At umpire school, even instructors learn

At umpire school, even instructors learn

At umpire school, even instructors learn
ORMOND BEACH, Fla. -- Double-A umpire Brent Rice is checking off names. He's looking down at his iPad to make sure who's calling balls and strikes and who's watching the field. The pitch is thrown, a ground ball is hit to the shortstop, and he looks up from his perch on a raised platform behind the plate and doesn't even watch the ball. He's watching the umpires.

He turns to John Tumpane, a Triple-A umpire who's had some Major League time.

"He was out of position there," Rice says. "He's got to switch to the opposite side of the hitter."

So goes another morning at the Wendelstedt Umpire School, where Rice, 30, is the lead classroom instructor and a leader of the Wendelstedt staff when they hit the fields in the afternoons. Wendelstedt is one of three umpire schools -- The Umpire School in Vero Beach, Fla., and the Evans Academy at the Astros' Spring Training facility in Kissimmee, Fla., are the other two -- whose students will be eligible to be chosen by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corp. (PBUC) to move on and claim open jobs umpiring in the Minor Leagues.

The candidates are evaluated at the schools for the duration of the program in hopes that they will be chosen to move on to the next stop, the PBUC Evaulation Course, which will be held in March at the Vero complex.

There, the students who achieve the highest marks will be recommended for the first openings at the Rookie and Class A Short-Season levels. To become a Major League umpire, a candidate must touch all levels of the Minor Leagues, a process that takes seven or eight years at the minimum.

The instructors at the Wendelstedt and Evans schools are all Minor League umpires themselves, which means they're working their way up at the same time.

Tumpane, 29, is one of the the "up-and-down guys" at Wendelstedt. That means he's in the enviable position of being a Triple-A umpire who gets called upon to replace Major League umpires during the regular season when the veterans are taking advantage of their vacation time. Tumpane made his big league debut last year in front of his family, got a uniform number, and now waits until one of the 68 big league jobs comes open.

He's well aware that it's possible he could end up working more Major League games next year than the 130 or so that a full-time big league umpire would work, since he, as a Minor League umpire, doesn't get a vacation. He says, with a smile, that such a situation would be more than acceptable.

But for now, as umpire school winds down, he's focusing on the students, who have been through more than a month of intensive training and are now reaching the most heated and charged part of the curriculum: dealing with in-game "situations."

This part of the process mimics arguments between managers or players and umpires, often the case when a questionable call impacts a game. Tumpane, Rice and their colleagues at the school will take turns posing as managers and they will test the students to see if their behavior warrants a simple talking-to, a stern warning, or even an ejection.

"We don't do anything crazy," Tumpane says. "We just give them the dos and don'ts. What is allowed by a player or manager and what we can't put up with on the field.

"We see how the guy handles the situation. Basically, in professional baseball, umpiring is handling situations on a daily basis. ... Someone might not always be happy, or someone has an opinion, and we try to teach them and train them to handle those situations in a professional manner."

At the Umpire School in Vero Beach, the instructors include Dusty Dellinger, a former "up-and-down guy" himself. Dellinger now works for PBUC and says he helps students deal with the reputation umpires have as being stubborn, confrontational and unreasonable.

"It's tough," Dellinger says. "There's so much negativity surrounding our job. We have to be perfect from Day 1. It's like you have to get better. The challenge of going out each night to try to be perfect is one of the things that drove me. Because we want to be perfect. And the fans don't see that. They think that we just take it for granted."

One thing the umpires lucky enough to be selected as instructors for these schools don't take for granted is how it's key to foster and maintain relationships within the tight-knit umpiring community.

Wendelstedt instructor Adam Schwarz, who umpires in the Double-A Texas League, says the five weeks of school duty every winter not only give him a sort of paid vacation -- the school hotel is right on the sand in nearby Daytona Beach -- but keep his skills sharp.

"Teaching these guys on a daily basis makes you remember a lot of the stuff that you need to focus on during the season," Schwarz says. "It's a learning experience for everybody."

Rice agrees and adds that networking with big-name umpires every winter can't hurt when jobs come open. Then again, as with every student who's taking a chance at this career, nothing is guaranteed except for one thing: These passionate fans of baseball will be enjoying themselves in the middle of the field during games.

"We care about this game," Rice says. "And a lot of times that doesn't show through because we're supposed to be a silent part of the game, and we take that role happily. But we also want people to know that this profession is about a love for baseball as well. We're not arrogant and we're not conceited, as the rumors will tell you.

"We're put in a position where we're the decision-makers, and we love doing it, because where else can you watch a baseball game every time you go to work? It's a great job."

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.