A Baseball Umpire on the Power of Making Decisions

Baseball umpire Nestor Ceja is well aware of who is walking in his direction near second base on this warm May evening in San Antonio, Texas. It’s Phillip Wellman.

Of course.

The men in blue calling the balls, strikes and outs on the bases don’t have smartphones at hand like the rest of us watching the game from the stands or on TV. They receive scouting reports before each series on who and what to watch for. For years before becoming a YouTube sensation for an ejection in 2007 in which he crawled on his stomach and launched a rosin bag like a grenade, Wellman, the manager of the El Paso Chihuahuas, has been near the top of those reports with a reminder that his temper can be volcanic, even theatrical.

The play in question is an interference call at second base in a Double-A Texas League game. The discussion between Ceja and Wellman started off amicably enough, with the latter pleading his case, waving his arms sporadically, pointing at the second base bag on occasion. His voice is raised, but he is not screaming at an unimaginable decibel level. Listening intently, Ceja doesn’t say a word, only nodding at one point.

Then, quietly, Wellman takes his helmet off and places it on the infield dirt. Ceja points to the helmet and asks Wellman to pick it up. When it remains there, Ceja immediately ejects Wellman from the game before taking a few steps toward third base. This only boosts the manager’s blood pressure. He becomes more demonstrative, finally removing the second base bag from the ground. At this point, home plate umpire Cody Oakes interjects himself between the two, and Ceja walks away.

Defusing the situation

As Oakes and Wellman head off the field, toward the dugout, Wellman screams more and more with each passing step before he launches the base in the direction of Ceja, albeit purposely well short of where Ceja is standing on the edge of the outfield grass.

The ejection is one of the easier decisions Ceja faces, because once the hat is placed on the ground, the intent is to show up the umpire. Wellman knew that better than anyone. His goal at that juncture was to be ejected, and his wish was granted. There are several standard removal reasons for ejecting someone, including a personal insult of any kind or any physical contact, but mostly it’s a judgment call.

“It’s part of the game,” Ceja says. “You want to keep control of yourself, try and give a warning, whether it’s a manager, coach or even a player. That also helps write the report after the game, as you tried to give the guy a chance to stay in the game.

“Both sides, the umpire and the person ejected, understand that it’s not personal. In this particular instance with Wellman, it was isolated. He’s been very, very fair to our crew. There aren’t grudges.”

It also isn’t by happenstance that Ceja walked away from the confrontation after the ejection and that Oakes stepped in, although his intervention did nothing to defuse the situation.

“There’s nothing gained by me staying there, and it’s actually something they teach us at umpiring school,” Ceja says. “It’s called rodeo clowning, when another umpire is supposed to step in and play good cop.”

The importance of quick decision making for baseball umpires

Almost every tactic deployed and decision made by the umpires is based on training, decades spent honing the smallest details in an effort to get decisions right as often as humanly possible.

In this job, judgment calls are a science. Unlike in the major leagues, which have adopted an instant-replay system to rectify missed calls, the decisions by a minor league umpire are binding. And they can have monumental effects not only on the outcome of an individual game, but on the careers of the players and coaches involved, and especially the careers of the umpires themselves.

Fast-forward from the May incident to July 6. The three-man umpiring crew of Ceja, Oakes and Kyle McCrady are about 30 minutes north of Dallas for a back-to-back three-game series, which means nearly a week with the only man in the minors who can rival Wellman’s antics: former Frisco RoughRiders manager Joe Mikulik, who has YouTube classics of his own. When asked about a possible interview for this story, a team official said, “He doesn’t talk about umpires.”

On a balmy Thursday night, the RoughRiders, an affiliate of the big league Texas Rangers, face the Arkansas Travelers, an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, at Frisco, Texas’ Riders Field, formerly known as the Dr Pepper Ballpark. A crowd of 6,286 fans—mostly young families and high school kids on cheap dates—file in slowly, lining up for all-you-can-eat hot dogs and peanuts, grabbing local craft beer or making their way toward the lazy river just beyond the right field fence. The umpires arrive about 75 minutes before the game’s 7:08 p.m. first pitch. In the bowels beneath the first base grandstand, their dressing room sits across the hallway from the visiting team’s clubhouse.

