The Life of a Major League Umpire

Since we are now well into MLB spring training, we thought we’d share an excellent article written a few years ago by Steve Gilbert at MLB.com about a typical life of an MLB umpire.  We all know it’s far from an easy gig, and can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress.  Steve’s article from a few years ago tells the story of what it’s like umping in the big show, from MLB ump Jeff Kellogg’s point of view.  We hope you enjoy the read!

PHOENIX — It’s early Friday morning and Jeff Kellogg’s day is off to a bad start.Kellogg, a veteran of more than 14 seasons as a Major League umpire, didn’t get much sleep thanks to a severe storm that knocked out the power in his Michigan home. Kellogg’s first phone call of the morning was to find out if his flight from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Minneapolis and then to Phoenix would be on time.

Not only was it not on time, it was canceled. There was a later flight through Chicago that would have gotten him to Phoenix at 6:37 p.m., but with a 6:40 game between the Cubs and D-backs to work, Kellogg had to go to Plan C: He drove two hours to Detroit to catch a flight.

While Kellogg worked to find his way to Phoenix, the rest of his crew was already there. Crew chief Mike Reilly, Eric Cooper and Andy Fletcher had worked an afternoon game in Denver the day before and hustled to the airport to catch a 5:55 p.m. flight. Had they missed that flight, they would have had to check back into their hotel and take the first flight out the next morning.

Kellogg wasn’t with them because he was with another crew, filling in for an umpire that was injured.

Reilly, Cooper and Fletcher had breakfast together at the Hyatt Regency in nearby Scottsdale, Ariz. Normally Kellogg would join them, which makes this crew different from most.

“That’s unusual,” said Reilly, a 30-year veteran. “You don’t usually find four breakfast guys on the same crew. Now Fletch every now and then is a no-show, but generally, we eat together.”

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After that, the four usually go through some form of a workout. Their dedication to doing so shows, as they are a very fit crew. On some days, it’s a matter of running, other days it’s more about weights.

Each have their own programs, but the goal is the same — to stay strong over the course of a 162-game season that is taxing physically.

“This is a real important time of year — a time when the players wear down and so do umpires,” Reilly said, “so you really have to make sure you take care of yourself right now.”

The crew, minus Kellogg and Fletcher, who has a friend in town, reconvened for a late lunch around 1:30 p.m., and afterward, they typically watch a little TV in their rooms or take a nap.

Their days are free, but you won’t find them out sightseeing. With a full night ahead of them, their focus is on getting ready for the game. Sometimes they’ll walk around a nearby mall, maybe take in a movie — nothing too strenuous.

Fletcher, the junior man on the crew with seven-plus big league seasons under his belt, is the one most likely to try and see a city’s landmark or tourist attraction if it’s convenient.

As his career goes on, it’s likely that he will do less and less.

“How many times can you see the Space Needle?” Reilly said.

Reilly used to play golf, but with the new airport security regulations put in place following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, carrying his clubs on the road is no longer practical.

Kellogg finally landed in Phoenix around 1:45 p.m. and waited for his luggage at baggage claim. Because they’re on the road for a month or more at a time, umpires can’t pack light. And with the weight restrictions, they generally each check two large bags, which means they spend a lot of time waiting, and lost luggage happens more than they care to think about.

By the time Kellogg arrived at the hotel, he had barely enough time to unpack and grab a quick nap before he had to meet the group in the lobby at 4:30 p.m. for the 30-minute ride to Chase Field.

Being punctual is not a sometimes thing for umpires, it’s a way of life. From the time they begin umpire school, being early, rather than on time, is stressed.

When they arrive at the umpires’ locker room at Chase Field, they change out of their street clothes and immediately begin to play cards. Reilly and Cooper are both huge Notre Dame fans, and they wear replica Fighting Irish jerseys before the game.

Whether it’s cards or some other form of relaxation, the group keeps things relatively loose for the first hour that they’re at the park. But with 30 minutes to go before game time, they turn their attention to the contest.

Just like the players, with every day being so routine, umpires have their own set of superstitions. Reilly, for instance, wore the same Notre Dame T-shirt under his umpire’s top every time he worked the plate for close to 30 years.

