Almost 75% of what umpires do each game is unseen by fans. At theHarry Wendelstedt Umpire School, students spend five weeks learning all 100%.
BY MATT MENCARINI | STAFF WRITER
A pitcher peeks over his shoulder, eyeing the runner who takes a lead off second base.
Quickly, he steps off the rubber, pivotes toward the bag and throws. The runner dives back just as the shortstop lays down a tag. Then, all eyes go to the umpire. Was he safe or out?
That’s what most fans see during a game-time pick-off throw. But there’s more going on, just out of view, which will determine if the umpire makes the correct call.
Students at the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School, one of a few professional umpire schools in the country, spend eight hours a day, six days a week, for five weeks, at the Ormond Beach Sports Complex, learning the mechanics, skills and discipline necessary to become a professional umpire.
Only a handful of the roughly 180 students, who are instructed by major league and minor league umpires, will be graded high enough to advance to the placement camp. And out of those players, only one, maybe two if it’s a strong class, will ever make a call at the Major League level — and that won't happen until about 10 years calling plays in the minors.
“As a minor league ballplayer, if you’re a good player, you might only spend one season in the minor leagues,” said Hunter Wendelstedt, who has spent 16 years as an umpire for Major League Baseball, and whose father, Harry Wendelstedt, is the school’s namesake.
“(But) if God put an umpire on this earth, it would be at least six to seven years before he’d even get a shot at the big leagues.”
The school emphasizes discipline. Students run from drill to drill, and even to the lunch line. Students call out their name and umpire position before every drill.
The students are clean-shaven, stand up straight and are taught to make calls in a way that projects authority.
There’s no aspect of the game too small to be taught. In fact, the school focuses on the basics early on, so once the students are put into real-game scenarios, they're ready.
“It’s as fundamental as holding up a baseball,” Wendelstedt said. “(We say), ‘This is a baseball. This is a bat. This is what they weigh. These are what the dimension are allowed to be.’ And then we progress everyday. We just put in another brick of that house everyday.”
The school not only takes place on fields, but also in classrooms, where students learn the rules of the game.
Once on the field, it’s a slow progression to game situations. First, the students are taught how to stand, where to stand, how to signal safe or out, and even things as simple as removing their mask the right way.
“That’s important because if you can’t see the ball, you can’t call the play,” Wendelstedt said. “So something as fundamental as — boom — ripping that mask off ... we spend a whole afternoon teaching these guys that.”
Once the students are on the field, they learn footwork and get quizzed on every possible angle.
“Instinct is the most important thing in umpiring,” said Brent Rice, an instructor who has been a Double-A umpire since 2007. “That is recognizing when and where plays develop. That will make you have good positioning. And if you have good positioning, and you use good timing, then you will be able to see the play.”
Contrary to popular belief, he added, umpire school only spends a few days dealing with ejections. It's more focused on situational technique and positioning. Correctly judging plays, he says, has everything to do with being in the right place at the right time.
Wendelstedt said about 75% of an umpire's job, from using the right vocabulary to covering an open base, is never seen by fans.
“An umpire is a little bit of everything,” he said. “We’re a weatherman. We’re a traffic cop. We’re a physiologist, sometimes."
They're also, occasionally, an enemy.
“We’re the only people in the world that tell these millionaires, ‘No,'" he said. "And no one in the world likes to hear the word 'No.'”