The pregame ritual

Before each game, the first order of business is rubbing down eight boxes of 10 baseballs each with Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud. The “magic mud” has been used since the late 1930s, when the muck was discovered along the tributaries of the Delaware River. Now, it is used on the baseballs before every major and minor league game. It takes off the glossy shine and allows for a firmer grip. The process of preparing all of the baseballs can take a single person close to an hour, but the umpires usually divvy up the workload. Ceja and Oakes sit in front of their locker stalls while McCrady sits in a folding chair nearby.

There isn’t a ton of pregame preparation, at least in terms of reading reports or going over ground rules. The season has been crawling along for months, and the umpires have been working in their jobs for years. The deliberate movements about the diamond and the placement of an umpire’s gaze have been practiced thousands of times by this night. The crew is familiar with both the clubs and the ballpark, as the 10-team Double-A Texas League’s 140-game regular season runs from April through September. 

Baseball umpires work as a team.

The umpires take the field at 6:55 p.m.—Oakes calling the balls and strikes, McCrady at first and Ceja, the crew chief, at third. Umpires at every level, from high school through the big leagues, rotate assignments each game. In the minors, there are two-man crews for Rookie ball and Class A, three at the higher levels. With the latter, the field umpires share the responsibilities at second base. The trio exchange hand signals throughout the game to determine who covers which base depending on the circumstances. It’s not uncommon to see the home plate umpire jogging down toward third base to make a call. Just as the players—and people working together in any line of work—must trust their teammates to be perfectly positioned and prepared to step up when the ball comes their way, the umpires also rely on one another.

Lineup cards are exchanged at home plate. Usually a coach brings them out, sometimes the manager, a few quick ground rules are covered and everyone shakes hands. In the minute or two before the national anthem is played, the crew talks among themselves.

The pressure for baseball umpires to make quick calls

The game itself doesn’t offer much drama, with Frisco scoring four runs in the first inning and four more in the fourth, putting them en route to an 8-2 win. There are a few close plays, though, that demand quick decisions. Any hesitation on close plays raises questions of bias, creating pressure on umpires to make the calls not only right, but right away.

In the first inning, with runners on first and second base, there’s a “full count” (three balls and two strikes) on the batter and one out, typically an opportunity when the runners will attempt to advance on the pitch. The umpires are aware of that and flash a quick signal among themselves. The pitch, a two-seam fastball, sinks just a smidge at the end and the right-handed batter attempts to check his swing. The checked swing is one of baseball’s tougher judgment calls. There is no definition of a checked swing in the game’s official rulebook. It’s simply stated that a strike can be charged if “a pitch is struck at and missed (even if the pitch touches the batter),” according to Baseball Rules Academy.

If the umpire is unsure if the batter “went around” on his checked swing or committed to striking at the pitch, he can ask for help. In this case the first base umpire, McCrady, would have the clearest view. However, Oakes handles the call himself, hesitating just a moment, less than a second, before pointing to the bat to gesture that he committed to the swing and then raising his right hand for strike three. The catcher never throws down to third base, in his mind because he was waiting for the call first. If it were ball four, there would be no need to throw, as the runners would have advanced regardless. Still, instinctively knowing the runners could be going before the pitch was even thrown, the catcher should have thrown before waiting for the call.

The constant feedback

After the inning, as former Arkansas Travelers manager Mark Parent makes his way to the third base coaching box, he stops for a brief discussion with Oakes. Parent, who played in the major leagues for 13 seasons, tells him that his catcher should have thrown down regardless, but that he could have made that call a little quicker. Oakes nods his head and says, “I just wanted to make sure I got the call right. I’m not going to rush and maybe get the call wrong, but I’ll try to be a little quicker next time.”

Parent nods and returns to his dugout. He’ll make a brief comment here or there the remainder of the game, to both Ceja and Oakes, always quietly, usually while walking by before or after innings. 

“I have huge respect for what they do,” Parent says. “The decision process they have to go through with so many different calls and… it still takes us four or five replays sometimes to know what the right call is. These guys have, what, a second or less?”

