ALTOONA, Pennsylvania, 26 July - The innings give way to days, the days to seasons. An umpire’s life consists of rotations: from behind the plate to third base to first base from game to game, from passenger to driver on the road, from nights studying in the hotel to daytime golf under the sun in baseball cities. On the field, though, it is competition of the highest calibre. Often in baseball, that means friendly and not-so-friendly disagreements between umpires and coaches or players or fans.
“I guess the first 100 games or so in professional baseball,” Western Australia native and current Double-A umpire Travis Hatch recalls of his rookie campaign in the GCL. “I look back at it now and see it as a bit of a free look where they were easier on us and let a lot of stuff slide and didn’t jump on us a lot like you see now in Double-A. But I guess at the time, I didn’t feel that way.”
At the top levels of the minors, games are big business. A bevy of the game’s brightest and most talented (not to mention, in many cases, best-compensated) young stars are in Double-A, and its most major league-ready prospects are in Triple-A. A missed third strike call here or a blown out call there can alter a game or a series or a season and put an umpire in the line of fire. Not just with members of a game’s participating teams, either.
From Rookie ball through Double-A, umpires are evaluated on an intensive schedule. Twelve times throughout a season at Hatch’s current level, an evaluator watches his performance and grades it. Four times when Hatch is behind home plate, four times at third base, and four times at first. Twice a year, the umpires receive those grades and those evaluations. They also see their rankings. In Hatch’s case, that means seeing where he measures up against the other 44 umpires among the three Double-A leagues.
While the evaluations come in measured doses from a nonpartisan observer off the field, on-the-field participants aren’t quite as shy to let an umpire know where he stands.
“It’s part of the job,” Hatch explains of an umpire’s always tenuous standing with teams and coaches. “You don’t take [arguments] personally, and for the most part, it’s back to the status quo the next day. You just roll with the punches, take them as they come. Hopefully you can avoid them or diffuse the situations as they present themselves, but it’s part of the game. There are times where a manager’s going to get ejected either to save his player or to try to fire his team up or to make a point...If a guy wants to get run, he’s going to get himself run.”
There have, however, been times when Hatch’s heritage has gotten him out of a jam. In the States, that accent never hurts.
“In the New York-Penn League, I was doing a game with the Aberdeen Ironbirds. Their manager, Andy Etchebareen, I’d had him like six, seven times before. We’d had conversations, we’d had arguments,” Hatch reminisces. “This one time, Andy came out and it was mid-argument, he had his big spiel, I was listening to what he had to say, and I began to explain my situation.
“It wasn’t five seconds into it that his expression completely softened, his head tilted, and he said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘Australia, but what’s your point?’ I tried to keep explaining, and at that point he was smiling and laughing, and within about five seconds, he walked away, and the conversation was over. I really didn’t even have to explain myself.”
Umpiring crews get bigger as umpires get better. In all Class A leagues and below, from Advanced A to Rookie circuits, games are played with two arbiters, one behind the plate and one in the field. At Double-A, two umpires take the field duties with one stationed at third base and one at first in addition to the plate ump. At Triple-A and in the big leagues, all three bases and home are covered.
Hatch serves as the crew chief for his three-man Double-A squad that includes Americans Luke Hamilton and Nick Mahrley. For 142 games (or more, depending on postseason assignments), the three are a makeshift baseball family, traveling together, eating together, socializing together, and always striving for the next level together.
“The difference between umpires and players is we don’t have 71 games at home and 71 games away,” Hatch points out, noting that umpires don’t have home bases, instead working equally around the league.
“We have 142 games on the road. Our schedule’s got something like 32 road trips this year. We’ll spend either one or two series in a city, so between three and eight days. We get ten off days a season, just like the players do. We’ll finish a series, get in the van, drive the three to 11 hours to the next city, depending what it might be, check into the new hotel, get some sleep.”
To pass the time-time made longer by the fact that umpires spend less time at the ballpark than players, generally arriving an hour to an hour and a half before first pitch-Hatch and his crew study the rule book to stay constantly on top of the game, play golf at their various destinations, watch television, and catch up with friends on the phone or Skype. And always there, just days away at the most, is the travel.
The Eastern League, a circuit encompassing 12 teams in 12 cities in nine states, racks up 12,000 miles on the odometer on the crew’s Dodge minivan each season. The “three man,” generally the youngest member of the crew, does most of the driving to get the crew from city to city, (“He gets the benefit of learning from us, so he gets to help out by driving,” Hatch explains with a laugh.) but all take turns.
Pennsylvania leads to Virginia or to New Jersey or Maine. The Appy League leads to the California or the Eastern or the Pacific Coast. Mahrley’s driving shift leads to Hamilton’s and to Hatch’s with the crew changing hands at the wheel at a rest stop or a petrol station, and the season continues, road after road, day after day, game after game. It is the microcosm of the sport.
One pitch becomes the next with every out leading to the one behind it. Each series does the same with the next city, and the next level, waiting just beyond the horizon for Hatch.
“You get used to driving these Dodge Minivans, that’s for sure.”
Part One: Hatch talks about his road to the pros and his time with the ABL