11/10/09 12:09 AM EST
Prospective umpires go camping
Annual weeklong event draws participants from all over
By Rhett Bollinger / MLB.com
The Los Angeles-area camp, which runs through Sunday, gives its participants a chance to learn about umpiring through both on-the-field drills and the off-the-field classroom sessions that cater to all aspiring umpires, regardless of experience.
"The experience level is really from all across the board," said Rich Rieker, MLB's umpire supervisor and the camp's coordinator. "We're trying to cram five weeks of umpire school into seven days. We start with the assumption that they've never umpired before because sometimes experienced umpires come with bad habits."
Any bad habits that the campers come with are easily cured by the experienced staff at the camp, which includes several umpires with Major League experience such as Bruce Froemming, Steve Rippley, Joe Reed, Justin Klemm, Marty Springstead and Rieker.
And because it's hard to reach the goal of being a big league umpire, the on-field training staff also features former umpires with plenty of experience in the Minors, in college baseball and in international baseball.
The campers are also taught in the two-man system of umpiring instead of the four seen in the Majors because the Minor Leagues use just two umpires as do most amateur leagues.
"It's a big change for them because they have different ideas from other associations," said Froemming, who is the longest-tenured umpire in MLB history. "But here they can learn from a group of umpires that made it to the big leagues, and we can help and mentor them to greater heights in their association or into professional ball."
Participants in the camp get experience in just about every facet of umpiring, including off-the-field lessons in fitness and lifestyle during the classroom sessions that are held before and after the on-field training at the Academy.
The classroom sessions, which also go over many of baseball's rules, additionally give campers a chance to review their progress, as participants are videotaped during various drills such as ball-strike calls in the batting cages.
"Everybody gets a DVD after they're recorded doing work in the batting cages and then they get to take it home with them," said Rippley, who worked three World Series during his long career as a Major League umpire. "We also use it as a training tool, as they'll watch it with an instructor and they'll point out what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong."
A major bonus for those campers who are doing things right is to have a chance to earn a scholarship at either the Jim Evans' Academy of Professional Umpiring or the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires after the camp concludes.
About eight participants each year have been awarded scholarships from the camp and as a result, 23 former campers have gone on to become Minor League umpires after being selected from Professional Baseball Umpire Corps (PBUC) school.
"We'll select a couple guys and send them to one of the two umpire schools," said Cris Jones, who is a camp supervisor and curriculum coordinator. "And then those two schools send about 25 guys each to PBUC school and then from there, they fill select spots open in the low Minors with an average of about 25 to 30 openings."
It's all part of how umpires can make it into the Minor Leagues from the camp and then eventually, with enough experience, can be promoted as a Major League umpire.
"Our responsibility is to recruit, train and promote umpires in the Minor Leagues and hopefully get them to the Major Leagues," said former Astros general manager Tim Purpura, who is now the executive vice president and COO of Minor League Baseball. "The Major League teams handle the players, of course, but we handle the umpires through our system in cooperation with MLB."
But of course, not all of the campers are aiming at the Majors, as several came from international backgrounds, including six umpires coming from the Czech Republic, Finland, Japan and Australia. It's part of an emphasis on training international umpires, such as last year, when eight international umpires came to the camp in preparation of the World Baseball Classic.
"We'd like to have even more here, but economically, it's very difficult," said Dick Runchey, the director of umpires for the International Baseball Federation. "We're really trying to grow internationally and this is a great camp for them."
Three campers -- David Kulhanek, Vladimir Richter and Frantisek Pribyl -- came from the Czech Republic partly because Evans is hosting an umpire training camp in the Czech Republic next year.
"We four international umpires all have a lot of experience but we still want to get better and then train guys when we get back," said Jones, who grew up in California but is an umpire in Finland and Sweden. "So with Jim Evans coming over to the Czech Republic next year, this is great advertising in a sense."
It's also a great opportunity for the international umpires to get a feel for American baseball, especially with the chance to interact with the former Major League umpires that help run the camp.
"It's a good experience for us and a good chance for us to get better," Kulhanek said. "I hope that our experience can also lead to more camps like this back home."
Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.