LOWELL, Mass. -- There used to be a sign in the home clubhouse at LeLacheur Park, home of the Spinners, the short-season Class A affiliate of the Red Sox: The Road to Fenway begins in Lowell. Under the scoreboard is currently another saying: 100 Major Leaguers and Counting.Not that anybody
LOWELL, Mass. -- There used to be a sign in the home clubhouse at LeLacheur Park, home of the Spinners, the short-season Class A affiliate of the Red Sox: The Road to Fenway begins in Lowell. Under the scoreboard is currently another saying: 100 Major Leaguers and Counting.
Not that anybody in the New York-Penn League needs to be reminded that the ultimate goal is to make it to the bigs. And that, of course, includes the umpires.
Jen Pawol began her second season working in affiliated baseball Monday night when the Spinners opened their season against the Vermont Lake Monsters. She was on the bases while her partner, Drew Saluga, had the plate. She's just the seventh woman to be hired and, naturally, dreams of becoming the first female umpire to make it to The Show.
Even though the game was suspended by rain in the top of the third, getting through the first inning of the first game counted for a lot. She had a couple of bang-bang calls, including one in which Spinners first baseman Raiwinson Lameda dug a throw out of the dirt, dropped it and then picked it up just in time to retire Vermont's Jarrett Costa. Pawol made the call decisively and there was no argument from the Lake Monsters.
"It was exciting," she said afterward. "The place was pretty packed. Music was going. Real baseball atmosphere. It was cool."
She made her debut last season in the Gulf Coast (Rookie) League, so Monday's assignment is a promotion, just as a player is moved up from level to level as he works his way toward the top. The game is the same, but it's also different.
GCL games are played before a handful of fans. The Spinners averaged nearly 3,800 in home attendance in 2016. The crews change for every series, and the umpires are responsible for their own travel arrangements. And the pressure is ratcheted up at every rung on the ladder.
"I think it's structural," she said. "The GCL is much more forgiving. Even though everybody [cares a lot]. If you miss a call, there's definitely a level of forgiveness. At this point, we'd better become somewhat more efficient."
That's offset by the fact that Pawol has experienced so much since last summer. About 75 GCL games, some 50 assorted games during Spring Training and another 50 during extended spring.
"Mentally, I feel way more relaxed. Looking back at the video [from her debut in Dunedin, Fla.], I think I was really fired up and I didn't even realize it. There was so much emotion going on. ... All the reps, all the practice at the level that we're going to umpire this year. It's not like we were working high school baseball to get ready for professional baseball. It feels right."
It helps that Pawol and Saluga were classmates at umpire training school in January 2016 and get along well. But the reality is that she doesn't believe she experienced any gender discrimination in the GCL. And she doesn't expect that to change.
"I would be offended at this point if someone would try to tell me that Major League Baseball or Minor League Baseball or the Umpires School or managers, coaches and players -- everybody who's involved -- that it's a bad environment for women. It's not. It's an awesome environment for women," she said.
Saluga has an interesting perspective on the subject. He's been a basketball official and has worked with many female referees. In his experience, it hasn't been an issue.
"It might be a little different because I worked with women referees at the Division II and Division III levels of women's college basketball. So there are a lot more women there than there are in Minor League Baseball right now," he said. "But, definitely from what I've noticed, they're not treated differently because they're women."
Which is not to say that Pawol doesn't expect to be tested.
Said Saluga: "For sure. But I don't think one of the reasons is because she's a female. A lot of these managers and coaches have a lot of time in the game. They know how to pick up on something and test that. They're not testing us as people. If they attack us, they're not attacking us. They're attacking the uniform. So they're not testing us as human beings. They're testing us as umpires."
Handling game situations is part of what makes umpiring appealing to Pawol.
"For me, that's the game," she said. "That's why we're doing this. The same kind of plays are going to happen at Rookie level and all the other levels, but the gamesmanship and discussing what you just saw with the manger or coach and doing it in a way that keeps the game on track each inning without causing something to happen? That's why you want to become a professional umpire. You want to handle that and be proficient. That's the crux of it. That's the whole thing."
Pawol and Saluga may be right. It could be that she will be judged solely on her talent, that also being a potential pioneer won't be an issue. This much is certain. There are tangible signs that baseball is preparing itself. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the Spring Training complex shared by the Rockies and D-backs in Arizona, has a dedicated dressing room for female umpires. So does The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches where the Astros and Nationals train, and the Tigers' newly renovated facility in Lakeland, Fla.
"And there are plaques up," Pawol said. "It's not a flex room or a bathroom or a closet. They have male umpire's room with the symbol and then one for female umpires. So they're definitely doing everything they can to open the door."
Adding to the momentum, Emma Charlesworth-Seiler has been hired and will make her debut in the Gulf Coast League next week. She and Pawol are friends after meeting at a tryout camp in 2015. They've stayed in touch.
"We text. We call," Pawol said. "If she has questions, I want to be there for her. As I learn new stuff I kind of pass it on to her. 'Hey, watch out for this rule.' She needed a new gear bag and I told her the kind I use. It's cool."
Another feature of LeLacheur Park is a mural depicting the distances to various other stops between Lowell and the Major Leagues, including an arrow that indicates, tantalizingly, that Fenway Park is merely 30 miles away.
Which represents, of course, the hopes of every player -- and umpire -- in the game.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.