The May issue of Gazette Seniors from Maryland’s Gazette.net is featuring Phillies Phantasy Camper David Belkin and his personal take on the experience. And even though I have a ways to go to be considered a “senior”, I did make an appearance in the article…
When I stepped up to the plate to take my first at-bat in Camp, the umpire asked me if I was the guy with “the blog”. I smiled and said “yes”. I then proceeded to watch the first pitch go right by me. I recall looking back and saying, “wow, that was fast”.
After Camp, I uploaded my photos from Northeast Photography to my Flickr. I received a message from a man named Esteban Miguel. It turns out that one of those photos featured him during that exact game.
Luckily, it is one of my favorites.
We exchanged some messages and he mentioned how he was thinking of starting his own blog, chronicling his experiences umpiring. Before he gets that incredibly appealing endeavor off the ground, he was gracious enough to answer a few questions for my blog and give me some great insight in to the mind of a baseball umpire.
Sarge: What motivated you to become an umpire? That pressure, people constantly questioning your every decision and move, getting yelled at… that’s something people aren’t eagerly lining up for.
Esteban: Well what motivated me to become an umpire was some extra money. I started umpiring when I was in high school so I could make some money during the summer. After high school I couldn’t play anymore so I just kept going while I worked a regular job. In 2006 I went to the Cooperstown Little League tournament that is held every year. On the first night I was there, an umpire named Dick Wolf, who had been there a bunch of times in the past, gave me a tour. He took me to where the main field was (it was night and the fog under the lights gave me goosebumps). He told me that on championship night, the place is packed with over 3,000 parents, coaches, and players, and that the game is broadcasted through the internet. I promptly told him that I would work the championship game. He laughed and told me that no first year umpire at Cooperstown has ever worked the championship game. I promptly responded with “then I’ll be the first to do it.” He wished me luck and said that it’s a hard road, and that if I had any questions throughout the week, to just ask him. I asked him if he’d come out to see me umpire my first game and evaluate me. He agreed, but I didn’t see him until the next day after my two games. When I saw him, he gave me a list of things I needed to work on and I told him that if he came to see me the following day, that they would all be fixed. That night I worked on the list and made sure I wouldn’t mess up. The next day, he came to see me and told me to see him after my games. When I saw him he told me that only one aspect of my umpiring from the day before was still a problem, but that everything was fixed. He was impressed. Little did I know that he was in the same bunker as the head umpire from Cooperstown, and that he was listening to everything. The head ump came to see me the next day and was impressed. Apparently my name started to spread around. On the night before the championship game, I was cleaning my shoes, getting ready for the next day when the head ump came in asking if I could cover a game that he needed me ASAP. So I got my gear on and hustled out to the field. When I got back to my bunk I saw a list of assignments for all the games the next day. I started at the bottom to see if I got anything for the top 16 teams. Nothing. Top 8? Nothing. Top 4? Nothing. Then I look at the championship game and my name is on the list. I had the right field line. Nothing glorious but I was in the championship game. I made a few phone calls and was congratulated by some of the people in my bunk. The next morning I was at breakfast when the man from the first night, Dick Wolf, came up and handed me a black MLB umpire hat. “One day you’re going to be there.” I had a smile from ear to ear. “You worked hard kid, and if you keep it up, you’ll get there. You’ve impressed a lot of people.” I wore that hat with pride the whole day. Now the championship game is here and the stadium was packed with about 3,000 people like Dick had said. By the way, he was also working the championship game with me. He had first base. When we were about to walk onto the field, I had those goosebumps again and felt like this is what I want to do forever. At that exact moment I realized that I wanted to be a Major League umpire. For about a week, you couldn’t smack the smile off my face.
As far as pressure, getting yelled at, and the constant pressure of people constantly questioning my every decision and move, I tend to ignore what people think they see. 99 percent of the time I’m right. If there’s a close call, I’ll go back and look at the video and check. I’m almost always right. I don’t know how I do it, but I tend to be able to slow everything in my mind and see it more clearly. With the heckling and taunts, I tend to easily ignore them.
