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Would-be umps chase their elusive dream at Dodgertown

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of March 29, 2012)

Malachi Moore, 21, came to Vero Beach from Compton, Calif., in early March filled with the mixture of hope and fear people feel when chasing a long-cherished but elusive dream.

Like Blake Carnahan, Nestor Ceja, Travis Godec and 50 other young men who showed up at Vero Beach Sports Village, Moore wants to be a Major League Baseball umpire.

“It is a million miles away right now,” he says. “But in 10 years I hope to be a Triple-A umpire knocking on the door of the big leagues.”

The long road that leads to the bright lights and roaring crowds of major league ballparks starts at the former Dodgertown facility near the Vero Beach Airport where Minor League Baseball now holds its annual 12-day umpire evaluation course.

“The students do about two hours a day in the classroom and then they go out and work games,” says instructor Dusty Dellinger, a former college baseball player who worked as a professional umpire for 11 years, including three years during which he officiated part of the time at the major league level. “Each student umps three to four games during the training course and we evaluate them on that basis.”

Students come to the evaluation course from one of three professional schools that collectively train between 300 and 400 aspiring umpires each winter. The training costs $3,000 to $4,000.

“We take the top 15 or 16 from each school for the evaluation,” Dellinger says.

Would-be professional umpires are judged on focus, hustle, mobility, demeanor and eagerness to learn. They are also ranked on their judgment, style, communication skills and, of course, knowledge of baseball’s complex rules.

In a typical year, about half the candidates are offered jobs at the end of the course. Another 14 get jobs with an amateur league where they are paid to umpire while remaining on call for minor league baseball.

“We call them up throughout the season as we need them due to retirements and injuries and other,” Dellinger says.

In total, about 40 of the 54 students in this year’s class are likely to become professional umpires during the course of the 2012 season, which is pretty good odds.

But starting umpire jobs are poorly-paid, part-time positions a world away from the glamour and high salaries of big league umpiring, where the most seasoned and successful officials make up to $300,000 a year.

“They will be working in the rookie leagues at minor league spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida,” Dellinger says.  “It is the level before Single-A, very basic. The players are young kids drafted out of high school along with some of the young Latin American players. The games are on practice fields, not in stadiums, and there are no fans.

“Those are tough leagues because of the heat during June, July and August. We tell the guys if they can get through that initiation process, it gets easier after from then on.”

“Rookie league umpires start at $1,900 a month during the two-and-a half month season,” says Moore.  “After the season, you have to find some other way to make money.”

For those who survive their first season of rookie ball, a long uncertain slog through Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A baseball still separates them from one of the 68 big-league umpire spots, season after season of calling balls and strikes and going nose-to-nose with red-faced managers, riding herd on the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Batavia Muckdogs and hundreds of other unheralded feeder teams.

“The top minor league umpires in Triple-A ball only make about $3,500 a month,” Moore says. “I think most of them have to find something to do in the off-season.” 

“It usually takes eight to 10 years to get to the big leagues,” says Justin Klemm, executive director of the Professional Umpire Baseball Corporation (PBUC), who oversees umpire training, evaluation and promotion for the 16 domestic minor leagues. “Only two or three percent of those who start at the rookie-ball level make it all the way.”

None of that discourages Moore or Ceja, 24, who came to Vero Beach from the San Fernando Valley town of Arleta, where he lives with his parents and two younger brothers.

They know the job is hard, the pay low and the chances slim, but they have their hearts set on this career. Both of them attended umpire school for the second time this year to gain the skills and experience needed for entry into the evaluation course.

“This is what I want to do,” says Ceja. “I gravitated to it for the self-discipline and the game itself.”

“I love baseball,” says Moore, who works at the Major League Urban Youth Academy in Compton when he is home in Los Angeles. “If I couldn’t be an umpire, I would do something else in baseball, maybe work on a grounds crew.”

The Compton Urban Youth Academy teaches kids softball, baseball and umpiring in organized leagues and exposes them to the mentoring of baseball professionals.

Moore received a scholarship from the Youth Academy to attend umpire school and hopes to teach in the umpiring clinic at the facility next year.

“It is a one-week program that is a pathway to the three professional umpire schools,” he says.

Moore and his classmates did not come to the evaluation course because they lack other options.

Florida native Blake Carnahan, 23, has a degree in environmental economics and has worked in the citrus industry, but is more drawn to baseball.  “Ever since I was young, I knew I wanted to be a major league umpire,” he says. “I have just waited for this time to come.”

Ceja says he has most of the credits needed to graduate with a pre-med degree at Arizona State University and Godec is a college man, too.

“They are chasing a dream,” says Klemm. “They love the game and they love to umpire.”

Minor League Baseball started its own umpire training school this year. Held for the first time in January at the Sports village, it was third of the three schools to be founded. The other two are privately owned but run by former professional umpires.

“Our Umpire School was really a natural extension of our desire to enhance umpire training combined with the availability of the Sports Village,” says Klemm.  “The Idea was born when we got the facility. Our staff wanted to have a hand in at the beginning of umpire training, before the evaluation level.”

Moving the evaluation school to the Sports Village was another synergistic decision.

The well-equipped, county-owned facility, which has been managed by Minor League Baseball since 2009, hosts spring-training camps for more than 100 college and high school baseball teams.  Those teams need umpires when they compete against each other and the umpire trainees need games where they can show their stuff to Dellinger and the other five Minor League evaluators.  

This year’s course ended March 16 and the students had a two-day wait to find out their fate. Moore, Ceja, Carnahan and Godec all made it.

“They offered me a position on Sunday,” says a happy and relieved Ceja. “I am very excited and my family is happy and excited, too.  I have been working for this for a couple of years and I am ready to get going. I’m just waiting for my first assignment.”