Minor League 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.
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 viral 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 San Antonio Missions, 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, and the discussion between Ceja and Wellman started off amicably enough, 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, and 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.
As Oakes and Wellman head off the field, toward the dugout, the Missions skipper 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 more than anyone. His goal at that juncture was to be ejected, and his wish was granted. There are 10 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.”
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: Frisco RoughRiders manager Joe Mikulik, who also has several 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, will face the Arkansas Travelers, a lesser sibling of the Los Angeles Angels, at Frisco’s 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.
Before each game, the first order of business is rubbing down eight boxes of 10 baseballs each with Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, or “magic mud” as it has been known since before World War II, when the muck was discovered along the tributaries of the Delaware River. For almost 50 years, it has been used on the baseballs before every major and minor league game and half of NFL teams now use it, too. It takes off the glossy shine and allows for a firmer grip. The process 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 McCready 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 eight-team Texas League employs four three-man crews for its 140-game regular season, which runs from April through Labor Day. This is one of the country’s three Double-A leagues, which features many of the top young prospects in the sport and is one step away from the highest classification in the minors, Triple-A.
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, while 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 game itself doesn’t offer much drama, with Frisco scoring four runs in the first inning and four more in the fourth, 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 is a pitch that is struck at by the batter and missed.
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.
After the inning, as Arkansas manager Mark Parent makes his way to the third base coaching box, he stops for a brief discussion with Oakes. Parent, who caught 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.
“It still takes us four or five replays sometimes to know what the right call is. These guys have, what, a second or less?”
“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 the P.A. announced one of the umpires and he realized it was the umpire’s hometown. At one point, just to give the ump’s friends and family a show, Parent went out between innings and appeared to have an argument when in reality, he was jokingly yelling at the umpire about what a great job he was doing.
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, which 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?
Related: A Guide for Making Tough Decisions
“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.”
According to a 2013 study by Baseball America, 17.2 percent of players drafted between 1997 and 2008 played in at least one major league game. For umpires, the odds are considerably lower, at about 3 percent. At the major league level, the starting salaries are $120,000, and senior umpires earn around $350,000—a significant raise compared with Double-A umpires, who earn an average of $2,500 per month and a $48 per diem.
“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.”
For this crew, though, which is considered the best in the Texas League, the odds of reaching the major leagues are infinitely higher. Half of the umpires who advance to Double-A reach the big leagues, although some are part-time or fill-in positions.
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.
For Ceja, 29, this is his fifth year as a minor league umpire, and by all accounts he’s on the fast track to The Show, aka Major League Baseball. In July he earned the coveted home plate assignment for the Futures Game, the All-Star Game for minor league players.
Ceja’s most recent rating is among the top 5 in all of Double-A. That, combined with his home plate assignment for the Futures Game, makes him a virtual lock to be promoted at year’s end—as long as there’s an opening. Oakes, 32, and McCrady, 27, also received high ratings, but both are in their first year in the Texas League, and while it’s not mandatory, umpires almost without exception, no matter their rating, spend two years at each level.
The overwhelming majority of minor league umpires are in their 20s and single, which makes the lonely lifestyle of traveling and living out of hotel rooms more manageable. 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 married, each with a young child. The latter’s son recently turned 1.
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?”
“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. If an umpire isn’t promoted after two seasons in Triple-A, it’s almost a guarantee that he [or in rare but notable cases, she] never will be. Just as it is for the players, there are always younger prospects waiting for their chance. There are few umpires or players in the minor leagues in their mid- to late 30s. By that age, most have either advanced or given up hope.
“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.”
Oakes says he’ll have a good idea in two or three years if reaching the major leagues will become a reality. If it’s not, he’ll start looking for a different day job. “No one gets into this to be a minor league umpire for their entire life. We all have that dream, that singular goal.”
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.
Related: Tips for Better Decision Making
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.