May 3, 2003
Behind the Mask Q&A
Jim Evans, Part INolan Ryan's first no-hitter. Currently, Jim is the owner and chief instructor of the leading professional umpire-training academy, the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, founded in 1989. He recently chatted with BP about his career in the bigs, the intricacies of the rule book, and a few dustups with ornery managers.
Baseball Prospectus: How did you get started as an umpire? What drew you to that career?
Jim Evans: As a youngster, I played in Little League, Pony League, and all sorts of amateur baseball programs growing up. I was a catcher and got to know the umpires pretty well. I was very curious and was always asking lots of questions. When I was 14, I played in a summer league. One night the chief umpire asked me if I would like to try umpiring. There was a Little League tournament coming up and he needed more umpires than he had. Since I was a catcher, he figured I had a pretty good idea of the strike zone. That first Saturday I ever umpired, I worked five games and loved every minute of it. The managers thought I had a good strike zone and the players liked the way I hustled. Looking back on those games, I probably hustled out of position as much as I hustled into position since I really never had any real training. I was working on instincts alone. My first experiences umpiring were very positive and the $3 a game were icing on the cake. I was still playing two nights a week. With encouragement from the chief umpire, I started umpiring the nights I wasn't playing. I reached the point where I actually enjoyed the umpiring more than playing.
My dad was a carpenter and I would work with him during the summer and umpire on the nights I wasn't playing. I made $10 working eight hours with him and $9 umpiring three or four hours at night. I learned a valuable life lesson that summer. You should find something in life that you really enjoy and seriously consider making that your life's work. From there, I joined local associations and really got serious about my umpiring. I literally paid my way through the University of Texas with my umpiring.
BP: To what do you attribute your fast rise to the majors?
JE: I graduated from the University of Texas in 1968, and was umpiring in the Class-A Florida State League (a week later). Back in those days, you didn't have to go to an umpire school to be hired in pro ball. League presidents could hire whomever they wanted. In my case, some scouts who were scouting some college games I worked while I was going to school recommended me to George MacDonald, president of the FSL. Mr. MacDonald was excited about hiring me because I had not gone to an umpire school. Five school-trained umpires had quit on him the first six weeks of the season. Needless to say, he was pretty disgusted. The Florida State League was considered the top A-league back then. You played in the spring training parks of major league teams, traveled throughout some great cities in Florida, and the pay was the best in A-ball.
Looking back, I can't believe how blessed I was to be given that opportunity. I had worked very hard to become the best I could be in Austin but never thought I would be able to get into the pro game so quickly. I had a great first year and Mr. MacDonald was my biggest supporter. He gave me the encouragement I needed that first year to get my career started on a positive note. Lots of people started telling me how lucky I was. It was then and there that I realized the true definition of luck. Luck is when "preparation meets opportunity."
The newly-formed Umpire Development Program started a school in 1969 and it was recommended that I attend. I graduated number one in my class and went from the umpire school to the Double-A Texas League. After one year in the Texas League, the American League bought the rights to my contract. They optioned me back to the Texas League for the 1970 season. In 1971, I was promoted to the Triple-A American Association. The AL brought me up the final month of the 1971 season. During spring training of 1972, four of us competed for two openings in the big leagues. I was fortunate enough to land one of the jobs and for the next 28 years I was a very proud American League umpire. I was 23 years old when I worked my first big league game. I can honestly tell you that I never stood for the National Anthem without thinking of my earliest days on the sandlots of East Texas and what a great country we live in: a country that afforded a poor kid like me the opportunity to work in the greatest stadiums of the world.
I attribute my success to my mental approach to the game. I have always been a serious student of umpiring. I enjoy studying rules, situations, and positioning. I was a debater in college and was never intimidated by arguments. I set very high standards for myself and worked every game with the same energy and enthusiasm as if it were the seventh game of a World Series. I truly enjoyed umpiring and had lots of fun during my career. Today, I approach my teaching with this same mindset.
BP: You were the plate umpire for Nolan Ryan's first no-hitter and that game was played under protest. Why?
JE: The funny thing about that game was that I didn't know it was a no-hitter until I got into the dressing room after the game and my partners started congratulating me. I had already thrown the line-up cards into the trashcan and never gave them a second thought. I've had lots of memorabilia collectors call me and offer lots of money for something I threw into a trashcan. To put things in perspective, you need to know that collecting was not the big business that it is today. I worked Don Sutton's 300th victory and did the same thing. As a side note, no-hitters are generally easier to work than any other game. Generally, the better the pitching, the more consistent the umpiring. But it is always fun to look back and realize you were part of a special evening in baseball history.
