Chasing A Dream: Being an Umpire in Minor League Baseball

You wouldn’t know it from going to just one Minor League Baseball game, or even a handful of games, but there are more than just nine men on the baseball field trying to make it. Perhaps you’ve missed this pair, the two on the diamond not wearing uniforms with names on the front or the back. One is masked and the other usually has a hat slung low over his eyes and sunglasses on. While the players show up to the park around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., these two show up hours later, but are vitally important . Their focus is on one thing: the game. Their goal is to get the call right every time. They are the umpires of the Midwest League.

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I met at Parkview Field’s suite level lounge with Sam Vogt and Tim Hromada, the two 25-year-old umpires for Fort Wayne’s game against Bowling Green in the mid-afternoon, right after they’ve had their workout for the day at the Downtown branch of the Fort Wayne YMCA. Vogt, a Pittsburgh native, and Hromada, who comes from the Cleveland suburb of Parma, don’t look like umpires. But, what exactly does an umpire look like, anyway? I suppose the stereotype in my head is a plump, tobacco spittin’, older man who looks like he’s been worn out from decades around the game. Vogt and Hromada are the opposite of that. They’re in shape, energetic, young, and are dressed in black athletic shorts and black workout t-shirts.

Later that night at Parkview Field they would call a 4-0 win for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, a game that had only one error and lasted an entirely average two hours, thirty-five minutes. By most standards, that game would be unspectacular to a fan. No big plays, no highlight-reel action—just baseball. But for the two umpires, who have been driving and living together every day since the season began on April 4th, that night was just as important as any other night. There were 7,881 fans at the game, but if there was just one umpire evaluator, that’s all the motivation Vogt and Hromada would need.

“If you’re doing a 9 to 5 job, are you really focused from 9 to 5? Probably not, right?” Hromada asks. “There are times when you’ll sit down for 30 minutes and say, “I’ve got to look at this budget,” and then you take a break. For three hours, at least, you have got to be mentally focused. Literally you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The pair, which travels Midwest League cities like Davenport, Iowa, and Bowling Green, Kentucky, in a rented 2011 Ford Fusion, is well educated. Vogt holds a degree in education from Duquesne University, while Hromada has two degrees: an undergraduate one in criminal justice from Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, and a masters in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix, which he earned during his free time during the day. Neither currently has plans to pursue their collegiate field of study on a full-time basis. Once they each made a nearly $4,000 investment into their umpiring careers, they were full steam ahead.

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“I always played baseball growing up,” Hromada said. “I played in college. When I didn’t play in the summer, I just started umpiring to make a little bit of money. I started doing a little higher competition. I started to really enjoy it and a couple of the veteran umpires were like, ‘Hey, you should think about going to umpire school.’ So, I thought about it, researched it a little bit more, talked to a couple guys who have went and just decided after I graduated (college in December 2010) that I was going to do it.”

Vogt arrived at Duquesne University a football player, but got injured his sophomore year and left the team. He picked up umpiring as a part-time job making $35 a game.

“I was horrible at it,” he said. “I never really knew anything about umpiring from playing baseball. I had zero clue about what makes a good umpire, what makes a bad umpire. After little league I started to do high school legion ball and guys were telling me I’d be a good candidate for umpire school, but I had no idea what umpire school was.”

There are currently two professional umpire training schools, both of which operate out of Florida. There is the Wendelstedt Umpire School, run by Major League Umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, and the other is The Umpire School. Vogt and Hromada attended the Jim Evans Umpiring School, which is no longer affiliated with Minor League Baseball, in early 2011.

School for these two, and many other umpiring hopefuls, lasted five weeks and ran six days a week. Four hours in the classroom, an hour for lunch, and then field instruction from 1:00 until about 5:30. Completion of the curriculum does not guarantee a job, however. If Minor League Baseball is only looking for 40 umpires in the coming season, 20 from one school will make it and 20 from the other will be chosen.

“It was probably one of the hardest things mentally, more than physically, that I’ve ever done. You’re running through agility drills, you’re squatting probably 400 times throughout the day,” Hromada said.

Sam Vogt (L) and Tim Hromada (R) get ready to umpire a game at Classic Park in Eastlake, Ohio. / Photo courtesy of Tim Hromada

Sam Vogt (L) and Tim Hromada (R) get ready to umpire a game at Classic Park in Eastlake, Ohio. / Photo courtesy of Tim Hromada

“Let’s be honest, it’s not football camp,” Vogt chirps back. At this point, they’ve spent more than enough time together to complete one another’s sentences, and the playful barbs come along with that.

