ALTOONA, Pennsylvania, 9 June - Travis Hatch is a trailblazer.
To this day, though, there’s a chance his mum might not know why.
“What’s weird about it is being a pro baseball umpire in America, it’s not a big deal, but everyone gets what it is. Baseball’s the national pastime,” Hatch says, relaxed in his crew’s changing room, an hour before working a doubleheader in Double-A, “In Australia...being a pro baseball umpire, people don’t think that it is a career. I’m confident that my mum still thinks that I’m out on some back field somewhere umpiring kids running around.”
The life of an umpire might not be called glamourous by the average fan. As with officials in any sport around the globe, the common refrain toward umpires from baseball fans is that if they’re noticed in a game for doing anything other than making the correct calls, they’re doing it wrong. An impossible standard of perfection? Yes. But then, a lot of things about sport are impossible.
Sit down and listen to an umpire’s perspective on life from behind a mask or down a baseline, though, and you may see the game of baseball in a whole new light.
A LIFE INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE LINES
The irony of Hatch’s mum’s possible image of her son’s impressive career path is that it was because of her that a young Travis got involved with baseball in the first place. At nine years old, Hatch and his family moved to Perth from the country. There, he started playing T-Ball, in part as a favour to his mum. Or, more accurately, as his mum’s favour to a friend who was short one player to field a full team. From there, a love of the sport grew all the way through youth leagues, juniors, and senior baseball.
Hatch’s road to being between the lines in a different uniform, though, came as a favour to another parent: his best friend’s dad, the president of a local youth baseball association who was in need of arbiters. That’s when the first seeds were sewn for a career path to blossom.
At 19 years old, Hatch began umpiring full-time, finishing off his playing career and starting on a path of learning the craft of calling a game. The young ump did junior nationals, working Under-14, -16, and -18 tournaments and turning heads while doing so.
In 2002, with local umpires taking notice of his obvious talent at the age of 21, Hatch travelled to the States, specifically to the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Florida, at the time one of just two umpire schools accredited to send professionals to the umpiring corps of Minor League and Major League Baseball.
“When I first was going to umpires school, I didn’t really know a lot about it,” Hatch notes about his initial exposure to the American umpire’s experience. “I knew that I would go there and learn a lot about umpiring, but being from Australia, no one had done it before. I didn’t really realize what was coming.”
What greeted Hatch and the dozens of other hopeful officials-in-waiting wasn’t a fantasy camp or a relaxing retreat for those just wishing to learn a little more about their favourite game, though. It was baseball’s version of boot camp, made even more daunting for one student nearly 12,000 miles from home.
“It was my first experience in America, so it was a steep learning curve, learning the different vocabulary, the different culture, the different people,” Hatch says. “And umpire school is intense. It’s run nine hours a day, six days a week, run almost a bit like a military academy, I guess. It was one of the most fun five weeks of my life, but you come out drained and tired.”
Hatch’s original objective of absorbing the game at a deeper level to later impart wisdom back home soon morphed into something more. With the promise of cutting his teeth in that Florida sun-and-baseball-saturated environment came the possibility of umpiring as a career option, as well.
“Even when I found out that that’s where they gave out pro contracts, everyone in Australia was basically telling me, ‘They’re not interested in Australians. Don’t get your hopes up. Just go there and learn what you can, come back, and teach.’”
They were interested, however, and though Hatch wasn’t selected to sign a contract in that first year, the door broke open for Aussies one year later. Fellow Western Australia native Brett Robson, from Carrington, signed on to umpire professionally in 2003. One year after that, Hatch and Jon Byrne, a Thornlie, WA native, put ink on the dotted line, as well. The trio had arrived.
“When I went to umpire school, I had myself as good as anyone who was there,” Hatch muses. “It was really at umpire school with some of the feedback that I was getting from the instructors that I really thought that this is something that I could do and that I would obviously want to do. Who doesn’t want to work in baseball three hours a day?”
BROTHERS IN MASKS
That’s the life Hatch, along with Robson and Byrne, chose. All three started in the Gulf Coast League, the entry level of Minor League Baseball, where players, coaches, and umpires alike learn the ropes of the professional ranks. That season followed a full slate of games in extended spring training; not an official minor league but still a competitive circuit between the youngest professional players waiting for their short-season leagues to begin. The extended spring training schedule coupled with the GCL season ran near 100 games in total.
After a year for each Aussie in the GCL, Robson, Hatch, and Byrne all respectively ascended the ranks, Hatch climbing his ladder through the Appalachian, New York-Penn, and California Leagues among others. Hatch made his debut in the Double-A Eastern League in 2009. Robson and Byrne are currently in Triple-A, one step higher and one level below the big leagues. The three WA boys have used their opportunities to grow independently and as a unit and have transported that growth to the fields of the ABL over the league’s first two seasons.
“We’ve always worked really well together,” Hatch says of his countrymen. “We all started around the same time, within two or three years of each other, and we’ve been there working with each other and against each other to learn, be better, and develop as umpires. It’s been a great resource. For the last five years, I’ve been able to go back to Perth and work with Brett and Jon every year. In the offseason, I’m still getting to work quality baseball with quality umpires.”
SLICES OF HOME
Through Claxton Shield tournaments and Australian Baseball League seasons, Byrne, Hatch, and Robson have been at the forefront of the next generation of Aussie umpires. From their work at the game’s highest levels to their work at its most grassroots back home, the three have been woven into the fabric of Aussie baseball, learning not only the nation’s strides in the sport but its most successful exports, as well.
“The Australian baseball community is pretty small, particularly at the high-performance level,” Hatch explains. “With my involvement in the national championships, the ABL and the Claxton Shield in the last ten years and even the [MLB Australian Academy Program] on the Gold Coast, pretty much anyone who’s anyone for the last 15 years, I’ve met at some point or had quite a lot to do with.
“In the Eastern League, there’s been quite a lot of guys here. Luke Hughes, Tim Kennelly, Allan de San Miguel [of Perth], [Melbourne’s] James Beresford’s here this year, Shane Lindsay was here a couple of years ago. Plenty of guys have been in and around this league.”
Hatch’s current league contains a host of other ABL performers, as well, from Adelaide native Stefan Welch to Americans like Pittsburgh Pirates prospect and 2010/11 Bite outfielder Quincy Latimore, 2011/12 Canberra Cavalry infielder John Tolisano, and 2011/12 Sydney Blue Sox manager Kevin Boles. In the booming industry that is Minor League Baseball, the ABL has formed an exclusive fraternity among its players and coaches now in the States.
“I was very impressed with it,” Hatch says of the ABL, reflecting on last season, his first year as part of it. “Obviously it’s a big learning curve, but there are a lot of people in important positions who were willing to listen to those with things to say. The management from the teams, general managers, and even the ABL office were like giant sponges taking everything they could from everyone else and making good decisions to move the league forward.”
Part Two: Hatch discusses life for an umpire in the minors