You're right. The game was protested. Nobody was hitting Nolan that night and KC manager Jack McKeon decided to try to break Nolan's concentration late in the game. He came out and argued that Ryan was breaking contact with the rubber with his pivot foot as he stepped back with his free foot. Technically, he was right. Practically speaking, however, 75% of all pitchers do the same thing to some degree. Nolan was not gaining any advantage by momentarily breaking contact as he repositioned his pivot foot. My crew chief John Rice agreed with my ruling and we accepted the protest. KC filed the protest after they lost the game and the league president denied it a couple of days later.
BP: Which managers gave you the most grief?
JE: The most controversial and abrasive managers were Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, and Dick Williams. Each of them used umpires to motivate their players and to entertain fans. Personally, I respected each of them as excellent managers. However, they were very unfair and totally disrespectful of the game at times. It was always exciting when they were managing in the same game. Lots of their strategy was based on intimidation. As a whole, the managers today are different in temperament. Most have very good communication skills and are more understanding of the umpire's job. That doesn't mean they are better managers. It just means that I perceive today's managers a bit differently.
Managers have very tough jobs. I always respected their job but demanded respect in return. Professional managers, coaches, and players have a right to question an umpire's decision if they do it in a professional manner. When they become personal, profane, or violent, they have crossed the line and must be dealt with accordingly. No one respects the umpire's job more than I do; but, if I were a manager, I would probably be ejected three or four times a season fighting for my team.
BP: Is there one word that gets a player or manager tossed from a game?
JE: There are several "magic words" which will get a player or manager automatically ejected from the game. Likewise, it is automatic if a player or manager intentionally makes contact with an umpire. Some words or profanities are allowed or dismissed as "baseball talk." However, if these same words are preceded by the personal pronoun "You," an ejection will usually follow. I always appreciated a player or manager using those magic words on me. It made my job easy.
BP: How did you get your academy started? Who developed the techniques you teach?
JE: I presented my plans, ideas and curriculum to MLB's Umpire Development Executive Committee during the All-Star break in 1989. The committee consisted of major league presidents, general managers, umpire supervisors, and minor league executives. Since there were already two schools operating at the time, the committee was interested to see what I thought I could do to improve the training for aspiring umpires. Within two weeks, I was notified that the committee voted unanimously to sanction my program. A few years ago, I absorbed one of the other schools. Presently, there are only two training programs sanctioned by Major League Baseball to train umpires for professional ball.
The Academy has always been a career objective. I have a BS in Education from the University of Texas and umpired professionally for over 30 years. Putting together the curriculum and developing training techniques has been a labor of love. Approximately 25% of our eligible students are selected each year to advance to the evaluation course conducted by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation. The number of students who are selected from that group to advance into the lower minors is dependent on the number of job openings available each year. The available jobs are filled by the graduates from the two schools who attend the evaluation course.
I personally developed the Academy training program. All our training is based on solid educational principles. We present the material in four training formats: lecture, demonstration, drill, and implementation. Our classroom work prepares the student for what he will encounter on the field. We conduct a comprehensive study of the playing rules with over 700 test questions covered in 14 written exams. Students are taught specific responsibilities in the two-umpire system. They are taught techniques to develop a solid plate stance and a consistent strike zone. During the final two weeks of training, our students work simulated game situations in which our staff members role-play as players, managers, and coaches. They are given immediate feedback following each camp game.
My main objective is to prepare candidates for professional baseball; however, the majority of our graduates will go home as much better qualified amateurs. Our students learn more in 30 days than one could learn in 30 years without our training. To really maximize your potential as an umpire, you need to get a solid foundation as soon as you can. The mechanics we teach are those required of entry-level umpires in the minor leagues. Once an umpire ingrains good habits, he can then begin to develop a distinctive style.
BP: You teach that an umpire's worst enemy is surprise. Why is that? In your 28 major league seasons, how many times did a play surprise you?
JE: The vast majority of people who watch baseball can properly call 95% of all plays that happen on the field. My job is to teach you how to call the other 5%. That means you have to be able to get into the proper position to see exactly what happens. The key to doing that is anticipating play potentials and adjusting to them. I call that situation awareness. You develop that by reading various cues on the field. Most plays that are missed by the umpire are caused by the umpire not reading those cues early enough and making the proper adjustments. He anticipates a play that never happens. He is surprised and has to make an educated guess when he hasn't read the play properly. Surprise causes fatal car wrecks on the highway and embarrassing crashes on the diamond.
