors in 1992. He's been an umpire at every level, including the majors, and always has come back to lend a hand as an instructor.

"Hey, I've been on the receiving end of angry managers enough to know how to dish it out to these guys," says the 34-year-old Oregon native.

So has the man standing nearby, Evans, regarded as one of the AL's top umpires from the 1970s to the 1990s. The native Texan made it to the majors at 23 - one of only two umpires to do so that young. He worked the plate for Nolan Ryan's first career no-hitter a year later in 1973 and never looked back. He served as a crew chief from 1981 to 1999 and as president of the Major League Umpires Association from 1984 to '85 and 1988 to '89.

Ten of Evans' graduates - out of more than a thousand since he started teaching - have landed their dream job in the major leagues. That's 10 of just 66 full-time big-league umpires, who earn between $100,000 and $300,000 a year. The reality is that most won't make it to the majors or the minors, where there are only 230 openings.

They work in two-man teams and must spend a minimum of one year in every level of the minors before they get a shot at the bigs. Along the way, they labor in small-town obscurity, endure endless abuse from crusty old managers who know every trick in the book, and earn monthly salaries that progress from $1,800 to $2,000 in Rookie ball to $2,500 to $3,400 in Triple A.

Evans says he has lost count of the graduates placed in the minors since his academy opened in 1990, though his Web site (www.umpireacademy.com) states that 29 graduates from the Class of 2000 received pro contracts.

The only other program that leads umpires to the minors and majors is Harry Wendelstedt's School for Umpires in Ormond Beach, run since 1977 by the retired National League umpire. The goal is to become one of the top 25 graduates at each school. "It's like winning the NFC or AFC championship, but you still have to win the Super Bowl," says Reyburn.

This Super Bowl is an expense-paid trip to the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp.'s 10-day evaluation in March. The 50 candidates compete for whatever minor league vacancies might exist, usually 25 to 30 per year.

At Evans' school, students focus on lectures, written tests and field drills for the first three weeks. In the final two weeks, the staff engages in confrontational role-playing to zero in on the top prospects.

"WHY AM I DONE?! THAT'S B.S. AND YOU KNOW IT!" Chris Hubler, now a batter, screams at Doug Levy, 23, who has ejected him for arguing a call. Levy, a journalism and finance major from Syracuse University, saved money for three years to attend ump school: "My parents weren't too thrilled - $120,000 for a college education and you're going to umpire school? But they saw how determined I was and they've come around."

Why would anyone crave such a job?

"You may not be in the limelight, but you're still an essential part of the game," Levy says. "For me, it's knowing you'll never really be perfect, but you're still always trying to be one step better.

"Plus, you're outside in the sun, not in some office. And if you can make it to the majors, it's a whole different life."

* * *

The morning lecture is on base-running rules.

Evans stands by a big white erasable board mapping out different rules scenarios. Each has its own nuances, and the umpires filling a large conference room hang on every word and scribble copious notes.

"Any questions about two runners on the same base?" asks Evans, author of three books on baseball rules. "Nooo!" booms the class.

"Can you have two runners on the same base?"

Yes, they reply. "Correct," Evans answers. "Theoretically, you can have two runners on the same base. If the defensive team doesn't recognize it and do something about it, there's nothing illegal so long as the lead runner isn't passed by the following runner."

Evans asks if there's a penalty for throwing equipment. The class isn't fooled. "There is no penalty for throwing equipment," he confirms. "The penalty is for touching the ball with thrown equipment. You can throw your equipment all day long."

The students come from all over the map. Chuck Miller, 28, is a carpenter from Mount Laurel, N.J., who umpires youth baseball. Masaki Nonaka, 29, is a semi-pro umpire in Japan who supplements his income as a bartender. He attended Evans' camp in 1997, but spoke no English. Now he speaks well and hopes to make the final cut.

He sits at a table with Takeshi Hirabayashi, 37, who works for a Tokyo sports agent firm and has attended Evans' school three times. He passed with honors nine years ago and was assigned to the minors in Arizona. He got married in Japan and quit, but now wants to make a comeback.

