Aspiring umpires' paths start at Florida schools
Some at three teaching locales will land difficult jobs in Minors
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Dutch Rennert lives just a few miles from Vero Beach Sports Village, but he doesn't always stop in to watch the action.
On a recent sun-dappled morning, however, he couldn't help himself. He extended his daily stroll, marching right inside the gates of the baseball paradise formerly known as Dodgertown. The 77-year-old former Major League umpiring legend could only smile as he was greeted by the luscious smack of baseballs against catchers' mitts and, to his ears, the even more melodic sounds of loud human voices yelling, from the depths of their souls, as to whether those pitches were balls or strikes.
It's January, which means it's time for umpire school in these parts. And Rennert, who worked the bases and home plates of the National League from 1973-92, knows well that this is where it all begins.
"When I grew up in Wisconsin, the Cubs were the only team, so I always dreamed of playing center field for the Cubs," Rennert says. "Once I realized I couldn't hit the curveball, I went after the second-best job in the world. For 20 years, I had the best seat in the house and I didn't have to pay to get in."
About 250 students have been donning chest protectors and masks to go with their dark shirts and gray pants on the fields of three umpire schools in Florida. At The Umpire School in Vero Beach, the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Daytona Beach and the Jim Evans Professional Umpiring Academy in Kissimmee, prospective arbiters of all ages and backgrounds are enrolled in four- and five-week programs to begin chasing their versions of the big league dream.
Here's how it works: The three schools are the only ones whose students will be eligible to be chosen by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corp. (PBUC) to move on and claim open jobs umpiring in the Minor Leagues. The candidates are evaluated at the schools for the duration of the programs in hopes that they will be chosen to move on to the next stop, the PBUC Evaulation Course, which will be held in March, this year at the Vero Beach complex.
There, the students who achieve the highest marks will be recommended for the first openings at the Rookie and short-season Class A levels. To become a Major League umpire, a candidate must touch all levels of the Minor Leagues, a process that takes seven or eight years at the minimum.
In short, the aspiring umpires are fighting for a future of a lot of work for not a lot of money, in the Minors, summers with no vacations, which means no home games, which means hardly any time at home with their families.
Then again, it's the path to the big leagues, where the pay is good, the perks are better, and, well ... it's the big leagues.
"We're selling a dream and it is achievable," says Major League umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, who took over the school that bears his name from his father, former longtime big-league umpire Harry. "It's the best thing in the world. There's nothing else I would rather do than be a Major League umpire. Nothing else. There's good days and there's bad days, but it's the best job in the world. And it all starts here."
Wendelstedt believes in the big-league dream so much that he invites active Major League umpires to guest-instruct. Current MLB umpire Doug Eddings flew in from taking his yearly physical in Arizona and couldn't help but be a bit nostalgic for the school where he kick-started his career in 1989.
"Coming back means a lot," Eddings says. "It was a big honor for a kid coming from Las Cruces, N.M., and I didn't think I would get a job. There were close to 200 students that year, and getting a job in the Minor Leagues, working my way through the Minor Leagues to the Major Leagues, and then coming back and sharing some experience and knowledge with the students and instructors, it's priceless. I love my profession. I love umpiring."
The Wendelstedt school has a curriculum similar to the others in that the daily schedule consists of classroom work -- rules, interpretations and positioning for basic situations, film work and testing -- in the morning followed by an afternoon of practical on-field implementation and cage work on balls and strikes from a pitching machine. Controlled games are played, with the umpires themselves pitching and hitting and fielding while their classmates take turns in pairs, umpiring at the plate and in the field as their instructors -- actual umpires from all levels of the Minor Leagues -- create any situation they want.
All schools use the two-umpire system, which is what is used by all Minor League organizations until Double-A, when it switches to three umpires. Triple-A uses three- and four-umpire formations, leading to the four-man system we see in the Majors.
On the first day, the students, many of whom have had years of experience umpiring Little League, high school and even junior college games, all come to a quick realization. This is serious. And this is tough.
Evans, who was an American League umpire from 1971-99, said he's heard it all from his students, pre-arrival, about how they'll take right to it and have no problems with the rigors of the program.
"I have guys telling me, 'I've been playing for 10 or 15 years, I've played ball since I was eight years old, I've played in high school, I was All-American in college, I had a tryout with the Boston Red Sox,' and I say, 'Well, come on down. We'll try to overcome all that.'
"Because it doesn't have anything to do with umpiring."
The first few days of school throw so much information at the students that it's difficult to digest. Some take to it quickly, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be the ones making it to the Evaluation Course.
"We have umpires that we can tell pretty soon that we think are going to be some of the top umpires in the class, but then they fall apart at the end," says Brent Rice, a Double-A umpire who serves as the head class instructor at the Wendelstedt school.
"We're looking for umpires that progress, not plateau. You can have an umpire that excels the first week and gets the fundamentals down and then just plateaus off as soon as we're throwing in things like interference and obstructions. We also find umpires that find it difficult to adjust to the initial things that we teach, the fundamentals, and by week four it's like a light bulb goes on.
"And that's a neat thing to watch because it's something we can see. One of the things our program has that is most beneficial is it allows us to read their instincts. That's the most important thing an umpire has, and you can't teach it."
So the weeks progress and the curriculum becomes more intense. The classmates bond and enjoy unique camp-like experiences with one another.
At the PBUC school, they're living in the villas that used to be inhabited by Dodgers greats such as Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Duke Snider during Spring Training. At the Wendelstedt school, they're staying in a hotel right on the beach. And at the Evans Academy, they're honing their skills on the vast and impressive fields of the Houston Astros' spring complex.
For what amounts to an average fee of around $3,000 with room and board and instruction included, it's a relatively reasonable vacation.
Then again, in many ways, it's not a vacation at all.
Instructors are firm and no-nonsense because they have to be. They are, after all, preparing their charges for a profession unlike most. Succeed at the highest level of this particular job and no one will ever notice you or talk about you. Fail just a tiny bit -- or even be perceived as failing -- and you're Public Enemy No. 1, at least until the next game.
That's why in the final week of school, the instructors will pretend they're irate managers and will get in the faces of the students, reenacting the heated situations we all see at ballparks and on TV.
Rules will be interpreted quickly so as to see if ejection is warranted. Nerves will be frayed, as they are on ballfields of every level of competition every night during the baseball season.
"We're supposed to start off perfect and get better," Mike Felt, the PBUC school's chief of instruction, says with a wry smile.
"Work at what you're doing and work hard to improve. Don't make a mistake and definitely don't make the same mistake twice. That's what we teach them here -- teaching fundamentals the way you'd teach a baseball player. When you're in the right position, you're more likely to succeed."
Over the course of the month or month-plus of these schools' terms, the students, teachers and even casual observers learn an incredible amount about a fascinating, intricate field. The odds of any of them becoming big-league umpires are bordering on the astronomical -- perhaps one student out of every 150 or so will accomplish the feat.
With only 68 spots existing at the Major League level, 250 or so in the Minors, and the prospective candidate pool getting younger and more physically fit by the year, there are no guarantees of any kind. And even if a student does make it to the Minors, that doesn't mean he or she can't be released in a heartbeat if they can't perform to the exacting standards of the PBUC staff that travels the country doing evaluations.
But when it does work, it's pretty sweet. Just ask Dutch Rennert.
"All I ever wanted to do was be on a baseball field every day," Rennert says. "To get paid to do it? That's just the cherry on top."