Gary Robinson has had a unique journey through the minor leagues. Currently in his second season as the manager of the State College Spikes, the 57-year-old Robinson began his professional career as an umpire in the Midwest and Southern Leagues before becoming a college coach, a scout, and later a Triple-A umpire evaluator. The Spikes are a short-season affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
David Laurila: How would you describe life in the minor leagues?
Gary Robinson: For me it’s heaven. I was out of baseball, at least on the field, in professional baseball, per se, from 1999 until 2008. It was the most miserable  years of my life, because this is home for me. It’s a beautiful thing.
DL: Given your atypical background, do you think you look at the game differently than most managers?
GR: Oh, yeah. I thought the umpiring thing was an opportunity for me to get to the big leagues, and I think that does give me a different perspective with regard to how our players need to learn to deal with umpires. I think that’s an advantage. We try to make sure that if anybody is going to get ejected, it’s me. My players are told that they shouldn’t do anything to hurt themselves by messing with an umpire.
DL: Do organizations coach players on how to relate to umpires?
GR: We talk about it; yes we do. We don’t spend a whole lot of time on it, because there’s so much to be done with hitting, throwing, running and catching the ball, but we talk about it. As a matter of fact, we just had a session on it two nights ago.
Everybody has a job to do and [umpires] are trying to do the same thing our players are trying to do. They’re trying to impress enough people to get themselves to the big leagues. And their job is as important as ours.
DL: What do a lot of fans maybe not understand about umpires, and umpiring, at the minor-league level?
GR: What I do now, as a manager, is a lot easier than what they do. They’re with the same guy all year — they travel together and eat together — and they only have one friend for about six months. That’s their partner, or partners once you get to Double-A and start working with three men. That’s all you’ve got. It’s you against both clubs and all of the fans. Because of that, there’s quite a special bond that happens between umpires.
DL: You were an umpire evaluator for 10 years. What did you learn in that job?
GR: How to deal with people. How to teach, how to instruct, how to get points across without coming across the wrong way. Working with Triple-A umpires, all of those guys were good. They had a lot of time in the game and knew what they were doing, so my job was to try to help them make decisions as well as to work with them in handling situations, mechanics, and those kinds of things. I also had to figure out who actually had the ability to move on to the big leagues. That can be very, very difficult.
To be a good umpire, you have to have a tough second skin. I think that an umpire has to come out and do his job without worrying about what a manager, or a supervisor, thinks. They have to have enough inner strength to go out and do their job. They need to be fairly tough and they need to be aggressive.
DL: How closely related are scouting players and evaluating umpires?
GR: They’re completely different roles. With umpires, I had three guys to key on, and as a baseball scout you might be there to see one or two guys, or find a good match-up, but there are always those other guys who interest you and could end up being a later-on pick and become something. I scouted on and off for eight years, with the Giants, the Phillies, and the Mariners, and scouting is quite a bit harder.
DL: How much of your scouting experience do you use as a manager?
GR: Tons. It’s invaluable. And it’s also invaluable for me to talk to our scouts about tools and what a guy can do. The ability to decipher reports is important — to understand what a guy does well and where he needs work.
DL: Any final thoughts?
GR: I think I’m doing what I was put here to do, but my career is secondary to these players’ careers. They still have their whole baseball futures ahead of them, and if I do my job, some of them will play in the big leagues. That’s the ultimate goal.