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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Major League Umpires Now Tasked with Speeding Up the Game

As we head into spring training, the game of baseball at the professional level will be undergoing a seismic change compared to years past. Yielding to the complaints of players and fans alike about the typical game lasting WAY too long, new rules will be implemented to speed up the pace of the game.  The new rules about batters staying in the box and pitchers being ready to pitch immediately after the commercial break ends have just been announced.  And many of us have let out a collective “it’s about time!”.

For years many folks have been clamoring for rules to eliminate unnecessary time-wasting tactics such as batters stepping out of the box after every pitch. Pitchers certainly have been known to waste time on the mound, but they can’t get set and look in for a sign until the batter is ready. Forcing the batter to stay in the box will force him to get ready more quickly which will in turn speed the pitchers up as well.

Specifically, the pace of game program will require that all batters must keep at least one foot in the batter’s box unless one of a group of exceptions occurs. This amendment/re-emphasis of existing Rule 6.02(d) allows batters to leave the box if the following events occur:

  • The batter swings at a pitch;
  • The batter is forced out of the batter’s box by a pitch;
  • A member of either team requests and is granted “Time”;
  • A defensive player attempts a play on a runner at any base;
  • The batter feints a bunt;
  • A wild pitch or passed ball occurs;
  • The pitcher leaves the dirt area of the pitching mound after receiving the ball; or
  • The catcher leaves the catcher’s box to give defensive signals.

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To summarize the above points, called balls and called strikes are the only occurrences after which the batter must stay in the box.

In addition to the batters box rule, there will now be a stricter timing of between-innings breaks and pitching change breaks during the game. Specifically, timers will be added that will measure the time during these breaks. One timer will be installed on or near the outfield scoreboard, and a smaller timer will be installed on the facade behind home plate near the press box.  Immediately following the third out of each half-inning, the timer will count down from 2:25 for locally televised games and from 2:45 for nationally televised games.  An MLB representative attending each game will operate the timers from each ballpark.

As for the rules about pitchers warming up more quickly, the addition of a clock for those purposes and the requirement that everyone be ready to go after the commercial break is over may be initially disruptive. But given that it’s about preparation and not actual game play, they’ll most likely adjust to it fairly quickly and it’ll just become a new normal.

All of that said, having a limited number of situations in which a batter must stay in the box will encourage a lot more staying-in-the-box than we expect. Of course, sometimes they’re trying to mess with a pitcher’s rhythm, but not too often, and it’s obvious when they’re doing it. If we start to change their habits on called balls and strikes, batters will most likely start staying in the box more because that’s the new rhythm.

So we will soon start to hear about some batters complaining about not being able to step out, and some pitchers will claim about being rushed in their warm-up routines. But overall these are pretty minor changes to players’ routines that could realistically speed up the pace of the game to everyone’s liking.

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.

 

Hey Softball Umpires, Are You Up on Your ASA Rule Changes?

So the new softball season is about to commence, but are you as a seasoned or new umpire up on the new ASA rule changes for 2014?  For example,

Rule 3, Section 1A for Fast Pitch states that “Bats with 2013 ASA certification mark are allowed in Men’s adult fast pitch, Junior Olympic Boys fast pitch, and Men’s modified pitch divisions play.”  Or Rule 4, Section 1C(3c): “Senior slow pitch will have the option of having 11 OR 12 palyers in the batting order or any number of players up to the total number of roster players present.”

There are several more in both Fast and Slow Pitch classes that softball umpires need to be aware of.  To view these, visit http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Softball/About/About-Us/ASA-Code

Should the College Lacrosse Season Start Later?

Although this winter has been unusually harsh through much of the country (especially in the North and Southeast),  college lacrosse officials are concerned that the winter weather is hurting the potential growth of lacrosse’s popularity.  As was evidenced recently by the light turnout to one of the best matches played in years between Loyola and Virginia (the attendance on that snowy, wintry day in lacrosse-crazed Charlottesville was only 1,465 fans), it’s clear that the cold and snow are not helping lacrosse gain momentum throughout the U.S. (at least 24 games were rescheduled or relocated last week due to harsh winter conditions up and down the East Coast).  And the sport’s officials are in serious discussions on altering the start of the season in the near future.

For those rabid fans who don’t want to brave the cold, there’s always TV, right?   Well, not really.  Although there are a number of schools with regional webcasts or limited-time regional cable TV access, the fact remains that there just isn’t enough national exposure to show the average sports fan how exciting this sport is.    ESPN lacrosse announcer Eamon McAnaney was recently vocal with his take on the state of affairs affecting lacrosse. “It’s not just TV. I was watching the Virginia-Drexel game on my phone, and there’s no one there. The field’s surrounded by snow. Same thing with Hofstra-Marquette.  I understand this year’s a little outrageous as far as how much snow the Northeast has gotten, but it’s supposed to be a spring sport”.

Conference realignment and the need to beef up schedules for NCAA tournament consideration are among factors in the winterization of college lacrosse. Coaches prefer to spread games out weekly, rather than be susceptible to short turnarounds. With the season’s endpoint seemingly locked on Memorial Day, that means quality games played in front of sparse crowds in February, when most sports networks’ lineups are saturated with college basketball.

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Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala is among the prominent coaches who are on board for a later start to the season.  “I’m not a fan of where we are right now. I’m not a fan of where we are with recruiting, and I’m not a fan of our calendar,” Pietramala said after his team’s win Saturday over Towson. “I would love to see practice begin Feb. 1 and the first game begin either the last weekend in February or the first weekend in March. And I’d like to see the final four moved back. I’d like to see it not on Memorial Day. I’d like to see it moved back a month.”

ESPN’s McAnaney said delaying the start of the season and playing lacrosse into June would increase TV exposure for the college game, when there are “more spots available on the grid,” and make for a better viewing experience.

ESPN will air 29 games (plus two women’s games) in 2014, not including webcasts or regional broadcasts picked up by ESPN3/Watch ESPN. That’s down from 46 in 2013. Twenty-five of the 29 games include Johns Hopkins and/or an ACC team. ESPN has TV contracts with both institutions.

CBS Sports will air 11 games (plus one women’s game) in 2014, but none before the March 9 tilt between Duke and Loyola.

Stay tuned as we see how Mother Nature influences the future beginning of college lacrosse campaigns.