St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri on August 12, 1990 · Page 62
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St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri · Page 62

St. Louis, Missouri
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 12, 1990
Page 62
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J5. AUG 12990 ( V SPORTS ST. LOUIS TUb I "DISPATCH SUNDAY, AUUUST 11!, laau BASEBALL Umpires Dream Of The Almost Impossible Dream By Howard Sinker Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune ELMJRA, N.Y. The baseball diamond was thick with bugs, the struggling young pitchers walked 19 batters and it took 3 1-2 hours for the Elmira Pioneers to beat the Auburn Astros, 11-2. Two foul balls banged off Jeff Schrupp's body, bruising areas his chest protector didn't quite protect, and the home team brought only a soft drink (without ice) to the umpires' locker room when the game finally ended. Then the faucet stayed dry when Schrupp turned the hot water knob for a shower that should have washed away the night's indignities. Schrupp, 23, was unfazed. Nothing would ruin his first night behind home plate, calling balls and 'strikes in a professional baseball game. Not the lopsided score, not the lousy pay, not the ugly bruise forming on his right shoulder. He-. wants to be an umpire badly enough that the pain doesn't qualify as suffering. "Three hours and 30 minutes of long, brutal baseball," he said. "But I had a great time. I loved it." Schrupp discovered umpiring as a teenager, working games for walking-around money. He discovered at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis., the limits of his playing ability. Umping would be his way to reach home plate. So Schrupp walked away from a teaching job last winter to chase long odds. He passed the first test, being chosen from 300 umpire school enroll-ees for about two dozen pro vacancies this summer. The reward is spending the next two months on the road, shuttling among the 14 cities of the New York-Penn League, clothes hung in the back of a '87 Chevrolet that already has 78,000 miles on it. He will make $900 per month, plus a $45 daily allowance for hotel rooms and meals, and 20 cents per mile. So the car better hold up. Major-league umpires start at $42,000 per season, and can earn as much as $105,000, with $169 per day for expenses. But that money is too far into the future to ponder. Nor does Schrupp dwell on the lack of health insurance for umpires at his level. His partner, Mike Sweeney of Superior, Wis., worked the league last year, so he knows survival secrets. In the season opener in Auburn, N.Y., management provided pop and hot dogs after the game. Sweeney, 26, stuffed his hot dogs into their laundry bag before leaving the park. "I'm not hungry, but if we didn't take 'em, we might not get 'em again," Sweeney told his partner as they walked to Schrupp's Chevy. "I didn't want to show disrespect." Not too long ago, 14 Young umpires 13 Americans in their 20s, one teenager from Quebec gathered at a small-town Holiday Inn for lunch. They were given two light blue shirts, one large enough to wear over a chest protector for the nights behind home plate. Their gray slacks and jackets hadn't yet arrived. They buy the rest of their equipment: the $120 chest protector, the $100 steel-toed shoes for working home plate, the $60 shin guards, the $50 mask, the $8 ball bag. The ball-and-strike indicators come free if you buy enough of the other stuff. The New York-Penn is a half-season league, mid-June through early September, mainly for players in their first two seasons of pro ball. Players and umpires alike try to prove they belong. Many don't. Seven of the umps worked in the league last year; seven were newcomers. Rule of thumb is those who don't advance to the next minor-league level after two years are let go. In most cases, it takes six years to reach Class AAA the highest minor leagues and seven or eight even to be consid- ered for a job in the majors. "Umpires are a dime a dozen," Schrupp said. "There are only 60 jobs in the major leagues, and almost all of them aren't going anywhere until they retire. The odds are against us. My dream and I wouldn't have gotten into it if I didn't have one is to umpire in the big leagues. But right now, I look at how far I've come and compare it to the guys who didn't even get this far." On Jan. 2, Schrupp and 79 others took the field at a school in Cocoa, Fla., run by Joe Brinkman, an American League umpire. With luck, they were told, one of them would make the majors someday. Good students, Brinkman said, get yelled at the most. It's training for the future, when the yelling and cursing and manipulating will be done by managers trying to win games and keep their jobs. "We get school teachers, guys with four-year degrees, guys with good jobs," said Edwin Lawrence, director of the Baseball Umpire Development Program. 