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Angry players, cranky fans: The life of a minor league umpire

UMPIRE 8.jpg
Hugo Phan
/
KMUW

A love of baseball, and the quest for perfection, drives umpires.

There are nearly 200 minor league baseball umpires across the country, and they have a lot in common:

Low pay, months on the road away from family and friends plus a hostile work environment every night. And the expectation that every call they make will be perfect.

A thankless job? Willie Traynor can’t dream of doing anything else.

“Imagine how all the umpires in the world and a lot of them wish they were doing what you were doing,” he said. “So … you gotta breathe it all in and take it all in. It's 100% of joy.”

Traynor’s a 24-year-old from California. He’s in his third year as a minor league umpire and his first in the Texas League. He regularly works Wichita Wind Surge games.

Traynor began umpiring with his dad when he was a kid. His crew chief, Tanner Dobson, a native of Colorado, followed a similar path. He started calling balls and strikes as a teenager.

“It was a better gig than working at Wendy's or something like that,” Dobson said. “Parents said I had to do something. So I figured being outside and getting to pick my schedule was a great way to do it for a 14 year old.”

Not all of his friends agreed. Dobson said he talked four of them into taking umpire training so they could work youth baseball games.

“I was the only one to make it through a month of working Little League,” Dobson said. “I mean the Little League parents, as we all know from YouTube and everything, they're the worst.

“So all four of my buddies couldn't … take it because it's terrible at that level.”

But Dobson and Traynor never lost their love of baseball or of umpiring. After college, they both attended professional umpire school, the traditional route for most umpires.

Now they have the same goal as any minor league player – make it to the major leagues.

But it’s a difficult path. There are nearly 800 players in the major leagues compared to only 76 umpires. And normally, four umpire positions or less open up after a season.

The average apprenticeship for a minor league umpire is 8 to 13 years with no guarantee of ever making The Show.

So why do people do this?

“That's a great question,” Jude Koury said. “For the love of the game and pursuit of perfection.”

Koury is vice president of the minor league umpires union and also an ump himself, in the Eastern League.

Koury said minor league umps like Traynor and Dobson earn $1,000 dollars a week (Double-A players top out at $600 a week) for a six-month contract.

The pay, along with months on the road – umpires never have a home game – drives some from the profession.

But Koury said umpiring also attracts people with a specific personality type.

“To understand that you're not going to be perfect when you walk out on the field, but to continue to strive for it,” Koury said. “To be in the perfect spot, to handle those personalities in the perfect manner, to have perfect judgment and perfect enforcement of the rules.

“It's a unique endeavor, that's to put it lightly.”

Just like players, umpires are evaluated and advance through the minor leagues based on their performance. Dobson said the Double-A level, where the Wind Surge plays, is an important milestone for umpires.
"Cause Double-A is where you really learn to handle situations as opposed to just get rid of situations," he said.
"In Single-A, you need to learn how to not be afraid to eject people. But up here in Double-A ... is really where you learn to talk to managers and players and not necessarily go out of your way to keep them in the game, but like build a relationship."

When fans at Riverfront Stadium and other cities in the Texas League start yelling at him, Traynor said that's just part of the job.

"I think it's a little bit easier when you're working in the stadiums to lock in and not really hear all that," said Traynor, who played college baseball at California-Santa Barbara.

"Sometimes you do, but you just gotta know that they're not really yelling at you personally. It's more of the uniform, which just comes with it. It's been around for a long time."

While fans demand perfection from umpires, most don’t understand the profession, Dobson said.

“They don't know that … this is our career,” he said.

“I think if somebody comes to a game here in Wichita … they think this guy (umpire) is from Wichita. He's just working the game. Like he is at my kid's high school game.”

Koury, the Eastern League ump, agrees.

“Most people think that umpires pop up out of the ground and then return to their spot in the ground following the game,” he said.

Dobson is 29 and plans to get married this fall. He doesn’t have a timetable for when he’ll hang up his mask if he doesn’t make the big leagues.

He said he tries to get better each season and follow the advice a veteran umpire gave him.

“He told me every night, you just need to look up, look at the crowd, look at the stadium, look where you are and just kind of enjoy it for at least one half inning, you know, and then get back to work,” Dobson said.

“But between the innings, just take a second and breathe it all in because you don't know how long it's going to last.”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, a board member of the Kansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.