Life rough for minor league umpires, but it's the only way to top

May 26, 1991|By Susan Miller Degnan | Susan Miller Degnan,Knight-Ridder News Service

POMPANO BEACH, FLA. B — POMPANO BEACH, Fla. -- Every once in a rare while, when minor-league umpire Kevin Dykstra gets ticked off enough, he puts on a one-man show for some overly zealous umpire-bashers at Pompano Beach Municipal Stadium.

"I bend over, put my butt in their faces and cup-check them," said Dykstra, who has subtly perfected the crotch-grabbing gesture made famous by comedian Rosanne Barr. Funny thing is, the bashers don't realize they have been insulted because Dykstra sweeps home plate at the same time.

It makes him feel better.

"The players have their little holes that they can hide in," said Dykstra, 25, who lives in Corona, Calif., and is the younger brother of Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra. "But I have no place to hide."

Umpires: the most abused, least appreciated men in baseball. From Little League to the majors, umpires take the heat.

Michael Paruolo, a third-grader at Cresthaven Elementary School Pompano Beach: "In my Little League, they're real mean to umpires. They scream at them. They say, 'You can't call!' They say, 'You're dumb.' Real mean."

In professional baseball, there are 262 umpires. Sixty of them have reached the pinnacle of their dreams -- the major leagues -- where bigger really is better. They umpire in front of 30,000 raving fans, or 40,000 or 50,000. They call balls and strikes for Dave Henderson of the Oakland Athletics and for Vince Coleman of the New York Mets. They earn from $60,000 to $175,000 a year for eight months of work.

The other 202 are in the minors. After struggling to be in the top 15 percent at umpire schools, they struggle again to make it in the top third of Major League Baseball's Umpire Development Program. If they fail, bye-bye baseball. If they succeed, they struggle some more -- usually for several years -- to move up through Rookie ball (salary: $1,500 a month), Class A ($1,600), AA ($1,700), AAA ($2,500 to $2,800). There are surprise evaluations -- several a season -- and two annual report cards.

Then they wait.

In 1991, two umpiring positions opened in the major leagues. One-hundred umpires were left waiting till next year. Unlike minor-league players, minor-league umpires cannot skip levels. This year Umpire Development has established a retention plan that will attempt to limit a minor-league umpire's career to 10 years. After that, said Chuck Murphy, president of the Class A Florida State League, if Umpire Development has not shown interest, your career in umpiring is over. Few exceptions will be made.

"If someone told me I'd be in the minors for 20 years and then guaranteed me a job in the majors, I'd stay right where I am," said Wayne Kraus, 24, who lives in Louisville, Ky., and is a first-year umpire about to be assigned a Rookie league.

"Twenty-five years!" shouted Doug Eddings, 22, a third-year umpire in the Florida State League, which includes the Fort Lauderdale Yankees and Miracle of Pompano Beach. "Why shouldn't we wait that long? This is the greatest job in America. You work three hours a day and get paid decent money. And if we make it into the big leagues, it's awesome."

Kevin Miguez, 25, who grew up in Broussard, La., and played a year-and-a-half of Class A ball as a catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers, said umpiring has been another way to stay in baseball -- a game that umpires love as much as the players. "You can't get any closer," Miguez said. "I'd rather be an umpire. You're in the game every pitch, and it's a feeling you just can't describe. You're the one in control. You're the one responsible for what happens."

Lazaro Diaz umps with Kraus and played 1 1/2 years of Rookie and Class A ball as an outfielder with the Minnesota Twins' organization. "If I knew umpiring was this fun, I wouldn't have played baseball," said Diaz, 28. "No curfews. No practice. Stay out late. Sleep late. Less pressure. Go to the park one hour before. Have the whole day to yourself."

During the day, umpires do a lot of golfing, movie-going and mall-hopping. During the off-season, they pick up odd jobs and umpire for amateur leagues. Sometimes, though, they don't do much of anything.

"It feels so much better on the other side," Diaz said.

Not always.

By the time 19-month-old Patrick Louis Gulick is 18, his daddy, Doug, figures he will have been with his son about nine years.

"It puts a strain on the family," said Gulick, at 29 the FSL's oldest umpire. Now in his fourth year as an umpire, Gulick travels by himself from ballpark to ballpark, assisting as the third man in what usually is a two-man crew.

"Patrick is going through major developmental stages, and I'm missing out," he said.

"I love that little boy. I love my wife. But I love baseball, and it's my life. I'm in this game, and I don't want to leave unless I have to. I don't want to be what-iffing 10 years from now."

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