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Umps Care, they really do

It’s not every day you get to talk to a major league umpire. Today I got a chance to have an extensive interview with Jim Reynolds who has been a major league ump for more than ten years, to help kick off the UMPS CARE charity auction online. (Auction kicks off today onlinewith some truly amazing items, including a #44 All-Star Game jersey signed by President Barack Obama, the 44th president.) I picked his brain on a lot of topics, from concussions and the recent firings of umpire supervisors to how statistical analysis has changed the game of baseball and umpiring in particular.

Reynolds didn’t initially plan to be an umpire. As a student at UCONN, he studied communications, and had a job all lined up with a television station after graduation… but peer pressure led him to give umpiring a try.

Peer pressure? Yeah. It was during a fire drill in his freshman year that Jim struck up a conversation with another student standing around waiting to go back into the building. They became good friends and he suggested that Jim take a one-credit class on umpiring that UCONN offered. The students in that class got to work the games for the college team and then in the summer Jim was able to work a regular daytime summer job and then make extra money calling a few games a night. Then his friend told him when they were getting ready to graduate, that he wanted to go to major league umpire school, and wanted Jim to go with him.

“450 kids go and only 40 make it, he told me,” Jim explained, “So my TV job was waiting, and they told me go ahead and give it a shot, and if you don’t make it, your job is here. So I went for it and not only did I make it, he and I both made it.”

Jim’s friend is another name familiar to anyone who bothers to listen to the umpire lineups before each game, Dan Iassogna. Both men are now in their early forties, after spending nearly a decade working their way through the minors, and now ten years in the big leagues. Reynolds’ experiences have included umpiring in Japan during the 2004 All-Star Tour, working in three different division series, and working the final game at Tiger Stadium, but overall umpiring is a “tough road.”

“What’s been really nice is having a best friend go through this journey with me,” Reynolds says. “When you can have a very good friend who is going through the same stuff at the same time, it gives you a comfort zone. We worked the whole first season together. You’re each other’s family for the whole year.”

Cecilia Tan: Do you have a philosophy of umpiring?

Jim Reynolds: No I don’t. My philosophy about umpiring is that I take a lot pride in what I do. I work my rear end off. Nobody is going to work harder than me. I have an interest in my job, I want to get better. Every day I have a responsibility to get better even though I’ll never be perfect. I will say this, there is nobody in the ballpark when I miss a call who feels worse than I do. I’ll never apologize for missing a call because it won’t be because I was lazy. But it’s not for lack of trying or hustle. I treat every game like the seventh game of the World Series. You learn in a hurry in this job that you can be the lead story on Sportscenter whether you’re working the plate in a Yankees-Red Sox game or at third base in a D-backs Pirates game.

CT: You know, that’s the winning attitude and work ethic I hear from a lot of top players. Even guys like Derek Jeter are still working to get better. You sound like a lot of the players I admire. I think a lot of people take umpiring for granted and the fact that anywhere major league players go, umpires have to go, too. What was it like doing the Japan All-Star series?

JR: One of the things that MLB does–you saw that in the Olympics too–is any time their players are out there they want their officials out there. We’re not going to let things get out of hand. It’s a safety measure. The trip to Japan was great. We got to work with the umpires in Japan, too. We had a great time doing that. Ted Barrett and I both brought our wives on the trip, and we worked like eight games, got to see a lot of different ballparks, in four or five cities, rode the bullet train, got to see Hiroshima.

CT: Okay, this is funny. The top two videos that come up in a Google search for your name are a Youtube clip in which you talk about UMPS CARE, and one other one. Can you guess what it is? It’s you rescuing a bird from the mound during a Mets-Diamondbacks game. You scooped the bird up in your face mask and then gave him to a bat boy. How do you decide that sort of thing is your job as home plate ump?

JR: You know what, I’ll tell you about that scenario. You’re the first person who ever asked me about that. All I remember is the bird falling on the mound behind one of the relievers. It’s like 8-2 and we’ve been out there for three hours already, and the guy just stands there. I’m thinking he’s going to shoo the bird away or something but he just stands there. And so then I’m looking in the dugout for a ground crew guy or something. But those guys are very hard to find in an indoor stadium. They’re in their office or something. So I thought, it’s time to get going here. So I just took things in my own hands. My wife said I should have cleaned my mask.CT: Most people who have never played the game or worked on the field don’t understand everything is just grimy and covered in dirt anyway.

