CBN: Canadian umpires fighting for one of 76 big-league jobs

Colorado Rockies' Charlie Blackmon, lower right, scores after Brandon Barnes was caught stealing second as the ball goes past Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Tim Federowicz, left, while home plate umpire Stu Scheurwater and Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez look on. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

By: Scott Langdon

The number of Canadians umpiring professional baseball has grown since last season.

Seven Canadians – five from Ontario and one each from Quebec and Saskatchewan – will work the four- or five-month minor league season from the bottom to top of the minor-league ladder this summer.

Stu Scheurwater (Regina, Sask.) worked triple-A last year with some call-ups to the big leagues. David Attridge (Grimsby, Ont.); Scott Costello (Barrie, Ont.), Chris Graham (Brampton; Ont.) and Chris Marco (Waterdown, Ont.) all worked full season class-A or double-A in 2015. Michael Boulianne (Quebec City, Que.), was in Florida’s Gulf Coast League at the Rookie Ball level. Ben Rosen (Thornhill, Ont.) joins the crew this year and is expected to debut in the Gulf Coast League.

All seven men have dreams of making the big leagues, just like the ballplayers, says Marco.

“Any minor-league umpire will tell you his goal is to reach the big leagues,” Marco explained.” I absolutely want to make it there.”

Costello, who will start his second double-A season this year, agrees.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t want to make it to the big leagues. Every year I do this I am another year away from going back to Canada and working in another career. I wouldn’t make the commitment unless I had the major league baseball goal,” he said.

The path to the major leagues is typically an eight-to-10-year journey for a minor league umpire. There are only 76 jobs at the big league level. Most minor leaguers never make it to the top.

Marco, 25, who worked in the Midwest League last season, will be in the class-A Carolina League this summer. His stops will include Salem and Lynchburg in VA to Wilmington and Myrtle Beach in S.C. among other cities. Costello, 31, will work the double-A Eastern League in cities such as Portland MN and Manchester NH, home of the Blue Jays’ double-A affiliate.

Both men enjoy the vagabond nature of an umpire’s life in the minor leagues even though rides between stops on the circuit can be long. Dayton, OH to Quad Cities IA in the Midwest League is more than six hours, for example. Twelve-hour drives between cities are not unusual in the double-A Texas League where Costello worked last season.

Minor-league baseball pairs class-A umpires for the season, typically from April to September in full-season leagues. Each team of two is provided with a rental car. In AA and AAA, the umpires work in teams of three and are supplied with a van.

Marco says umpires are selected and put together for a reason.

“You have to hope you like your partner. But our supervisors look for good people, not just good umpires. I haven’t had an issue with a partner in any league I’ve worked,” he said.

“Off the field, the biggest challenge is staying healthy. I try to eat well, avoid fast food and get into the gym to work out as often as possible. Going to the bar each night after a game is not a good idea,” he said.

“On the field, the biggest challenge is to be at your best every day over a five-month period. Seventy games behind the plate in single A, for example, often in 90-degree heat, plus the driving from city to city can be challenging,” Costello explained.

The life can be stressful at times with the constant travel and the occasional run in with a manager, coach or player during a game.

“It’s easy to cause your own stress by over-thinking. The idea is to stay focused on nothing other than ball or strike, safe or out. Disagreements on the field can sometimes get emotional, but we try to make it an honest conversation. It’s important to realize it’s not personal,” Marco explained.

Sometimes, the unexpected happens…like being late for a game.

“I was actually late for the start of my first game in the New York Penn League following a promotion from the Gulf Coast League. Travel arrangements provided for me were pretty tight to get from Ft. Myers, FL to State College, PA.

“I was frantic because the closer I got to State College the more I realized I wasn’t going to make it by game time. The league understood and announced to fans at the game that the start would be delayed because one of the umpires – me – was stuck in traffic. I actually got a loud ovation from the fans when I stepped on the field fifteen minutes late,” he chuckled.

Minor league umpires are paid on a sliding scale based on their experience and level. First-year umpires in Rookie Ball earn $1,900 per month. Marco will earn a $2,100/month salary and a per diem of $42 this season as a three-year professional. There is no pension plan, unlike major league umpires.

Both men have been promoted frequently in their young careers, but their beginnings in amateur baseball were different. Marco unexpectedly became an umpire in his hometown at the age of 11. Costello, on the other hand, knew from a young age that professional umpiring would be his career.

“I went with my parents to watch my brother play baseball when I was 11. The umpire didn’t show up so I filled in. By the time I was 18 I had the opportunity to umpire at a top level kids’ tournament in Cooperstown, NY. I received so much encouragement and so many compliments I started to think seriously about professional umpiring,” Marco said.

“For me, I always loved the game but knew from a young age I would never make it as a player. I started amateur umpiring when I was twelve and always wanted to give the professional ranks a try,” Costello said.

Both men paid their way to umpire school in Florida, in the range of $3,000 US for four weeks of training. Then they endured the stress of being selected to proceed to the MiLB Umpire Training Academy for evaluation as potential professionals. Both made it through in their first attempt and were assigned to Florida’s Gulf Coast League at the Rookie Ball level of the minor leagues.

Marco heads out to start the season in the Carolina League in early April. Costello leaves Canada at about the same time. Until then, both will continue refereeing minor hockey games to keep fitness up and judgment sound. No doubt they’ll need these skills as they continue their journey through the various levels of minor league professional baseball to their ultimate goal of the major leagues.

This story first appeared on Canadian Baseball Network.

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