During his nearly four decades in baseball, two experiences with umpires stand out for Parent. The first being when he was ejected while exchanging lineup cards as a bench coach for the Chicago White Sox in 2013. (He was still upset about how an incident had been handled the night before.) The second was a previous stint as a minor league manager when he noticed a loud round of applause after one of the umpires was announced and he realized it was the umpire’s hometown. At one point, just to give the umpire’s friends and family a show, Parent went out between innings and appeared to have an argument—in reality, he was jokingly yelling at the umpire about what a great job he was doing.

A baseball umpire’s complete and utter focus

Later in the Arkansas-Frisco game, which like all of minor league baseball features entertainment such as world-class juggling and mascots launching T-shirts into the crowd, there’s a call at first base on a slow infield ground ball. With the first baseman stretched beautifully, keeping his back foot on the bag, the ball arrives a nanosecond before the runner. McCrady immediately signals out, with a little more emphasis than a routine call, something the umpires are taught. The school of thought here is that umpires are part of the entertainment experience of the ball game.

In making the call, once he positioned himself, McCrady’s eyes never moved from the first base bag. So how did he know when the ball hit the glove?

“For any play at an infield base, you want to find the best angle to make the call,” McCrady says. “Then you watch the fielder until he releases the ball, which helps to position yourself. At that point, you just focus on the actual base. You listen for the ball to hit the glove. You don’t look up. You can’t be looking back and forth, especially on close plays, so they teach us to listen for the ball and watch the bag for when the base runner’s foot hits.”

The life of a baseball umpire

At the major league level, the starting salaries for umpires is $120,000. Senior umpires earn around $350,000—a significant raise compared with minor league umpires, who are paid “$2,800 a month in the rookie complex leagues, $3,000 in Low-A and $4,500 in Triple-A,” according to Baseball America.

“Compared to the players, the salaries for the umpires are very good, especially because there’s really no reason for them to spend any money during the season,” says Texas League President Tom Kayser, who retired at season’s end after 25 years. “We’ve seen a lot of our umpires who come through here end up in the big leagues. I always make a note of it and celebrate it.”

Twice a year, at the All-Star break and at the end of the season, all of the umpires in each classification are ranked, from first to last, based on evaluations. Two former umpires, many retired from the major leagues, see each umpire in his respective league six times. The ratings determine who moves up and who doesn’t at the end of the season. 

It’s worth noting that the number of promotions is contingent on how many major league umpires retire or aren’t asked back. “There have been years with no one moving up, other times we’ve had 10 guys promoted,” Kayser says.

Ceja was promoted to full-time Major League Baseball staff in mid-January of this year. Oakes is now a Triple-A umpire. McCrady spent about a year and a half as a Major League Baseball umpire before transitioning into real estate.

A grueling experience

There are no vacations or holidays once the season starts. It’s a grueling stretch of nearly six months, arriving in a new city in the early morning hours, grabbing a little sleep and heading to the ballpark. Oakes and McCrady are both married, each with children. 

“It’s so much more difficult than my first three years umpiring,” McCrady says. “I’m missing out on a lot of stuff, especially being there for when my son first walks or talks, or his first birthday. My perspective of why I do what I do, this job, that’s all changed. Making the big leagues, that has new meaning now. It’s all about my son. I’m at a major point of my career. Do I go home and be a father or do I continue to do this?”

While umpires are known for making decisions on the field, the biggest life decision for many comes when the journey ends. Just as it is for the players, there are always younger prospects waiting for their chance. 

“I don’t know that many people know what we’re giving up to do this. I have a wife and kid at home,” Oakes says. “The fans that come to the games, have a few beers and yell at us for three hours like it’s part of the entertainment of coming to a game. It’s Minor League Baseball. We’re developing and having learning experiences just like the players are.”

The decisions they make on the field will determine the outcomes of games played by teenage and 20-something soon-to-be millionaires.

But for the umpires, much more hinges on each call.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by – Yuri A/Shutterstock

Jeff Sullivan is the editorial director at Panini America and a columnist for Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. He lives in Arlington, Texas.

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