BP: Besides proper mechanics and positioning, you talk about "game management" as a vital component to being an umpire. What does that mean and how do you teach it?
JE: Game management is accomplished by staying constantly alert and then reading and reacting to potential problem situations before they materialize. It all boils down to paying attention to details. That may be something as simple as using a crisp, clear mechanic which conveys confidence and eliminates second-guessing; or, it may mean getting between an irate batter who has been hit with a pitch and a pitcher who is staring in. It could be something as simple as calling time when a manager wants to give you a line-up change; or, it might be as challenging as knowing when to give the bench a warning. Often, it will mean using good judgment in determining which rules to enforce strictly by the book and which ones to ignore.
I stress to my students that there are going to be many situations on the field that you have no control over. There are going to be other situations that you can control and save yourself a lot of grief later in the game. Be alert, know the difference, and react firmly when necessary. In the classroom, we teach the options you have available. Then, in our simulated games, we create challenging situations that require the student to make some real-time decisions. Hopefully, they learn from their mistakes and handle the real situations with confidence when they occur in actual games.
BP: Did you ever feel like you lost control of a game?
JE: I have looked back on situations and thought that I could have handled a few differently and probably better. Determining when to issue a warning for a pitcher throwing at a hitter is a good example. If you warn too early, you affect the way a pitcher has to pitch the rest of the game. You basically take the inside pitch away from his repertoire and this can lead to major problems--he's probably going to blame you for the next 10 base hits. If you hesitate and do not warn early enough, the game could get real ugly as you let the pitchers retaliate. This often leads to bench-clearing brawls.
Another way to lose control is to ignore something when you should address it. If players on one bench are giving you a hard time by bench jockeying and you ignore it, you have just set the code of conduct for that game. Players from the other side feel like they are now authorized to behave in the same manner and you are restricted from warning or taking stronger action because you have tolerated it from the opposing team. Handling incidents like this are tough situations and an easy way to lose control of a game if you are not alert and willing to address the problem head-on.
Allowing a catcher to argue balls and strikes or to routinely turn on you to ask about pitches is a sure way to lose control. The batter is going to report what is going on to his coach and teammates and, naturally, they are going to do the same thing to make sure that the other team is not intimidating you and getting the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, if you deal with the catcher firmly and in a timely manner, the batter is likely to warn his teammates to leave the umpire alone.
BP: What does it take for someone to become a professional umpire starting right now?
JE: Anyone interested in becoming a professional umpire and becoming eligible to work in the minor leagues must attend one of the two umpire schools sanctioned by Major League Baseball. Those two training programs are the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring and the Wendelstedt Umpire School. The top students from each school are sent to an evaluation course conducted by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation (PBUC) in March. For the past three years, 25 students from each school have competed for the jobs available in the entry-level minor leagues.
BP: Assuming an umpire passes the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation evaluation and is offered a contract, what kind of career path should he or she expect?
JE: Candidates who are offered contracts are assigned to Class-A rookie leagues. Their first promotion would be to a longer and more competitive A-league. Their goal then becomes a promotion to a Double-A League. And then, hopefully, they get promoted to Triple-A, where they are first scouted by the major leagues. On average, it takes an umpire six to eight years to reach this level. Salaries range from about $1,800 a month at the lowest level to around $3,500 per month in Triple-A. Per diem expense money, lodging, and transportation are provided in all leagues and insurance benefits are provided at most levels.
PBUC has a retention and release program that stipulates that an umpire must advance to the next highest classification after a maximum of two years in a league or be released. Minor league umpires are evaluated in their respective leagues each year and rated numerically. This enables umpires to know where they stand and helps them make prudent career decisions. There is quite a bit of turnover in the minor leagues and explains why there are a substantial number of jobs available each year. The minor leagues are an internship where the umpires must supplement their umpiring with other off-season employment. Many umpires, however, are invited to work extended spring training, winter ball, or an instructional league. Umpires who make it all the way to the majors start at a salary of around $100,000. Top salary in the majors exceeds $300,000.
BP: What shortcomings are most likely to derail an umpire's ability to advance?
JE: Umpires, like players, are expected to show constant improvement each season and at each level. Inconsistent plate work and the inability to handle situations are probably the two biggest problems that minor league umpires face. A few umpires have been released for off-field issues. Several umpires opt to leave the game of their own volition due to other career opportunities or for family reasons.