Like players in the short-season Class A Northwest League, the umpires are young, low-paid professionals with one ultimate goal to make it to the major leagues.
Thats the goal for everybody here. Players, managers, general managers, coaches. Its all the same thats the show, said Nate Tomlinson, one of two umpires assigned to the Boise Hawks five-game home stand against Eugene.
Tomlinson was behind home plate and partner Jake Wilburn was in the field Thursday night as the Hawks beat the Eugene Emeralds 5-4.
The young umps both are 21 had a quiet game, free from any on-field confrontations or disputed calls.
Tomlinson and Wilburn will be together all season, traveling more than 4,500 miles in the same rental car, sleeping in the same hotel room and calling every game together. They met for the first time Wednesday.
Theres only one guy on your side the entire year, said Wilburn, a former college baseball player at North Lake College in Dallas.
Like the players, the umpires face a long road to the majors and the knowledge that only the very best will make it. Unlike the players, however, the umps are relatively new to their jobs. Wilburn attended umpire school after college and is in his first season. Tomlinson called some little league games when he was in high school and worked his way up to high school ball. He is in his second season, his first in the Northwest League.
I love baseball. I wasnt good enough to play it successfully in college, but I wanted to stay around the game, said Tomlinson, a native of Wisconsin. This is the best way to do it I think.
Fledgling umpires are required to attend one of three accredited umpire schools, a four- or five-week course in all things umpire. The mornings are filled with classwork. The afternoons include on-field instruction, positioning and mechanics. Only the top of the class about 50 of the 300 prospective umps, according to the mlb.com make the cut to work in the minors.
From there, its a slow path to the majors. Umpires rarely skip a step on their way through the minor leagues, spending at least a year at each of baseballs six levels rookie league, short-season Class A, long-season Class A, high Class A, Class AA and Class AAA.
The umpires are evaluated throughout the season. Some fizzle out at each level, never advancing to the next. With just 68 major-league umpires and 225 positions in the minors, according to mlb.com, there arent many opportunities for new umpires.
Each winter, the umpires receive a letter from the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. informing them of their status for the next year promoted a level, staying at the same level or released.
Its a one-year shot. Every winter, Is that contract coming in the mail? Tomlinson said. Late January or February, you see the emblem on the letter. OK, here we go.
Once you get to a certain point, just in life, shoot, you got kids or youve got a wife, sometimes you just got to stop. And whatever age that comes at, whether its 28 or 38, thats the end of the road whether you make that decision or not.
New umpires are usually given at least two years to prove themselves. The starting salary for a major league umpire is $120,000. Veteran umps make up to $350,000. Tomlinson gets $2,000 a month plus $32 per diem. The league pays for gas and hotel rooms.
Some of the money goes to golf, Wilburn said. Umpires dont have to be at the ballpark until late in the afternoon, about 90 minutes before the game starts in time to rub down five dozen brand-new baseballs with special rubbing mud, get dressed, do some stretching and get prepared. That leaves time to hit the links and work out. Though some big-league umpires are noticeably overweight, Tomlinson and Wilburn are fit.
An in-shape guy is probably going to be perceived as a little more professional, Wilburn said. At our level, we havent really earned the strips just because of our names that were a good umpire. I think it helps at this level for perception.
The umps know their job is a thankless one, as fans only take note when they think an umpire got something wrong. In those situations, they rely on their lone teammate.
After the game, I would go, Hey whatd you have there? I had him out there. What did you have? You can be honest with each other, Wilburn said.
Said Tomlinson: For the most part, a baseball game and Ive heard this from others umpires itself. For 95 percent of the plays, people know exactly what is going to happen. But the five percent, were expected to get right every single time.
Get enough of them right and get enough breaks along the way and someday they could realize their long-shot dream of making it to the big leagues.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444Twitter: @MurphsTurph