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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009

Umpire

Sports in Real Life

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I’ve spent the last few days in Daytona Beach, Florida. Yes, the weather has been great. Seventy degrees and sunny, but technically, I was working.

During the past few weeks I’ve been working with umpires. Major League Baseball type umpires. First, an article with umpire legend and Milwaukee native, Bruce Froemming. This week, I’ve been at the HarryWendelstedtUmpireSchool in Ormond Beach, Florida.

Like you, I didn’t know this place existed, but I had to check it out for a couple of projects that I am currently working on. I checked into your typical Florida hotel, smelling vaguely of Raid or some other roach killer. This is one of those places you’d have considered stylish when Miami Vice was in the top-ten television shows. These days, it houses the umpire students and a few blue-haired old ladies and wrinkled husbands. The hotel is a little spooky. I actually wedged a chair under the handle of the door to my room, like I’d seen in so many movies, hoping to deter a would-be murderer or burglar.

The classroom for the umpires is on the mezzanine level of the hotel. The grand ballroom (not so grand anymore) serves as the meeting place for 110-students and about a dozen instructors and current MLB umpires. Eight-foot tables covered with a hideous green table napkin doubling as a table cloth serve as desks. I thought I was in for a real Barton Fink experience. After classroom instruction, lectures and tests, it’s off to the parks, located about ten miles from the hotel. Just go past the seven dozen cheap tee-shirt shops, empty hotels, boarded up rentals, dive bars and take a left.

Training facilities for the school are in direct contrast to the humble, slightly moldy hotel. The fields are large and plentiful (green and well kept) and there are cages where umpires go through their paces. These students spend their days calling balls and strikes, running a game, taking gaff from instructors. They spend a lot of time explaining and defending their calls to the MLB umpires who serve as instructors and guides.

On the three full diamonds, there are simulated games in progress. When they’re not running games, they’re meeting in the middle of the diamond for mini-lectures. Today’s topic was my favorite. The students learned how to chase, run, and eject a player or manager. There was enough salty language going on to make a longshoreman blush.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived, which would make sense as I’d never been to an umpire camp. I never even made it to a summer camp as a kid. There are 120 students ranging in age from 18-60, most wearing their full umpire gear throughout the day; gray slacks, black patent leather shoes, body armor, thick shirts, face masks and shin guards. All of this class and field work takes place just a few miles from where others sit on the beach in their thongs and bikinis.

These folks are dedicated - classroom by nine, followed by working on the field non-stop until 5:30. Then they head back to the roach motel, grab some food in the lobby restaurant, head upstairs to shower and study for the next day’s exams. This goes on for five glorious weeks (excluding Sundays).

Of the 120 candidates, (enrollment often exceeds 150) 20 might get an assignment in the Midwest League, the Pacific Coast league, where they will toil for less than 20-grand a year running from small town to the next berg.

I spent just a few days with these men, and a solitary female. I arrived in the fourth week of their training, and they were still full of vim and vigor. All of these students are in possession of positive attitudes and I didn’t hear them complain, ever. The ace-kicker—they pay a lot of dough to do this

They sweat, run, get nailed by line drives and foul balls and pay their tuition and board. They’re tougher than most big-leaguers I know.

The next time I hear a major league ballplayer complaining about their salary (Ben Sheets), I swear to God, I’m going to kick him right in his pellet protector.