“Mentally it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Vogt said. “Coming into it I’d only umpired a year-and-a-half of little league, colt, PONY and amateur youth baseball. Going into it, you don’t realize how much there is to it. Confidence wise, I had no idea what I was doing. Your instructors are Triple-A, Double-A umpires or former big league umpires if you went to Wendlestedt. They’ve umpired thousands of professional games and they’re the ones you’re arguing with, playing the managers and critiquing every little step you take.”

How many times have you sat at a game, beer in hand, or on the couch, beer in hand (and several more in the fridge) and criticized an umpire for a supposedly bad call, or what you think is a bad strike zone? Try being on the other side of that equation.

“It’s not 4,000 spectators who don’t really understand the game, it’s hundreds of umpires who know every little thing. When you have 100 students that are in the same class learning the same stuff, with professional umpires watching you, it’s intimidating,” Vogt said.

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Out of umpiring school the goal is an assignment to a rookie-level league, such as the Arizona League or the Gulf Coast League, which is based in Florida. Both offer a solid training ground for new umpires, along with sweltering heat to test the newcomers.

Tim Hromada chats with Lake County Captains Manager Scooter Tucker. / Photo by Mariberth Joeright - The News Herald

Tim Hromada chats with Lake County Captains Manager Scooter Tucker. / Photo by Mariberth Joeright – The News Herald

From there, it’s a trip to one of the short-season leagues—the Northwest League or the New York-Penn League (NYPL). In 2012, both Vogt and Hromada ended up in the NYPL, which has teams spanning as far north as Burlington, Vermont, south to Aberdeen, Maryland, west to Niles, Ohio, and east to Lowell, Massachusetts.

It’s at the lower levels of baseball where players earn their stripes with stories of dilapidated hotels, long bus rides and eating Ramen noodles to get by some days. Umpires have their fair share of experiences, too. On August 16, 2012, Vogt encountered something they probably don’t teach in umpiring school: how to deal with a security guard on the field.

After Vogt had ejected Batavia Muckdogs Manager Dann Bilardello in a game against the Williamsport Crosscutters, Bilardello decided to stick around and give Vogt a piece of his mind—standard fare for a displeased manager trying to fire up his team. All of a sudden, a Williamsport security guard makes his way on to the field, trying to diffuse the situation. At that point, nobody seemed to know what to do.

Vogt still has video of the incident, which ended smoothly, on his phone. I was surprised as I watched it, seeing anyone other than a person in a baseball uniform on the field. The security guard later resigned his position.

Midwest League President George Spelius assigned Vogt and Hromada to be Crew #8 for the 2013 season. They have separate hotel rooms on the road, but other than that they do everything together.

Tim: “A usual day for us is to wake up about 8:30 or 9:00 and make sure we get breakfast at the hotel, because usually it’s free. We digest for a little bit, go back to our rooms, read the paper, make some calls or whatever we have to do. We always go to the gym at 10:45. Probably about an hour-and- a-half. We always go get lunch after the hotel. It’s either Chipotle, Subway, or sometimes we spice it up depending on where we are. Then we go back to the hotel.”

Sam: “I always go to the pool every day. I read by the pool…and get a tan.”

Tim: “We’re probably back in our rooms by 2:30-3:00 and we shower and nap, read, watch Netflix.”

Sam: “And then get a green tea and go to the ballpark. And a piece of fruit, because that’s free, too.”

It’s clear that the two get along well, which they say is vital for being an umpire in Minor League Baseball.

Tim: “You have to learn. It’s like any work environment. You may not like the person, but you have to learn how to at least work with them. It’s gonna be more difficult because especially in a long season, it’s you two.”

Sam: “It’s so much harder off the field, by far. Being away from home, being with—me and him are probably best friends. I mean, five months! We eat every meal together.”

Tim: “Which is not a bad thing…”

Sam: “We work out together. We do everything together. And it’s crazy…five months. Every single thing we’ve done together. Just think about that. In cars together for five, six hours together at a time.”

Tim: “The nice thing about a long season is that we don’t have to share a (hotel) room. The redundancy of it, it wears on you. You have to have outlets. Whatever you do. You read, you work out, you go and see different sites.”

They say they know everything about each other. “Too much,” Hromada said, jokingly. More like brothers than friends at this point in the season, with less than one month before the end of the regular season, they know how to make each other tick, too. Whoever worked the plate that night doesn’t have to drive, but the music choices can be hotly contested.

“I know his big pet peeves and sometimes if he makes me mad I’ll listen to Howard Stern. He hates Howard Stern,” Vogt said with a grin. “So if I’m driving I’ll put on Howard Stern, and I know he gets mad.”

