Magazine article Insight on the News

Baseball's Men in Blue

Magazine article Insight on the News

Baseball's Men in Blue

Article excerpt

Miner-league umpires take their lumps in hopes for a shot at the big leagues.

It hasn't been much fun being a major-league umpire lately, what with their botched negotiating ploy and poor public image. But it's been no day at the ballpark for at least one minor-league umpire, either. Driving recently from North Carolina to work a game in Frederick, Md., Dusty Dellinger was nailed with a speeding ticket. Then he was nailed again.

In the fifth inning of a game at Harry Grove Stadium, working behind home plate, Dellinger took a foul tip to the groin, the ball ricocheting straight up off the dirt to find an unprotected spot beneath his protective cup. "It was unbearable pain," he says. "I was kind of in shock."

According to their unwritten professional code, umpires never let players see them wince. They don't "take a knee," that is, kneel in response to pain. And they don't -- positively, absolutely -- end up flat on their backs. Yet that's where Dellinger found himself, on the tuff, staring up at the darkening sky, writhing in agony as trainers huddled over him. He stayed there 20 minutes. Then he was helped off the field and up the steps, into the umpires' dressing room.

Talk about your la vida loca: At the Class A level, Dellinger makes $2,100 a month for six months. He drives to all his games from his home in Mooresville, N.C. -- Dellinger's 1992 Chevy Blazer is closing in on 200,000 miles -- on a 25-cents-a-mile, $15-a-day-for-meals expense account. As part of a two-man crew, he works behind home plate every other day, fending off suffocating heat and humidity and the occasional laser-guided foul tip. He gets six days off -- one per month.

Yet when Dellinger talks about his job with his peers, they don't complain about the nickel-and-dime stuff. Conversation focuses on Richie Phillips, the XL union boss with the XXL ego, and the labor mess with Major League Baseball that resulted in the dismissal of 22 umpires. The dispute is complicated, focused more on power and control than money, but fans don't seem to mind that nearly two dozen umps were tossed "outta here!" Fans on sports-radio talk shows blabber on about fat, arrogant umpires who mess with the strike zone.

Lean and muscular, the 26-year-old Dellinger bears no resemblance to some of those ogrelike umps everybody loves to hate. He swears he will never get fat. Still, in his third year as a minor-league ump, he is light years from the majors -- your basic working stiff who, like other working stiffs, just wants a fair shake and a promotion.

"Look" says the Catawba College graduate who works as a substitute teacher during the off-season, "we work 140 games. In the big leagues, 162." Minor-league umps sympathize with their major-league brethren, although they themselves don't belong to a certified union. They understand to a point why umpires have become vilified, but they insist that they are dedicated, conscientious professionals who deeply care about what they do, and do it well.

"Very few people understand this job," says Darren Spagnardi, Dellinger's former on-field partner and off-field close friend. Spagnardi recently was being promoted to the Southern League, Class AA, where he works on a three-man crew and drives a complimentary van to bigger and brighter ballparks. As a Class AA ump, Spagnardi makes a couple of hundred bucks a month more and gets a whole $2 a day more in meal money.

Dellinger expects to move to Class AA next season, too. In his first three years since graduating from umpire-evaluation school in 1997, Dellinger has advanced from what is known as short Class A to Class A to advanced Class A -- as Spagnardi did. "If you get to double-A in your fourth season, you're on the fast track again," he says.

Until this season, it probably was tougher to make the major leagues as an umpire than as a player. The first step is enrolling in the Harry Wendle-stedt Professional Umpire School or the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. …

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