JR: “Did you not wash your mask afterward?” she asks. I didn’t even think about it. (laughs)

CT: So just a few days ago the story broke that MLB fired three umpire supervisors (Marty Springstead, Rich Garcia and Jim McKean) directly as a result from all the kerfuffle over postseason blown calls — the supervisors but not the actual umps who blew the calls. (I was surprised that Tim McClelland, an umpire I have been watching my entire life, so blatantly blew the Cano-Posada rundown call.) At the same time I wouldn’t say that one blown call should erase 40 years of experience, right? Do you think this move is going to help improve the umpiring?

JR: I think that the guys that were let go were not deficient as far as the job they did. It is a move to bring in new blood and a new attitude. I learned a tremendous amount from each of those supervisors, but now we’ve got guys who have worked a little more recently, so I’m looking forward to that dynamic. As an umpire, I’m going to miss stuff. I’m going to miss stuff in April, May, June, and July, and in August, September, and October. But you’re going to see if guys became instantaneously accountable to missed calls you’d see a change for the worse in umpiring. If you make guys scared to make a call, you introduce a dynamic into the job that’s not going to be beneficial to the game. I know it makes the fans feel good because they are emotionally invested in the outcome. But we are not invested in the outcome. If I miss a call, I miss a call. It’s not because I wanted one team or the other to win.

CT: What’s the best thing that MLB could do to improve umpiring overall?

JR: What I do know is that the most valuable thing an umpire has is his experience. Even our major league prospects spend 7-10 years in the minor leagues. Player prospects only spend sometimes 1-2 years. But we need to see pitches and plays. We need to be able to make mistakes, because only when you make mistakes do you get better. There has to be accountability, but you have to make them accountable for the right reasons. If I’m missing calls because I’m lazy or out of position consistently, then we have an attitude problem. But if I miss a steal at second and people are like how can that guy blow that call? I have to be allowed to do that. The more experience the staff gets, the better. MLB has been good. They understand the dynamics and pressure of our jobs. They recognize uncoachability and laziness and those things are being addressed. What baseball could do I think they are doing. It was a very young staff when we had the turnover 10 years ago from ’99. What you’re going to see is a more experienced staff in the next ten years. The players and managers are more comfortable with you, and I’m a much better umpire now than I was ten years ago.

CT: What’s your best advice for anyone interested in getting into umpiring?

JR: Don’t do it. Finish school, get your college education. That’s what I tell kids coming out of high school. Go get your degree and then try umpiring. It’s always nice to have options and choices and this is a tough road, a very tough road. A lot of time away from family, and a lot of uncertainty. I knew a lot of guys in the minors who were better umpires than me, but a lot of life was timing and they didn’t make it. They either just couldn’t handle the lifestyle or when they were ready there were no openings. The hours leading up to the game were mind-blowing to this one guy I knew. He needed to be doing something all the time and he couldn’t hack the downtime. I’m very lucky to be where I am.

CT: SABRmetrics and statistical analysis is transforming the way front offices run and the way the game is played. Has statistical analysis changed the way umpiring is done?

JR: The introduction of QuesTec concerns me a little bit. It’s a good tool for two things. It’s a good training tool, and gives you a rough estimate where the ball is. The strike zone has come in because of that training tool. It is also good for entertainment because it gives people knowledge of where the strike zone is, too. But it’s a very slippery slope when you try to say that it’s pinpoint accurate, because it’s not. The TV folks especially will research this because it’s part of entertainment and driving conversation, but I don’t think the accuracy is there. They’ve got the interns and the people to be able to pull up numbers on umpires like they do on players, and soon you’ll see “JIm Reynolds in the ninth inning calling games of the Yankees does this.” But QuesTec isn’t 100% accurate. That scares me, because a lot of what we do is public perception.

CT: What’s your take on concussions and umpire safety?

JR: Last year I got hit by a warmup pitch between innings. One thing I do is take pitches just to get a feel for a new guy coming out of the bullpen. It was St. Louis and the Nationals, and you can probably see it on Youtube. [I looked for it, but didn’t find it. -ct] Jason LaRue was catching; he’s a guy I know well. I saw his glove going up and I thought it’s going to be high, I ducked out of reflex… the ball hit me just above the mask. It’s a very real hazard of our job. I had a couple of concussions when I played high school football, and back then it was just do you have a bruise? No? Get back out there. But there’s much more awareness of the issue now. It’s kind of eye opening to see the conditions of the 50s and 60s guys. We have a dedicated medical staff and an educated medical staff for umpires. You see the dragging of the feet that goes on, but it’s a very real issue with us. It’s a real issue and I hope it’s something they continue to recognize as a real issue. I hope our guys understand too. Our guys are Type A guys, and even our own guys have to understand it’s better to get off the field right away and not take the second hit which is the danger. You might be fine after that first one but if you took another right after that? It’s a huge risk.

