Some may think that umpiring in the minors is easier than in the major leagues. Others feel it is more difficult. While there is no instant replay, nor umpire review, there are fewer umpires to judge plays at the minor-league level.
Jeff Gorman and Chris Graham are a two-man team who umpire the California League of Class A-Advanced teams, which includes the Visalia Rawhide. One of them is behind the plate, while the other has to cover the entire field. They are employed by Minor League Baseball Umpire Development, which provides their schedule that takes them up and down the state.
Gorman, a bay-area native, got the umpiring bug from his father who umpired Little League. Gorman played Little League and umpired his first game alongside his dad at 13 years of age.
It was while he was attending college and umpiring Little League and college games, he realized, “I really had a passion for umpiring,” he said.
He earned his degree and then applied, was accepted and attended one of the only two umpiring schools in the US, the Wendlestedt Umpire School located in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Graham, a native of Toronto, Canada, followed a similar path.
He too learned about baseball from his father. Graham played baseball in Canada as much as he could, but realized, in part because of the shorter playing season there, he just was not going to make it into professional ball. Graham became a police officer, but continued to long for the game and decided to apply to the same umpire school.
Both graduated from the school, although at different times. The umpire school is only held once a year and is an intense five-week, six-day-a-week course, they said.
“It’s tough because you have to lose bad habits,” Graham said.
The “bad habits” Graham referred to are habits each of them learned while umpiring Little League and other games prior to attending professional school.
Acceptance into the two umpiring schools is quite limited and upon graduation each school selects 20-25 students to move on to the evaluating course. All of this takes place before spring training for the ball players starts. The number of umpires hired depends upon the number of vacancies, Gorman said. Some may make it into the minor leagues, others may get hired to independent leagues.
Gorman and Graham each were selected into professional minor league ball, and just like the ball players, they aspire to umpire in playoffs and championship series, and to make it into the major leagues.
“Umpires have to progress through every level,” Gorman said. “You can’t skip any level.”
While a good player may advance from A level to AAA and on to the majors fairly quickly, a good umpire must take each and every step.
“It’s a longer road for umpires,” Graham said. “And there has to be a certain amount of luck and timing.”
The “luck and timing” come in as to when and who may opt out or retire, or may be injured.
Injuries are a definite concern, as with players. Umpires are on their feet during the entire game.
Concussions are the biggest concern, said Graham.
And, umpires are watched and graded all through their way to the majors. They are judged on attitude, judgement and accuracy, mobility and knowledge.
On their way up, they learn about pressure.
Gorman said he feels there is more pressure in the majors because of all the cameras and instant replays. But that doesn’t mean the players are always accepting of an umpire’s call.
“There’s always going to be close calls and someone’s not going to be happy,” he said. “It’s not personal, it’s just part of the game.”
And the next game, “it’s always a new day,” he said.
But trying to be perfect in his calls is one of the most difficult parts of the job for him, Gorman said. You have to be able to accept that you might have made a mistake, go on and perform at your best.
“It’s a bad feeling when you miss a call,” he said. “Every umpire, that I know, wants to make the right call all of the time.”
And that is just not possible.
For Graham, the most difficult part of his job is being away from home and family. But it is worth it, he said. Umpiring only lasts the length of the season, so professional umpires return home during the off-season and find other employment to supplement their income.
The profession of umpiring is, “to protect the integrity of the game,” Graham said, who simply loves the game of baseball, he added.
“Any umpire will tell you they umpire because they love the game,” he said.
These two umpires spend their time around games doing “healthy things,” such as working out at local gyms and sometimes taking in a round of golf. And while they always represent the game and their profession, their actual workday starts about 1 ½ hours prior to game time, when they arrive at the stadium. They get their uniforms and gear ready, and prepare 6-8 dozen baseballs for the game by muddying them. All professional balls, from the minors to the majors, are rubbed with professional Baseball Rubbing Mud, which allows pitchers a firmer grip and better control.
Then, like players, umpires will stretch out and warm up prior to the game.
The umpires are generally through for the day at the conclusion of the game, unless they have to file an incident report due to grievances, or a player/coach being thrown from the game. They have a rental car throughout the season, and drive to and from each of their designated game locations. The same umpire team will umpire throughout the length of a particular game-play pairing of generally three games. They trade position from behind the plate to outfield for each game.
As the levels increase, so do the number of umpires in a game. In AA ball, there are three umpires for each game.
“Every day we learn, and if we’re not learning every day, there’s no point in being involved in it,” Graham said.
“You have to be in in the moment to do the job well,” Gorman added. “You never know what is going to happen – you have to be focused and on.”