“Sometimes I don’t have a problem. Sometimes it’s fun, but then there are some times where I just don’t care for it,” Hromada answers.

Vogt quickly yells, “He’s the king of all media!”

——————–

To be the king of all umpiring, or at least make it to the Major Leagues, plenty of patience is necessary. There are 68 umpires in Major League Baseball and 225 in Minor League Baseball, but it’s difficult to crack into the elite fraternity.

“From attending umpire school through making it to the Major Leagues, there’s very, very few umpires that actually make it to the Major Leagues. It’s a long shot,” said Mike Fitzpatrick, the former director of the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp., the body responsible for “the training, evaluation, and recommendation for promotion, retention, or release of all umpires in the Minor League Baseball system throughout the United States and Canada.”

“It varies depending on openings – but normally an umpire spends a couple of years at the short-season level, a couple of years at Class-A, a couple of years at Double-A before he makes it to Triple-A,” Fitzpatrick said on MLB.com. “Then it’s just a matter of hoping any time after that, once he gets to the Triple-A level, that he’s got a chance. But there again, it’s long odds.”

Minor league umpires at the Low-A level make anywhere between $2,000 to $2,400 per month, with pay bumps for reaching both Double-A and Triple-A.

Sam Vogt walks the beat during a 2012 New York-Penn League game. / Photo via http://www.flickr.com/photos/25387162@N03/8573164580/in/set-72157631560882266/

Sam Vogt walks the beat during a 2012 New York-Penn League game. / Photo via http://www.flickr.com/photos/25387162@N03/8573164580/in/set-72157631560882266/

The players keep going every day, playing 140 games in 152 days in the Midwest League and even more at higher levels, because the chance of riches unknown to 99.9% of the world’s population potentially await them in the form of a big contract. That payday isn’t a possibility for the umpires. So why keep going, making drives as long as 518 miles in a day, working a second job in the offseason, when the odds of becoming a U.S. Senator are higher than becoming an MLB ump?

“I’ve grown so much in the past three years. I think it’s beneficial to me. I’m growing as a person,” Vogt said. “This job’s allowed me to have so many different perspectives on things, letting me travel the country, see different places, meet different people—that’s the biggest benefit for me right now even if I don’t end up as a major league umpire. If I didn’t think that this was beneficial to me, if I didn’t think that I would be able to go sit down in a room and get interviewed for a job, whatever the job may be if it’s teaching or a job at a company managing people, anything–if I didn’t think that this job provided me with a viable experience–where I could sit down in an interview and they say “Oh, you were an umpire. How did that benefit you?” I could tell them that I’m making thousands of decisions a year, split-second decisions that have an economic impact on players, the game. Rain situations that can cost the (general manager) a game, tens of thousands of dollars.”

In fact, when the TinCaps visited the West Michigan Whitecaps on July 26 that was exactly what the pair had to do. Fort Wayne and West Michigan were playing on what’s known as “getaway day”, or the last day of a series where an overnight bus ride awaits the visiting, and sometimes depending on the schedule, the home team.

Rain settled in to Comstock Park Michigan around 6:00 p.m. and let up around 8:00 p.m., but it had soaked the field. Whitecaps Vice President Jim Jarecki walked the field with Vogt, Hromada, Head Groundskeeper Michael Huie and both managers, surveying the field. TinCaps Manager Jose Valentin argued against playing, and after a rain delay of nearly two hours, the game was called off. That was on a precious July Friday night, one of the biggest moneymakers for Minor League Baseball teams, where they can expect to draw seven or eight thousand fans in a good market and sell loads of beer, food and souvenirs.

Vogt and Hromada chat with Whitecaps VP Jim Jarecki, while the grounds crew tries to dry the field on July 26, 2013. / Photo by John Nolan

Vogt and Hromada chat with Whitecaps VP Jim Jarecki, while the grounds crew tries to dry the field on July 26, 2013. / Photo by John Nolan

“Dealing with people, dealing with managers, diffusing situations. Every night you could have an array of unexpected problems. If I told a potential employer that I had to spend six months on the road with little to no supervision from the boss, be in a different city every three days, on time, never be late for work, never miss a day, never call off. For six months straight to go out there every night and make hundreds of decisions, I feel like it’s benefiting me right now. That’s why I’m sticking with it,” Vogt said.

——————–

It has long been said “to err is human”, yet umpires never seem to be given this benefit of the doubt. The level of anger and derision targeted toward MLB umpires seems to be higher than that for officials in other sports. Deadspin ran an entire series last year giving details on every umpire, including one who’s been nicknamed “Balkin’” Bob Davidson. Below, legendary St. Louis sports columnist Bernie Miklasz writes about Davidson after a 2010 game:

“This is Davidson’s game, remember. He apparently thinks fans pay good money to watch him work.

