A daylong threat of rain didn't stop 90 umpires from taking part in the first event held at the USA Baseball National Training Center at Thomas Brooks Park in Cary, NC. The Town of Cary Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources department and USA Baseball hosted a one-day umpiring clinic on Saturday.
"We're honored to open up the facility," said Rich Rieker, MLB Umpire Supervisor and MLB Umpire Camps Coordinator. "I think it shows what the town of Cary and USA Baseball think about the umpires and the integrity of the game by allowing us to do this."
With the Center set to formally open on Tuesday, Rieker and an experienced staff of volunteers that included umpires with big league, Minor League and collegiate experience were able to do a soft opening, spending the day with umpires from all levels of baseball.
The clinic ran from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and consisted of groups of 20 umpires rotating from station to station throughout the day.
"This is basically guerrilla umpire training," said Rieker. "We try to give them as much training as we can -- plate work, base work, the two-umpire system, health and nutrition. We're trying to give them in seven hours what we give them in six days at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton."
MLB Umpire Camps held its first clinic in November, and got 200 attendees who were thrilled by the caliber of instruction. Those who attended the clinic in Cary were just as grateful for the opportunity.
"These guys want the instruction, and I think that's a testament to their dedication to the profession at the amateur level," said Cris Jones, Supervisor and MLBUC Curriculum Coordinator. "These guys are willing to accept constructive criticism. They're all open to learning what they need to do to get better."
Greg Koonce admitted as much. He has been an umpire for ten years, working games ranging from the youth level to Legion ball near his home in Kinston, NC.
"Everyone who's out here makes mistakes," said Koonce. "We're not as good as we thought we were." Kelly Culp agreed. He found out about the clinic through his booking agent and made the 45-minute drive from Wake Forest, NC.
"I learned a lot of basics with mechanics so I can be a better umpire going forward," said Culp, who works high school games. "For me, it's been more about refining the finer points, like footwork."
Justin Gray was particularly impressed with the staff of professional and collegiate umpires. Gray works high school games in Wilmington, NC, and said he often gets bad advice from the different umpires he's paired with.
"These guys all know what they're doing," said Gray of the clinic instructors. "They can see you do something once and tell you what you're doing wrong in a minute. All you have to do is work on it and fix it."
Gray said he also couldn't help being starstruck by former big league umps such as Rieker and MLB Umpire Supervisor Rich Garcia.
"That's way cool, especially when you've watched SportsCenter and have seen Rick Rieker throw a Florida Marlins pitcher out of a game," said Gray.
"I've seen a lot of these guys on TV and followed their games on the Internet and Baseball Tonight," added Koonce. "Most of the general public gets a kick out of meeting the ballplayers. For us, it's the umpires. Those are our heroes."
Every one of the 90 attendees will receive a package in the mail to keep the memories and the lessons fresh in their minds. A videographer shot footage of each umpire's platework drills and will burn DVDs to send to them.
In the meantime, many of the participants from North Carolina said they are eager to return to the Center to umpire games there after it opens on Tuesday. Perhaps no one was more impressed by the facility than Rieker, who spent the whole day roaming the fields to make sure everything was going smoothly.
"The grass is so good it looks like a carpet," said Rieker. "This is as good as or better than any Major League spring training facility out there. The stadium is beautiful with the whole design and the setting here in the woods. They put a lot of thought and effort into this. The town of Cary should be proud."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.