Pawol to be first woman to umpire MLB Spring Training games since 2007

February 12th, 2024

Jen Pawol is focused on nothing more than getting the next play right.

That will be the case when she suits up to work in Major League Spring Training games -- the first woman to do so since 2007. The league’s announcement on Monday is a crucial step in Pawol’s effort to become the first female umpire in the Majors, a goal that’s significantly closer today than it was yesterday.

Whenever MLB needs fill-in or additional umpires during the regular season, it draws from the group of Triple-A umpires that are named to the MLB Call-Up list, which is made up exclusively of umpires that had been invited to MLB Spring Training. After firmly standing her ground while the pool of candidates narrowed around her, Pawol’s odds have never been more favorable.

The eight-year Minor League veteran is relishing the opportunity, but her focus is still on the diamond.

“I’m super excited,” Pawol said in a Zoom interview on Monday. “I’ve been working hard in the offseason, training right out of the Fall League to get ready for Spring Training.

“Really, the only thing that matters is that I get the next play right. And then I gotta get the next play right after that. And any time we take our eye off of that, it’s just not real healthy.”

That mindset has helped her rise through the ranks.

Pawol had been umpiring amateur baseball and softball for 10 years before making her pro debut in the Gulf Coast League on June 24, 2016. At the time, she was the seventh woman to umpire in a Minor League game, following in the footsteps of Bernice Gera (1972), Christine Wren (1975-77), Pam Postema (1977-89), Theresa Cox Fairlady (1989-91), Ria Cortesio (1999-2007) and Shanna Kook (2003-04). Cortesio was the most recent female umpire to work a Spring Training game.

Not since Postema, though, has there been this much momentum in a woman’s quest to officiate in the Major Leagues.

“The women who came before me, they moved some big boulders to make it easier for women to come through,” said Pawol. “And I’m just so grateful for what I get to do for a living. I love it.”

The 47-year-old Pawol is one of nine women scheduled to work on-field roles in the Minor Leagues this season. Yet, the list of female umps who have made it as far as Triple-A is significantly shorter: Postema, who worked a full slate of Major League Spring Training in 1988 and 1989, and Pawol.

The league has put a real effort into growing those numbers in recent years. If you open the testimonial page of MLB’s umpire camp website, two of the first four videos you’ll see feature women. One of them is Pawol, and the other is Isabella Robb, who became a professional umpire in 2022.

“I believe all the sports are making an effort [to diversify their game],” said Pawol. “The momentum is now shifted to really cultivate and attract women and minorities -- boys and girls, men and women -- into officiating across all the sports. It's just a super exciting time for our profession in general, at all levels.”

For Pawol, it started with one opportunity.

She first attended an MLB/MiLB tryout camp in 2015 in Cincinnati, at the suggestion of long-time umpires Ted Barrett and Paul Nauert, whom she’d met at an ump clinic in Atlanta the year prior. Pawol was among 38 people invited to the league’s Umpire Training Academy in Vero Beach, Fla. That led to her Minors assignment in '16.

“When I met Ted Barrett, I was looking for an opportunity, and it was unimaginable that I would be welcomed [in those spaces],” said Pawol. “Nobody was saying, ‘Hey, Jen, you've been umpiring for 10 years. Why don’t you go give pro school a try?’ And then when I met Ted Barrett, he was like, ‘Jen, you've been umpiring for 10 years, why don’t you go give pro school a try?’ I was like, ‘There's my opportunity.’”

Pawol kept rising from there. From the GCL, she moved through the ranks all the way to Double-A in 2022 and Triple-A in '23.

At each of those levels, she’s remained steadfast about her work ethic.

Each day during the season begins with a yoga routine, followed by more exercise and a steady read of the MLB rulebook. Pawol will then review tape from her prior game, earmarking plays in real time to analyze later. Lunch with the other members of her crew is usually on tap, too, before the umps make their way to the ballpark, where the real fun begins. Off-days on Mondays are usually reserved for golf or a nice dinner with the crew.

A lot is said about the bond built by players through the trials and tribulations of the Minors. Things aren’t that different for an umpire crew that spends the better part of a year together.

“You go through life with one another the whole year,” Pawol said. “We gotta figure out what’s gonna keep our little team or unit going strong, so we go out there and we’re ready. It’s a pretty interesting dynamic; it’s a healthy crew love that we have as umpires.”

These relationships are built on unwavering respect.

“It's amazing to be able to say that it's been spick and span,” Pawol said of being a woman in an overwhelmingly male work environment. “We're dealing with a completely different universe [after] so many decades of Title IX rolling out.”

She got to live that transformation in real time.

A New Jersey native, Pawol was inducted into the West Milford High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2022 after graduating as a three-year all-state athlete in softball and soccer in 1995. That earned her a softball scholarship with Division I Hofstra University, where she played as a catcher. She added a World Championship with the U.S. Women’s softball team in Toronto in 2001.

Love of the game is what’s kept her in it all this time. A positive attitude is what’s propelled her forward.

When stating her gratitude for the opportunity to umpire at big league Spring Training, Pawol made sure to list each of the women who officiated in pro baseball before her, as well as stating the name of every crew chief she’s had in the Minor Leagues (Jonathan Parra, Tom Hanahan, Tanner Moore, Steven Jaschinski, Michael Rains and Edwin Jimenez).

Pawol has been moving boulders of her own for over a decade now. She won't state it herself, but she seems well equipped to keep pushing forward.

“We’ll see,” she said.