“He came in after a game and it was around his waist, because it had literally fallen apart,” Kellogg said.

Reilly has cut the shirt in pieces and places one in his pocket before each game.

The umpires also use the time before the game to treat various injuries. Fletcher will ice his surgically repaired knee, while Cooper gets the same treatment on his troublesome heel where he has plantar fasciitis.

Cooper is the plate umpire for the game, and that means his mind-set during the day is a little different than the other umpires. Reilly said that if he didn’t know which of his partners was scheduled to work the plate on a given day, he could still tell by how they act during the day. A lot of times they’re quieter, maybe do a little less intense of a workout.

“Some guys will tell you they don’t do anything different on the day that they have the plate, but that’s not true,” Reilly said. “I don’t care who you are or how long you’ve been doing it, you know the morning you wake up that you’ve got the plate. Actually, you know the night before when you go to sleep that you’ve got the plate next day.”

Kellogg is working third base, typically a less strenuous assignment, but no less important.

“Sometimes friends and family say you’ve got an off-day because you’re working third,” Cooper said. “But the one or two plays you’ll have at third are usually very important plays. Obviously, the plate guy has the most decisions to make, and you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game when you’ve got the plate.”

Three hours and 40 minutes after taking the field, the crew returns to their locker room. It’s been a taxing day for Cooper, who has squatted behind the plate for 285 pitches. He had a confrontation with Arizona manager Bob Melvin that resulted in Melvin’s ejection in the seventh inning.

Postgame, the umpires will discuss any plays that happen that they feel they need to go over, take treatments when needed, grab a bite to eat, shower and head back to their hotel where the adrenaline from the game will keep them up for the next couple of hours before they finally head to bed.

After all, they’ve got to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

 

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story appeared on MLB.com on August 28th, 2007, and was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Will a New MLB Strike Zone Lead to More Offense?

News of late from Major League Baseball is that there has been discussion about altering the  definition of the strike zone for the first time in almost twenty years. The reason, those- in-the-know state, is that the predominantly low strike zone has been the culprit of low-scoring games the League has seen over the past few season.  So will umpires start to readjust their zones in order to appease League officials?

Concern around baseball about the strike zone filtered down to the MLB’s Playing Rules Committee, which must formally adopt a rules change before it’s implemented. The committee will pay close attention to the size of the strike zone in 2015 with an eye on change as early as 2016 after studies showed it has expanded significantly since 2009, coinciding with a serious drop in run scoring. It is well known that the low strike  is considered a significantly more difficult pitch to hit.

Runs per game fell to 4.07 in 2014, the lowest mark since 1981 and the 13th fewest since World War II.  This alarming stat has the Rules Committee taking a serious look at the situation.

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Research has shown that since 2009, the average size of the called strike zone has jumped from 435 square inches to 475 square inches. The results: Pitchers are throwing more in the lower part of the zone, and hitters are swinging at an increased rate, knowing the tough-to-drive pitches will be called strikes.

The problem, sources said, stems from technological leaps that caused unintended consequences. In 1996, when the league last changed the strike zone to extend it from the top of the knees to the bottom, beneath the hollow of the kneecap, it did so to encourage umpires to call knee-level strikes. The lower end of the zone, in practice, was about three-quarters of the way down the thigh, so the idea was that by adjusting the eye levels of umpires to look lower, the result would be a more traditional strike zone.

Then along came Questec, the computerized pitch-tracking system, followed by Zone Evaluation, the current version tied in to MLB’s PITCHf/x system. With a tremendous degree of accuracy – especially in recent years – the systems tracked textbook balls and strikes, and the home-plate umpires’ performances were graded on a nightly basis. Over time, not only did umpires’ strike zones move down to the knees, they went to the hollow and even a smidge below.

“I don’t think the Playing Rules Committee at the time of the last change ever expected that the umpires would call strikes at the hollow of the knee,” said Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, the current chairman of the committee. “To their credit, the umpires now are.”

Have the New MLB Instant Replay Rules Made Baseball Better?

