FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Twins right-hander Phil Hughes, a 10-year big league veteran, was pitching in a game this spring. The home plate umpire was making the calls, ball or strike. It was a completely ordinary baseball tableau with one significant exception.
The umpire was Jen Pawol, who is working diligently to become the first female umpire assigned to a regular-season Major League game.
She still has a ways to go. Last June, she began her professional career in the Gulf Coast (Rookie) League. This year she'll step up to the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. Hughes was only facing live hitters in an intrasquad workout on a back field of the CenturyLink Sports Complex.
Still, it was a real big league pitcher and a tangible glimpse of her goal.
"That was pretty cool," she said Monday after a game between the GCL Twins and Bethel College on the same field where Hughes threw.
Pawol is the seventh woman to umpire in an affiliated league and the first since 2007. So it was a pretty big deal when she took the field last summer and also an open question about how it would go.
From all indications, it went very well.
"She's working on her technical skills, but the one thing she has is such a positive attitude," said Dusty Dellinger, director of Umpire Development for Minor League Baseball. "She knows she has a lot to learn. She's down to earth, and she's ready to do what it takes. She's just so positive about her work, and it shows out on the field. She enjoys what she does, and it resonates with the partner she works with."
Tim Brunswick is the GCL vice president of baseball and business operations. In that capacity, he handles all complaints about umpires.
"She did a good job," he said. "She carried herself well. The one thing I do know is that when you don't hear any complaints from umpires or reports coming into the office, that's nice. And I didn't get any of them last year.
"In talking to managers and coaching staffs throughout the season about every umpire, including Jen, I got good remarks on her works."
Roly de Armas has been in professional baseball for more than 40 years, including the last decade as manager of the GCL Phillies.
"We didn't have any issues," he said. "And talking to some of the other teams, they had no issues, either.
"She presented herself aggressively. You'd come up and ask her, 'What did you see there?' And she always had a point. Tough situation for a lady. But I think the players respected her. The games that we had her, nobody ever said anything like, 'Oh, look at the girl umpire.' She was just part of the umpire staff. She hustled and did her job. After a while, you'd just about forget that she was a woman."
Before her first game, Pawol said she expected to be tested.
"I know it's coming," she said then. "I think I get tested wherever I am. On and off the field. Outside of baseball. Just trying to get the oil changed in my car. I'm a New Yorker. Being tested is a way of life, so you have to earn that person's respect."
It's a little surprising, then, that it didn't turn out that way. She never felt as though anybody was giving her a tough time simply because she's a woman.
"Not at all," she said.
In fact, it was almost the opposite. As she got to know the players and managers, they signaled their acceptance by joking around with her.
"There were some times they were teasing me. Just to be goofy. And I thought it was pretty cool that they were comfortable enough and I was comfortable enough to do that," she said.
There were also some genuinely touching moments.
"There were quite a few coaches or managers who would say on the side to me that they had a daughter who was working in a man's world also and tell me to just keep working hard," she said. "Happened quite a few times and I never knew when they were coming. I never expected that. But I thought it was pretty cool. I really appreciated them saying that.
"I loved every day. Loved going out there. Loved being on the field with the guys, the players and managers and umpires. Hanging out after games. I enjoyed the professionalism of everybody. I had worked college ball and amateur ball for a long time. And it was just so easy to work with people who are professional and have to do this every day for their job. It was everything and more I could have thought being a professional umpire would be. "
Realistically, of course, the closer to the big leagues she gets, the more competitive the atmosphere will become.
"She just completed her first season working in a [Minor League] complex league," Dellinger said. "It's at a level where it's not too crazy. She got to really hone in on some of the fundamentals she learned at the umpire academy. That's a great level to do that. As far as her technical skills, she's right on par with where she needs to be at that level.
"When she moves up, she's going to be challenged a little bit more. We'll see how she does with her situation management, which is a vital part of umpiring. If you can't handle the pressure, aren't able to take charge of those situations, keep your composure and do all those type things, it's going to be hard to progress compared to your peers."
That's when the positive attitude Dellinger mentioned will become even more critical. Pawol believes an optimistic attitude is just part of who she is.
"You know what? I lost my mother when I was 13," she said. "It was unexpected. And I think I could have been a negative person or who I was, a positive person, with such a traumatic loss at such an early age. So, how I'm made, I guess I look at difficulty or being dealt a bad hand and just try to make the best of it.
"I just love the job so much. I don't want to be Debbie Downer. Who wants to work with Debbie Downer?"
Said Dellinger: "The way she responded in that environment with a lot of guys around her, they just kind of gravitated to her. I think a lot of that had to do with work ethic and the way she was so excited and energetic about her work, how she wanted to get better and improve. She's a team player. And it kind of rubbed off on the other guys. I think they kind of admired her for that. I think the guys were actually in her corner and they pulled for her. They kind of liked being around her.
"She connected well with the guy [Scott Molloy] she worked with. That's important for any umpire, not necessarily a female. So, yeah, she's doing good. We're happy and we're hopeful that she'll continue to progress like she did this past season."
One way she earned respect was by not expecting special treatment. Some teams provided separate dressing rooms for her, but that just wasn't possible in all the facilities. When it wasn't, she never complained. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"There were a number of clubs that actually set out ladies' shaving razors, shaving cream and lotion," she said. "Or mango body wash instead of Old Spice or Axe. They added a feminine touch, and I really, really appreciated that.
"But Scotty and I preferred, as a crew, to stay together as often as possible. We both felt comfortable. As long as he had privacy and I had privacy to change, we worked with each club with the facility they had. Sometimes they provided separate spaces, but maybe we just felt they were too far away on opposite sides of the building and we didn't feel comfortable. We stayed together in those situations. Because there's a lot we have to talk about."
Right now, Pawol is doing preseason work to get ready for the season, umpiring one to three games a day. After the season starts, she'll probably remain in Florida for extended spring games until the New York-Penn League opens in late June.
Pam Postema (1977-89) was the first woman to umpire in a big league Spring Training game and advanced as high as Triple-A. The other women were Bernice Gera (1972), Christine Wren (1975-77), Theresa Cox Fairlady (1989-91), Ria Cortesio (1999-2007) and Shanna Kook (2003-04).
There are no guarantees that Pawol will be the first woman to break through to the Major Leagues. Just like a player, she'll have to prove herself at every level. But it's obvious she's off to a good start.