Fair play: Umpire camp in full swing
Second-year camp draws aspiring umps from near and far
COMPTON, Calif. -- It started a year ago, a one-week camp at the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., where aspiring amateur umpires can learn from Major and Minor League umpires to improve their technique and possibly get a shot at moving up the ladder and fulfilling their their dreams at the professional level. The success of that first camp raised the bar for the Major League Baseball Umpires Camp that is currently in session until Nov. 11.
"Last year, seven of our graduates from this camp are already working in professional Minor League Baseball," said Rich Rieker, former Major League umpire, who is now an umpire supervisor and coordinator of the camp. "That's a pretty good number, and we hope to have seven or more from this camp go on to the Minor Leagues."
There were 33 attendees at last year's camp, the numbers grew this year to 44 and, according to Rieker, so did the quality of talent.
"I think our candidates this year are in better shape and they seem more attentive," said Rieker. "I think the people here are on a mission, and when we asked them to hold up their hands on opening night on how many had professional aspirations, about 75-80 percent of the hands went up. We have a very talented class and a very attentive one and I asked the staff, who many teach at umpiring school, and they say this is one of the better classes they've seen after the first two days."
"These students are catching on to what we are trying to do," said former Major League umpire and current umpire supervisor Steve Palermo. "We are trying to cram five weeks into five days and they've all been a quick study so far."
Besides Palermo and Rieker other MLB Umpire supervisors Cris Jones, Jim McKean and Marty Springstead join current Major League umpires Tim Tschida, Larry Young, Gary Cederstrom, Kerwin Danley, Brian Gorman, Sam Holbrook, Jerry Layne, Derryl Cousins and Brian Runge are instructors this year. Some of these umpires have just come off postseason duty, but have taken the time to come out and work with the campers.
"The one thing you see about umpires is their dedication, and along with the dedication is their passion," said Palermo, who became an American League umpire in 1977 and has been a supervisor since 2000."These people who you see out here, these instructors, have a great passion for the game, they want to teach it and they know by teaching, they're going to learn an awful lot too."
The students spend each morning with more than two hours of classroom lectures on technique and situational breakdown. The students then go out in the field to see how each situation is handled on the field.
"We try to teach them the mechanics of the safes and the outs," said Cousins, a veteran umpire who returned for his second camp this year. "At this level, everyone does it the same way. As you progress to Double-A and Triple-A, everyone develops their own style. This is sometimes umpiring 101, but we are trying to help some guys get into the umpiring schools which is the only way you can get into professional baseball. We have some scholarships that we will give out here to the Harry Wendelstadt or Jim Evans schools and they then compete against the other guys and the top people go into the Minor Leagues to start their careers."
Rieker and the staff believe that it's important for the campers to get a well-rounded education in all aspects of what a professional umpire goes through.
"Mark Letendre, our director of medical services, works with them on different stretching techniques they can use, we had a resident security agent, Tom Christopher come in and talk about off-the-field issues," said Rieker. "We had a nutritionist come in. A financial advisor, who used to be a Minor League umpire, came in and talked to them about how they maximize their take-home pay and look out for tax issues.
"We believe that just teaching them ball, strike, fair, foul, out and safe -- if we just do that, we would be remiss in our duties. We think we need to go into a lot of the dynamics that they are faced with -- whether it be stretching, financial, security, to try and give them the best and complete package of what they are going to be in for if they pursue this line of work."
The camp has an appeal not only in the United States, but around the world. For example, Australia sent three umpires all named Mark to this year's camp, all on scholarship, so they can learn technique and pass it along to other umpires down under.
"To be taught by Major League umpires is a totally different thing for us and something excellent," said Mark Bramwell from Queensland, Australia. "Hopefully, some of the things that we learn from the camp this time we can take back and share with the other guys there with the other associations and even nationally with the national director and help everybody get along and realize that what we're doing over there is the same thing that is being taught here."
The MLB Umpires Camp will continue through this weekend with continuous instruction and the campers applying their trade in game situations. One other competition going on at the various fields is between the campers and instructors to see who's enjoying themselves the most. Right now, it's a dead heat.
Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.