S: How long have you been an umpire? Could you give me a timeline of your progress, including umpiring school? What was the highest level you have umpired at?
E: I’ve been umpiring since i was a sophomore in high school (2000). I graduated in 2002, and worked for some local leagues and travel ball teams. The Cooperstown thing was in 2006, and my first time at umpire school was January 2007. I came just short in my first year. Of the 160 students, I was told I was about 43/160. They only take the top 25 students. I figured if I worked hard on everything I learned, and I go back the next year, I could make it. So i spent all summer working really hard and executing everything I learned in Atlanta, GA working perfect game baseball. I went back to school in January of 2008, and once again, I came up just short. I learned from a friend of mine who was in the minor leagues, and friends with an instructor, that I was about five people short from getting to go to the PBUC (Professional Baseball Umpire Corp). So this time I came in at #30 of 180 students. I was crushed. I’ve continued to work hard and have been able to work college and high school games. This year was able to work in two actual Major League games. The first was a Blue Jays Spring Training game in Dunedin, FL I worked second base; it wasn’t a big roll that I played, but it was still a Major League game nonetheless. Two weeks later, another Spring Training game involving the Phillies.
S: How long have you been doing Phillies Phantasy Camp?
E: 2011 was the first time I’ve done the Phillies Phantasy Camp. An umpire friend of mine got me in contact with the man who scheduled all the games, and BAM!, there I was.
S: How did you enjoy Phantasy Camp?
E: I loved it for the four days I was there. Everything was very professional and the players were filled with enthusiasm and excitement. I would definitely go back again anytime.
S: I caught one game, and because the last time I did that, I was in Little League, the poor umpire behind me got hit at least a half-dozen times. Do/did you come away from Camp with a lot of bumps and bruises or was my umpire just really unlucky to have me?
E: I can’t recall getting hit, but the umpire I was with got hit once or twice. Luckily, it was on the chest protector. Most catchers are pretty good as long as the ball doesn’t hit the dirt. When I see that the catcher can’t move well, I’ll make sure I get out of the way so I don’t get pegged all game long. Getting hit is part of the job when you’re behind the plate, though so it’s not all that bad, especially since we have a lot of gear.
S: In the real world of umpiring… the one that doesn’t involve us Campers… who have been, or still are, your favorite players and coaches to deal with on the field… and maybe not so favorite?
E: My favorite players and coaches to deal with are the ones that know that you’re not going to get anywhere by arguing with the umpire. The ones I don’t like are the ones that aren’t as experienced, and feel like they’re the know-it-alls, and they argue with you for something small that doesn’t really effect the outcome of the game. They usually end up getting tossed and fined. Some of them are funny sometimes too; just the things they say because they are ignorant of the rules. Some think I’m trying to “reinvent the game” or say things like, “you called that ball fair cause you hate me.” Yeah, that’s right… I called it fair cause because it didn’t hit your third baseman’s glove five feet in fair territory. I called it fair because I hate you. My favorite is when a wiseass coach comes out with a rulebook. When he does that I toss him right away. That’s total disrespect to me, and they usually don’t read the whole rule before they come out to me, and find out later that I was right.
S: I’m fascinated with the “art” of the coach/player/umpire argument. What is that exact line someone must cross before you send them to the showers? It seems someone can jaw endlessly without being tossed. Has any Camper ever gotten a little too serious and started something with you or your fellow umpire brethren?
E: As far as the line to cross goes, you can go on and on until you make something personal by adding the words “you” or “you’re” or “you all”. When you say that, it’s grounds for automatic ejection. Phantasy Camp is pretty laid back, so I didn’t experience any Campers saying anything. However, Mickey Morandini almost got tossed for arguing balls and strikes, which is another big no-no. I was laid back though, so he got to stay in the game.