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11/14/06 1:19 AM ET

Umpiring for love of the game

MLB's Steve Gilbert reports from camp

Major League Baseball is holding its first Umpire Camp in Long Beach, Calif. Steve Gilbert, who covers the D-backs for MLB.com, is taking part and will be writing a daily diary of his experiences.

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Jim Evans had a simple message for us on Monday morning.

"If you're umpiring only for money, you won't make it," Evans said. "You'd better be in it because you have a passion for it."

Evans umpired for 28 years at the Major League level and now runs one of the two professional umpire schools, but you don't need that kind of experience to understand just what he means. All you have to do is look at the pay scale.

An umpire entering the professional ranks at Rookie level stands to make $1,800. That's monthly, not weekly. Oh, and the checks come only during the six-month season -- after that you're on your own.

A Triple-A umpire has a monthly salary of $3,400 to look forward to. All umpires at each of the levels have to buy their own equipment, and at the lower levels, they drive their own vehicles (they get mileage) from city to city.

So who would ever sign up to do that? Folks who love the game and want to be a part of it any way they can -- and there are more of them than you might think. So they go to Evans' Academy of Professional Umpiring or Harry Wendelstedt's School for Umpires for five weeks of training. The students are ranked, and the top tier are selected to move onto the professional ranks, depending on how many jobs are available.

The MLB Umpire Camps were created this year to give students a head start and a solid background before they get to one of the camps.

Alex Ortiz is one of our Minor League instructors, and his story is one that shows the tenacity it takes to make it in this business. A native of Los Angeles, Ortiz worked as a batboy for the Dodgers before becoming a clubhouse attendant. After that he was put in charge of the umpire's room, and he got to know the umps when they came through town. The job appealed to him, so he went to Wendelstedt's school and eventually earned placement in 2005 in the Arizona Rookie League, where he umpired games in 115-degree heat.

Last year he spent his time crisscrossing the states of Montana and Utah in the Pioneer League, pulling down a whopping $1,900 per month. He ranked second in the Pioneer League among umpires and is almost assuredly heading to either the Midwest League or Cal League next summer. The long odds and low pay don't dampen his spirits, though, and he's one of our most enthusiastic instructors here.

The payoff for the work and sacrifice comes if you make it to the Major Leagues, where the rookie umpires start at $87,000 and the more senior ones pull down $300,000.

It's almost impossible to detail everything we learned today. I'm still trying to digest it all.

The day started with Wendelstedt talking not just about his umpire school but about a very personal battle with his weight. He's made some real strides over the last few months after attending a weight clinic at Duke University, and he hopes to drop an additional 50 pounds by the time his school starts in January.

Wendelstedt encouraged us to listen to the speaker who followed him, nutritionist Marjorie T. Hagerman, who gave us some important tips for keeping our weight and energy at acceptable levels. One of the more interesting tidbits she shared was that the average person gains one pound a year from age 25 through 44, which explains how weight gains seem to sneak up on us.

Evans followed Hagerman, and after that we learned about security and the dangers that are out there for umpires from LeRoy Hendricks.

And that was just the morning.

The afternoon was spent over at Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy in neighboring Compton. We spent the afternoon going over the Two-Man Umpiring System, and each of us got numerous chances to be either the home plate or base umpire. It was my first taste of field work, and let me say I think the consensus is that I shouldn't give up my writing job any time in the near future.

Seriously, though, it's amazing to watch the instructors demonstrate the techniques, as it's all second nature to them, where I'm thinking more than reacting, and when you do that, you almost forget to watch the play because you are so focused on technique. If you've ever taken dancing lessons, you know what I mean.

And there are simple things, too, that suddenly become challenging, like figuring out how to whip off your mask when needed without your hat flying off with it, or worse, falling in your face so you can't see. And of course you have to use your left hand to take off the mask so that your right is available for your safe/out call.

We'll see if it becomes more natural for me as the week progresses.

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.