Davidson has a history of grandstanding to draw attention to himself, whether it be his incessant balk calls, his meddling into other umpires’ calls, his rabbit ears, thin skin, and quick ejections.

Baseball players, managers and coaches have come to expect Davidson to hot-dog his way through games.”

Would we even know who Jim Joyce, the umpire who blew former Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga’s perfect game in 2010, was if not for that call? People love to hate umpires. However, after talking with Vogt and Hromada, I gained a new respect for their profession.

When I asked them what it feels like to mess up a call, they both simultaneously answered, “It’s the worst feeling in the world.”

Tim: “There’s stuff you’re not going to see. You do your best to see it, but there are some things you can’t see and sometimes it’s frustrating explaining that. You do the best you can, you get the best look you can, and you make a confident call.”

Sam: “From day one in umpire school, they tell you you’re set up for failure in two-man. It makes us better umpires because once you get to work three-man or four-man, everything is so slow and it’s so easy. Well, slower and easier.”

Both agree that the hardest call to make in a two-man crew is a fair-foul call on a ball hit down the line. The positioning has one umpire behind the plate and the other either down the first-base line, or standing between the mound and second base, depending on where baserunners are positioned.

You’re squatting,” Vogt said, “You’ve got the pitch coming in..strike? Ball? Did he swing, did he not swing? And if he swings, you’ve got a fair-foul decision. And then you’ve got to get up and get your head on the line.”

And that’s got to be done in the blink of an eye. Umpires are taught to always remove their mask with the left hand, so that a call can be assertively made with the right.

There are also the occupational hazards, like batted or thrown balls.

“Getting hit is really like getting a nice shot to the jaw that you weren’t expecting, like a blindside,” Hromada said.

While players on either side get to sit when they’re not playing the field, the umpires have to stand the entire game, which usually lasts about three hours.

Tim: “We’ve had a couple long games this year, 3 ½ hour day games. Your feet hurt. You’re more tired than sore. You just want to sit down. You don’t think it’s hard to do because you’re just standing. Even when you’re on the bases, you’re bending down and standing up. You don’t think it would bother you, but you get a little sore.”

Sam: “This year I’ve really grown to respect catchers. Catchers really have it the worst out of anyone on the field. By far, especially if you’re on a team with only two catchers and say you platoon every other night and you’re still catching bullpen sessions. Catchers have it the worst.”

——————–

Working in Minor League Baseball means a lot of people won’t understand what you do. I can explain to someone that I broadcast for the Fort Wayne TinCaps, the Low-A affiliate of the Padres, but the only word that might strike a familiar chord in that sentence is “Padres”. No, I don’t call major league games. Yes, these players are just out of high school and college. The questions and answers tend to repeat themselves after enough family parties and barbeques.

For the umpires, the story can be the same.

“Oh, man you don’t even wanna know,” Vogt says. “People have no idea of the structure of minor league baseball. There’s an (independent) ball team nearby (Pittsburgh) and they say, “Oh, you work for the Wild Things?” People are really interested. You always get questions.

It’s just the most frustrating. “So you do little league too?”’

All of this—the $4,000 education that followed a college education, the travel, the decision making,  the foul balls to the face, the uninformed questions—to chase a dream that may never come true.

“Right now, I enjoy this at my young age. I have a girlfriend and everything, but I enjoy being around baseball,” Hromada says. “Just because someone’s telling you that you can’t do something, that’s one of the hardest pills to swallow. But I still want to do it. I’ve always been that competitive person to where I’d like to at least try. It might not work out, but that’s fine.”

During the coming off-season, Hromada will work as a basketball official back in Ohio in the fall and maybe work at a gym, now that he’ll have his nights open after completing his online degree. Vogt will be a substitute teacher from September through February. His degree allows him to teach kingergarten through sixth grade, but he has a middle school math certification through ninth grade.

From when the leaves turn colors and football takes a hold of our nation’s attention span during the winter months, Vogt and Hromada will abandon the grey slacks and black shirts that defined them during the baseball season. They’ll return to a normal life—one with weekends, friends, family and strangely, the absence of one another. No one will know, unless they ask, what occupies the spring and summer for the pair. They may not fit the overweight, weathered, tobacco spittin’ stereotype, but when they take the field next spring, three seasons under their belts, they will most definitely look like umpires.

Post Script: The day I chatted with Vogt and Hromada, they found out they were being promoted to the Advanced-A California League, making a step up in their pursuit of one day reaching Major League Baseball.

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