'They feel the urge to try this, to get it out of their system. The commitment of an umpire is unlike any I've ever seen. (Umpires) are different from the athletes. "There's no glory in being an ump, not like there is in hitting a homer or winning 20 games. There's no roar of the crowd. Rewards are internal, as opposed to getting publicity, fame and big bucks." School $1,880, including room and board was five weeks of classroom and field training. The campus, the Houston Astros' former spring training site, has lighted batting cages. Schrupp and some buddies would be out as late as midnight, cutting the darkness with cries of "stee-riiike," trying to make the call the way they were learning from the pros. The top students from Brinkman's school and two others, also run by . major-league umpires, were invited for further training and evaluation in Baseball City, Fla. That's where Schrupp found out he was going to the Njpw York-Penn League. "My wife thinks they're the greatest kids on earth," said Leo Pinckney, the New York-Penn president. "She can spot the ones who don't quite fit in. I try to talk them through the problems. But, overall, they're really great kids. They're going to have to take a certain amount of abuse, but I back them up. "Once in a while they learn bad habits in the schools like swearing. I don't tolerate that. I fine the umps, just like the players, if they're not performing like they should. But the problems are minimal." For his first game, Schrupp arrived at Auburn's aging ballpark with Sweeney about 90 minutes before game time. They wore coats and ties because looking in command is part of the plan. One lesson of umpire school, Schrupp said, is that "You have to look confident. Those guys form an opinion about you before you call your first ball or strike." Schrupp polished his act by working minor-league spring training games in Florida, games more instructional than intense. Still, he ejected a coach and a player. The latter, Schrupp said, "didn't like a call and called me a ... moron. That was pretty easy. "The manager came out and said, T don't blame you for (ejecting) him, but that's a terrible call.' "That's OK. The best advice you get is that the less you say, the better off you'll be. Managers and coaches are pretty skilled at turning your words around." Mike Verdi, manager of the Elmira Pioneers, knows he'll see some bad umpiring this summer. It won't be much different from the work of inexperienced pitchers who can't find the plate and batters who hit the curveball only by accident. "Sometimes you can tell by watching when umps are intimidated," said Verdi, in his second year of managing the Boston farm club. "It's like they're standing out there arguing with their father. You're arguing with a kid and you're trying to put on a show for the crowd sometimes, and you feel like a child molester." This season, major league baseball announced it would fund a $500-per-month raise for all minor-league umpires. "It's a nice gesture, but not much more," said National League umpire Eric Gregg, whose career began in the New York-Penn League 19 years ago. "You've got to entice people by putting some money on the table, giving them enough where they can have a nice meal, instead of saving up to afford Kentucky Fried Chicken." "Baseball should kiss the ground and be thankful for the people who want to be umpires," said Tim Tschi-da, an American League ump. "What you go through without any guarantees is, to a certain degree, what keeps people away." Tschida said he's tended bar and officiated at hockey games during the winter to earn extra money. Schrupp wants to be a substitute teacher. If the car holds up and his equipment holds out, he added, maybe he'll even be able to save a bit. "The money doesn't bother me as much as being away," he said. "That's the toughest part. My girlfriend is in Milwaukee. We dated all four years of college and we always were apart in the summer. But at least she knew where she could get ahold of me.1 That's the tough part, wanting her to be happy while doing what I want to' Said Michael Landsman, 23, a second-year ump from New Jersey: "The easiest part is on the field. That's your vacation. The toughest part is living: the rigors of travel, being alone. You go through so much crap. You get burned out. I was burned out at the end nf last sensnn " BSMAMR1B OUR PRICING PLEDGE... We'll meet competition's current advertised price on identical, items. Bring their ad to us. Offer applies to current merchandise ' in our Auto Centers only. Excludes clearance, factory closeouts, Sears catalogs and services. 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