When Minor League Baseball started this season, they didn't have their regular umpires. The minor league umpires union was on strike. And the minor league teams used replacement umpires.
First game I went to, I thought one of the umpires looked familiar. Turns out I knew the guy. And he agreed to talk with me about it. After everything was done.
Well, everything's done. And he and I met for lunch one day...
How did you develop a love of baseball?
I lived in the country as a kid. And I would get baseball cards for the Braves and whoever they were playing. I learned the players ... and learned the teams.
How'd you get involved in umpiring?
In high school, I was called on to umpire for little league. Since I was 15, I've umpired every season.
In 1996, I started umpiring high school games. I was assigned to Columbus, Show, Hardaway ... all the big games. I worked the primo games since '99 ... and built up a good reputation for being a good umpire.
How about the jump from high school to pro ball?
When the strike happened, every minor league team was responsible for getting their own umpires. The GMs for each team was tasked with getting the best umpires in the area.
They called the secretaries of the umpire associations to get the best.
There were 3 from Columbus, 3 from Phenix City. Some of the college umpires didn't let their umpires fill in. We lost one guy because of that.
What was it like when you found out you'd be calling pro baseball games?
When the opportunity came, I got the call, and I thought it was my brother playing a joke on me.
Did you enjoy it?
If it wasn't for raising a family and all the commitments, it'd be a dream job.
After going to all the Catfish games, I've been thrilled to get the chance to umpire pro ball. Even though it's minor league ...
What about playing ball? Did you ever do that?
I had the speed of greg luzinski and the power of vince coleman. (laughs)
My brother got 2 rings in college. He had the better career ... but I got the first crack into pro baseball ... by umpiring.
It reassured me that if i had the chance to go to umpire school, I could have done it.
When you got the first call, were you already aware of the strike, or the possiblity?
Not at all, the call as a complete shock.
How did the players on the team, not just the Catfish, but their opponents, act towards you? Did you feel they thought any less of you since you weren't one of the "regular" umpires?
To be honest, I don't think so. We were very well received by the players.
While they're disappointed from time to time with the calls, they're concentrating on doing their job.
In my opinion, the umpiring that was going on, particular in Class-A baseball, where the incoming umpires are 19-20 years old, they were replaced by more experienced umpires, though not experienced at those levels.
The major differences in what I had umpired before are the speed of the game. At Class-A, they have major league tools. Like a ball hit to a shortstop, they can get to the ball where in high school they can't.
The velocity of the pitches coming in ... There's a definite adjustment of tightening the strike zone.
I'm sure the quality varied from city to city ... but if this was a Triple-A city, I could have done a Triple-A game.
What was the most difficulty you had with any team, manager, or player?
I've only thrown out three people in a baseball game in all these years. It's got to be bad for me to throw someone out. But one Catfish player went berserk on a called strike 3, and i had to throw him out.
As an umpire, if you screw up a call, you know it.
I understand those guys are playing on a lot of pressure, playing on a high level, competing against great players. Every at bat means something.
I was behind the plate on the home opener, 2800 people there. I was nervous. But after about 2 innings, I settled down and it was okay.
I was confident I could do the job that needed to be done. It's a personal challenge. as an umpire, you're competing. You compete against a standard to umpire a perfect game.
How many calls do you think you blew?
Really, I never harp on it. You make the call, you react. There may have been a couple that maybe you second-guess yourself for a split second... You put it out of your mind. You have to keep the same temperament whether it's the 7th game of World Series or 1st game of spring training.
If you think about a call you might have missed, you set yourself up to miss the next.
Out of 15 ballgames, I'm sure there were one or two I missed somewhere along the way.
The South Atlantic League uses a 2-umpire setup. Which position is harder: plate or field?
Normally, the bases are harder. But they play such good defense on that level (Class-A), it makes it easier. Here, being on the plate, you have to really be on your toes. Pitches are in the 90s, and you have to be right about the strike zone.
We were evaluated by a professional organization that supplies minor league umpires. He spent a week in Columbus, he evaluated me on the bases that night. Gave me some pointers, but said I reacted very well as the play developed. He said my partner behind the plate did very well, too.
What about Delmon Young? You heard about that. Was the 50-game suspension appropriate?
I think it was about right. The key thing there is if it ever happens again, it needs to be something severe. Ban, one- or two-year suspension. What he did ... it's totally uncalled for. Part of being a good athlete is being able to stay in control.
Did you ever think about something like that happening to you?
We were fortunate we never had any situation where teams started throwing at each other.
The GM of catfish emphasized he wanted us to take charge if a situation might get out of control.
What other differences did you run into umpiring at the pro level instead of high school?
This is the first time I ever umpired with wood bats. It was the final piece of the picture of being in pro baseball ... great players, wood bats, and hecklers.
What about hecklers?
It was funny as long as they weren't heckling me. Sometimes I got a laugh out of it.
But me personally, I don't like to see a minor league player heckled. They're young, away from home, and if they're hitting .200 or less, it's got to hurt.
When they're real, real young minor leaguers, it's got to be rough.
One catcher from the Sand Gnats, they got on real bad. But, fans pay their money, they can heckle who they want.
In a pro game, an umpire can't say anything. The primary concern is to the other paying customers, not to the players.
You have to stay balanced.
I tell you this. all the replacement umpires got a letter from president of minor league baseball. For us to step in and let baseball continue, they appreciate it.
Have you received any thing from the union umpires? I mean any ill feeling towards you?
We didn't get any of that in Columbus, but it happened in other cities.
They didn't put umpires names in box scores, we weren't introduced. They did what we could to keep our names out of the public at the start of the season.
I think the situation taught the minor league umps they're not in a position to strike.
Are you aware of the reasons for the dispute?
From what I understand, it was overall pay, health insurance, per diem meal money. What they got out of it, about a $100/month increase & 3/day meal money.
They are paid low. They get about $10-grand a season. 15 for Double-A or Triple-A.
Are the union umpires underpaid?
Here's my take: it would be nice if they could make more money. But the pay is dictated by the economics of minor league baseball. I don't know where you could put a dollar amount of what's a fair pay for the job.
Even the minor league players themselves don't make much. The high draft choices get a signing bonus, but they all get the same low salary.
A career as a minor league umpire isn't the goal -- It's to make the majors.
A couple told me "you look like a major league umpire" ...
How much difference is there in the play at the different levels?
One night, Greenville had a left-hander pitcher ... had a brief stint in majors in 2004. That pitcher was polished, the control he had was unbelievable.
Back to pay. You say minor league umpires don't get much pay. How about replacement umpires?
We got $90/game pay. And we got paid after every game
What one thing will you take with you, will you remember from this?
The Biggest thing is ... a lot of people in highly visible roles are just ordinary people. Even though I didn't go higher than Single-A, if you change the circumstances, you never know what you could have done.
You can do a lot of thing you might not consider until the opportunity comes.
Thanks for taking the time to agree to this. And thanks for making baseball happen.