Fall League offers training ground for more than just players

Fall League offers training ground for more than just players

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As pitches are thrown and balls are hit, Cris Jones observes from a suite atop Salt River Fields.

The action on the field is where the average fan's eyes are drawn, but Jones doesn't follow the ball. After a decade working as an umpire supervisor for Major League Baseball, his eyes are trained to focus on the three or four men in black uniforms who are tasked with umpiring the players on the field.

It was his duty to supervise and instruct the 15 umpires who use the Arizona Fall League as a training ground just as much as the players do. The end goal of the big leagues comes with far less glitz for umpires that it does for players, but the path to get there is often longer and more strenuous.

In the second inning of a game between the Mesa Solar Sox and Salt River Rafters, home plate umpire Roberto Ortiz calls strike three, and the batter disagrees with his call. The two engage for about 15 seconds before the Mesa hitter returns to the dugout.

"So much for that [player] being in a good mood today," Jones says with a chuckle. The spat garners little reaction from either side. "Must not have said anything," Jones, who has 29 years of umpiring experience, says.

Jones meets with the umpiring crew before and after each game he attends. After this one, the first question he'll ask Ortiz will be about the dispute. He has to take umpires at their word when it comes to discussing what really happened on the field.

"Some guys lie," he says. "But the ones who want to improve will tell you everything."

It's situations like these that umpires are brought to Arizona to work on. The 15 crew members this year had more than 1,400 games of Major League experience before coming to the desert. But that's an anomaly, Jones says.

Normally, there's 12 umpires assigned to the Fall League. Usually, none of them have umpired a game above Triple-A. But due to the new replay system, some umpires were called to the show earlier than expected and still need more seasoning. With some umpires being pushed to the replay offices in New York, less experienced umps were forced into duty at the Major League level.

Because of this, though, the returnees are able to mentor the umpires who haven't yet reached the majors. Toby Basner, one of nine Fall League umpires with Major League experience, started working in Minor League Baseball in 2004, where he stayed until he made it to the big leagues six years later.

"I got a call telling me that I was going to be on the staff to be eligible to work MLB games," Basner says. "It was very emotional, obviously. It was a point I had worked for roughly eight to 10 years in pro ball, just to 'get a cup of coffee,' as they say."

Basner's previous stints to the Fall League came in 2008 and 2009, before getting assigned to Major League Spring Training. Since, he's umpired more than 200 Major League games. In his third trek to the AFL, he's tasked with working on details concerning his umpiring technique and mentoring those who haven't reached the big leagues yet.

Basner's journey is typical of many umpires. According to Jones, the most common path is to umpire the AFL twice and work Major League Spring Training twice in the following months. Finally, if an umpire is good enough, he might be one of the two or so that make the callup roster, a list of 15 to 20 umpires who spend the season in Triple-A but are eligible to umpire Major League games on a fill-in basis.

Making the callup roster is a big moment in any umpire's life. Anyone who makes it is assigned an MLB number, which is displayed on an umpire's uniforms and makes him eligible to umpire in the big leagues. And if an ump is called up for a series, he gets a prorated salary of a first-year Major League umpire.

"After a week," Jones says, "it's more than they're making in Triple-A for the season."

If that call comes for Roberto Ortiz, it will be an especially momentous one. Ortiz grew up playing baseball in Puerto Rico with big league aspirations. But he was forced to give up his dream after suffering a wrist injury in 2004. By 2006, Ortiz had moved to the U.S. and was umpiring Minor League games.

If Ortiz reaches the majors, he'll be only the second Puerto Rican to umpire a Major League game.

"For me, it's real big," Ortiz says. "You're not just representing you as an umpire, but you're representing your family and your country. I have that always in my mind."

Despite having umpired professionally for eight years, that call is likely still a year or two away, at a minimum. This is Ortiz's first time in the AFL. The next step is to be assigned to Spring Training. After that, it's back to the Pacific Coast League and then repeat the process.

Meanwhile, in the AFL, Ortiz and his fellow umpires go through weekly training sessions each Saturday with umpire supervisors. One session focused on the strike zone. Another on bang-bang plays at first base. Each umpire goes through 50 or so simulations that are graded by supervisors with the help of video and computer systems.

Nothing compares to the real-life experience of calling live games, though.

"You're not going to sit there watching video, reading a book and get better," Jones says from Salt River Fields.

The next inning, there's a popup into foul territory on the first-base line. It's a routine play for the first baseman, but Jones notices something out of the ordinary.

Because the wind was blowing back into the field of play and the pop was clearly not headed for the stands, the only possible outcomes were that it would curve back into fair territory or stay slightly foul.

Ortiz, the home-plate ump, strayed too far into foul territory -- about halfway between the foul line and the dugout. The correct positioning, Jones says, would have been to stay in fair territory.

"There are smalls details we're looking for that the average fan would never pick up," Jones adds. "Their instincts, reactions, their positioning, their timing, their mannerisms."

Just one more topic for his postgame conversation.

Evan Webeck is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University. This story is part of a partnership between MLB.com and ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.