So we just got through Memorial Day Weekend – two months into the current Major League Baseball season.  Besides the fact that many of the major market teams are not playing anything resembling Major League quality (Mets, Red Sox, Cubs), fans are still trying to digest the pros and cons of instant replay rules.

MLB’s new, expanded replay rules went into effect at the beginning of the season, after several years of debate on whether they would improve questionable calls made on the field.  The baseball purists considered it blasphemous. The younger generations raised on electronic gadgets were wondering what was taking the League so long.

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Now with fans, and officials alike able to view any questionable call from dozens of camera angles, how many times have you seen it used as intended, to correct a terrible call?  we’ve already seen one aspect of the new rules overturned – the infamous “ball transfer” call.  Could others be far behind?

We’ve seen replays where everyone on the planet agreed a call should and would be overturned, only to see the umps rule otherwise.  It seems managers are more than willing to halt a game for micro-examinations of the closest of close calls, all with the hopes of getting that edge, or a call reversed.

The overwhelming application of this replay rule — and the same happened and still does with the NFL’s version — is it quickly and predictably has not met either its need or demand. And that’s not likely to change, not unless common sense suddenly becomes common.

Of course, as seen for over 25 years during NFL telecasts and now in MLB telecasts, “conclusive evidence” on close plays often is more a matter of opinion than fact. Like a verdict being vacated on appeal, one judge’s conclusive evidence is another’s reasonable doubt.

Are these new rules really helping the umps getting the call right?  Are most of them review-worthy at all? It’s hard to tell whether managers go to replay not so much to get the call right, as to see if another set of eyes may view a replay the same way said manager WANTS to see it – correct or not.

The typical Major League game clocks in at over 2.5 hours, not factoring in instant replay challenges.  Does expanding the length of the game to MAYBE get a questionable call right really give what the League and its fans want?  As the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for.  You just might get it.

 

Did MLB Umpire Cross the Line With Torii Hunter?

There will always be player altercations when a pitch lands on a hitter’s body – the harder the pitch, the more likely the altercation. And that will always require the men in blue to step in to restore order.  But where is the line drawn when an umpire chooses to physically attempt to defuse a delicate situation?  We will see shortly when MLB officals meet to discuss umpire Paul Nauert’s actions during this past Monday night’s benches-clearing exchange in the Tigers-Orioles game.

In case you missed it, the Orioles’ Bud Norris came in a little too close with a fastball thrown to the Tigers’ Torii Hunter.  After the typical posturing and shouting, the only actual person-to-person contact in question from the whole incident came from Nauert, who appeared to put his right hand up to Hunter’s face in an effort to calm him down. That slight contact will be reviewed as part of Major League Baseball’s investigation into the incident.

The incident came on the follow-up to the original exchange between Norris and Hunter, as Hunter was making his way to first base. Nauert had spent the first part of the argument trying to calm down Norris on the mound. The tempers had seemingly cooled, and Norris, who had been ejected by home-plate umpire James Hoye, was at the dugout steps when he and Hunter began jawing again. Hunter began shouting back from first base as Tigers first-base coach Omar Vizquel tried to keep him from taking any steps toward the dugout.

The review is part of the standard operating procedure for all on-field incidents, an MLB spokesperson said. Hunter, however, doesn’t believe it’s worth reviewing..

“That doesn’t make sense,” Hunter said Tuesday. “I mean, he was just trying to get me to calm down. He was just saying, ‘Torii, you’re better than this. Come on.’ …

“I’ve known him a long time. He wasn’t smacking me like people think. He was trying to calm me down: ‘Come on, baby, come back, come back.’ Because I was losing it. He was just trying to help me. There’s nothing to really investigate.”

Nauert clearly wasn’t trying initiate a physical altercation with Hunter. Given the length of time they’ve known each other, it looks like Nauert was trying to diffuse the situation the best way he felt would work.  If Hunter himself felt like there was no ill will involved, should MLB be overly concerned?  When players make contact with umpires during arguments, they almost always pay the price for that contact.  So maybe this reverse scenario deserves a closer look.  However, would this situation be that much different if Nauert was physically pulling Hunter off a pile if Hunter was brawling with Norris? Where is that proverbial line in the sand with regards to player-umpire contact?