CT: Do you think we’ll ever see female major league umpires?

JR: If they are good enough, there’s no reason not to. One thing that ties women’s hands a little bit, though, is you have to have an initial feel for the game. You have to understand how the game is played; you have to live it. And more of the men grew up playing baseball, but most women grow up playing softball. My sister would do a batter job than I would umpiring a softball game because she knows the flow of the game. And you learn that from playing the game and being out on the field and not from TV. I could find as many guys who have never played, they have the same handicap. I taught at umpire school for five years, and those guys who never played are handcuffed. We can teach somebody to umpire but it’s hard to teach them about the game. I think women are handicapped by that lack of experience. I’m a firm believer they should hire the best people, doesn’t matter who they are, men or women.

CT: So what else should we say about UMPS CARE Charities?

JR: It’s the greatest thing the MLB umpires do off the field. We raise the money, we show up at the events, but then we see the money all the way through the ends. We’re the ones participating in the experiences and the hospital visits. We’re actively involved and that’s unique for some charities. We’re not just cutting a check. We all take great pride in it.

CT: What kind of programs do you participate in?

JR: One of the major pieces of it is the kids awaiting adoption program. We arrange 120-150 visits a year, almost a thousand kids a year get hosted at a ballpark. I was lucky enough to go to games with my dad and it was something I cherished. For these kids we try to give them an experience like that. We get to take them around batting practice, they get a gift card for the concession stands then and a gift big with a hat and Cracker Jacks and all that in it, and the intent is to just give them a nice day. It’s something that all 68 umpires get involved in. We have some really really cool stuff in the auction. The Obama jersey is #44, because he’s the 44th president. We do a lot of stuff with the hospital visit program, too, with Build-a-Bear, so great great things. We just need to get the word out. This helps us fund those initiatives.

CT: So much of what you’ve said today isn’t just applicable to umpires, but to baseball as a whole.

JR: There’s this perception that the umpires and players and front offices don’t get along, but first and foremost we are a family. The executive offices donate a lot of stuff to us, they recognize what we’re doing as important. I can’t tell you how many times we’re got the kids on the field before batting practice, hanging out behind the ropes and we’re in our uniforms because we take pictures with all of them. And so many players come over unsolicited and say hi and sign for the kids and such. And guys like Aaron Hill (and guy after guy after guy) will say to me during the game, hey what was that about, and I’ll tell him and they think it’s cool.

The UMPS CARE online auction runs from today through March 22nd.

Among the many items, Boston Red Sox batting practice & game tickets caught my eye, and in addition to the Obama jersey, there is a George Bush signed baseball. How about a Nolan Ryan signed Hall of Fame jersey? Or how about Lunch with an Ump, plus game tickets, in the city of your choice? A Whitey Ford hat, and many other items await your perusal.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

4 Comments

  1. Pat Lagreid wrote:

    Really nice interview — always glad to learn a bit more about the umpires that work in MLB. Have you read As They See ‘Em? Great book about how these guys make it to the big leagues and what kinds of things they think about before, during, and after games.

    Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 10:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Cecilia Tan wrote:

    I have that book sitting on my desk right now! I have read the first chapter or so but haven’t had a chance to actually read it. The author, Bruce Weber, read from AS THEY SEE ‘EM at the SABR convention in Washington DC and I bought it then.

    Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  3. Excellent!, you could also have asked about the ‘tremendous’ changes in equipment that have been innovated in the past 12-15 years. I umpired college, high school etc. for 37 years before I was disabled. It was a true work of devotion to the game. I was hit as much as any other man in blue, and when the hockey style mask came out, I jumped on that with both feet and than Charlie O’Brien every day since. It takes a lickin’ and keeps the person wearing it in much better shape than the old mask! At least in my considered opinion.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Cecilia Tan wrote:

    I could do a whole article on concussion awareness in baseball (and sports) in general. More and more catchers are going to the hockey-style mask, too, and ultimately I believe it will benefit everyone. Thanks for dropping by, Red! Glad you enjoyed the interview!

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] a responsibility to get better even though I’ll never be perfect,” he said in a 2010 interview. “I will say this, there is nobody in the ballpark when I miss a call who feels worse than I […]

  2. […] a responsibility to get better even though I’ll never be perfect,” he said in a 2010 interview. “I will say this, there is nobody in the ballpark when I miss a call who feels worse than I […]

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