Then there's Charlie Campbell, 38, an American Legion umpire from Walpole, Mass. He lost his job in November as an investment broker, and when he mentioned umpire school his wife said, "Go for it."

Money was tight with the couple raising two young daughters, Emma, 6, and Mary, 5. So as a gift, his mother paid his way. "This is my one shot," Campbell says three weeks into school.

By the final week, things were getting rough. He had missed Mary's fifth birthday, and talking to her on the phone made him feel sad. Then there was school.

"I had a really terrible day, and umpiring is one thing in my life I'm really confident in," Campbell says. "But I thought, "I can't do this at all. What am I here for?' The next day I came in and had a great game. That's how it is with umping. You have to rebound. It's not even day to day; it's play to play. If you're kicking yourself over a play, you're going to screw up the next one, too."

Still, Campbell seemed resigned to not making it. He could tell that other umpires were getting more scrutiny from the staff. One was Travis Hatch, 23, an umpire and information tech from Perth, Australia. Last year, his way was paid by the Australian Baseball Federation.

Hatch graduated with honors and became the first Australian to make it to the pro umpire group's evaluation phase. He finished 40th - and 38 got jobs. Now he's back to try again, this time spending his own money, about $8,000 including travel costs. "I came so close last time, I had to come back and try again," says Hatch, joined this year by fellow Australian Jon Byrne, 20.

Hartmut Lau is a different story. At 58, he's well past the age of shooting for a pro job. He's simply trying to refine his skills for umping youth ball. Lau was an Army officer in Vietnam with the 59th Cavalry tank division who later became an interpreter for the United Nations.

"I never understood how much craft and skill is involved in this until I got here," says the Washington, D.C., resident. "I know about training, and this training is like the military. And it requires an unbelievable amount of concentration, which I can compare to when I was in the booth, doing simultaneous interpretation for (former) Secretary of Defense William Cohen and the German minister of defense."

Then there's Susan Reed, 20, of Eldon, Mo. In August, the college softball player was in a near-fatal car wreck. Reed was told she could no longer play ball, but she had umpired Little League and loved it. So after hearing of Evans' school, she used her insurance settlement money to attend and has kept up with the rigorous pace.

"I'm just glad to be here," she says. "I want to be as good an umpire as I can possibly be."

* * *

On the final day of ump school, the students gather on the field for a last round of drills.

The night before, Evans, chief assistant and longtime umpire evaluator Dick "Sarge" Nelson, and the staff had decided which umps will proceed and which will go home.

It's a sunny, breezy morning. Evans runs some unofficial time trials - making students run from first base to rightfield to make an out call, then sprint to home plate to make a call.

Next, first-base umps don a blindfold and make calls based on when they hear the runner's foot hit the base and the sound of the ball hitting the fielder's glove.

Soon they gather in the outfield for one last daily ritual: the concentration drill. They line up in rows as if for mass jumping jacks.

Instead, an instructor calls out, "On the rubber . . . set . . . call it!" The umpires crouch, and then the thunderous sound of about 150 voices shouting, "STRIKE ONE!" fills the air. Each umpire motions the call, then repeats it all through three strikes, then four balls. Next, they race forward and to the sides like a precision military unit, stopping only to shout in unison, "HEEZOUT!"

When the drills are over, the students crowd together and Evans climbs a tall ladder with a camera. On the count of three, they toss their umpire hats high in the air for a class photo. None of them knows yet who made the cut.

By the next morning, many will leave heartbroken; 25 will celebrate.

* * *

The individual conferences took place early Sunday morning, one week ago. Among those moving up: Australians Travis Hatch and Jon Byrne; Doug Levy, whose parents initially weren't thrilled about his career choice; Masaki Nonaka and Takeshi Hirabayashi of Japan - and, yes, Phil Mulroe, who had endured that furious protest over his infield fly call.

And Charlie Campbell, the former investment broker? "I made some fantastic friends, and learned a lot, about umpiring and myself," he says. "I have to start back now looking for a job. But I'm always going to be an umpire."

-Dave Scheiber can be reached at 727 893-8541 or scheiber@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 11:18:39]


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