Female umpire calls game in Rookie ball

Pawol becomes seventh woman to work in affiliated league, first since 2007

June 25th, 2016

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It's said that the surest way to know the umpires have done a good job is if they go unnoticed.

That didn't happen on Field 1 at the Englebert Complex on Friday, when the Blue Jays' Gulf Coast League affiliate opened the Rookie League season with a 5-4 win over the Tigers. And not because there were controversial calls; just the opposite, in fact.

"It was a pretty easygoing game. Not much happened. They scored their runs on their own. It was kind of like we weren't there, which was good. That's the kind of game we like to have," said home-plate umpire Jen Pawol, who was the reason for the attention.

She became just the seventh woman (and first since 2007) to umpire in a professional-affiliated league.

So just after high noon on a languid summer afternoon, in front of a smattering of spectators, Pawol made a little bit of history. No female umpire has ever made it to the big leagues. She could be the first, and so, before the game began, she took a moment to think about the historic significance of what was about to happen.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't," she said. "I had a job to do. I was excited. I honestly just wanted to get the first few pitches in. And then once the first few pitches started coming in and plays started happening, I felt a little bit more relaxed. I was like, 'All right, let's enjoy this now. Let's do it.'"

Only two umpires work GCL games. On Saturday in Lakeland, she'll work the bases for the first time, and then the rotation with her partner, Scott Molloy, will start over again. And how did they decide who would work the plate Friday?

"Ladies first," Molloy said with a laugh.

The first batter, Tigers outfielder Chad Sedio, struck out looking. After that, it almost became just any other game.

"We had to get a game in," she said. "There was a lot of talking about it. So to get a game in, work the bases [Saturday], it feels pretty good. It feels pretty natural. And I'm excited to be working in professional baseball now."

Blue Jays manager Cesar Martin was impressed.

"She did a great job," he said. "Controlling the game, all those things. It was a nice game."

And yet, everybody was conscious of the fact that this was a unique situation. Martin admitted he spoke to his players about it ahead of time.

"You know, be polite, watch your mouth. Something like that," he said. "Just go out there and play the game."

She had been an umpire for almost 10 years but never thought about trying out for the Minor Leagues; "because of my gender," she said.

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 who helped open the door for Pawol were Bernice Gera (1972), Christine Wren (1975-77), Theresa Cox Fairlady (1989-91), Ria Cortesio (1999-2007) and Shanna Kook (2003-04).

A standout softball catcher at Hofstra University, Pawol also competed for the USA Baseball Women's National Team and played for the Connecticut Brakettes of the National Pro Fastpitch League. She had always enjoyed umpiring, but there was nothing inevitable about ending up with a professional contract.

She was also working on her master's thesis at Hunter College. It was on the flexibility of time and space in baseball. When she paints, she specializes in representations of the strike zone.

"I paint strike zones as they happen during my plate games. Or I'll watch a game and do the pitching chart, and then I'll go back and do the painting. Maybe throw in some stuff from the box score," she said. "The strike zone is so delicate. There are these impressions of pitches in our memory. More significant pitches get more vibrant colors. I love the strike zone because it's invisible. It's not objective. But everybody knows it's there, and we're supposed to call it. It's just the most interesting aspect of sports in the whole world. Everybody else puts the ball in a net and you can see the net. You can see the soccer goal. You can see the guy run over the goal line for a touchdown."

In 2010, she had been calling games for four years around her home in Binghamton, N.Y. She also had a part-time job teaching eighth-grade art and might have stayed with that. But education budgets were tightening. Teachers were being laid off. And when she visited the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World, the light bulb went off. She resigned from her teaching job and went to work for the Florida Professional Officials Association.

For the next 3 1/2 years, she averaged 700 games per year.

The turning point came last year, when she attended the Tony Thompson Southern Umpires Camp. Working as instructors were two Major League umps, Ted Barrett and Paul Nauert. They recognized her potential and encouraged her to accept a scholarship to attend the Major League Umpires Camp. She did, and an offer from the GCL followed.

"They were like, 'You should really go. You should really try this.' That sort of put the concept that this is an opportunity that I wouldn't have thought of," the 39-year-old Pawol said. "And now, having been through the whole process, if I had known they were such gentlemen and encouraging and hard-working, I would have done this a long time ago. But I didn't think that opportunity was open. I thought it was like a closed thing."

She understands that being a female umpire has its challenges, big and small. Managers and players have always tested umps, and some might try to push her further than they would a man.

"I know it's coming," she said. "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."

Then there are the everyday logistics of having a place to change and shower.

"Each facility is doing the best they can," she said. "Each team has a different sort of setup. So they've made arrangements where we can change separately, shower separately. Have a private element. But also be together as a crew when we do our pregame.

"One person may have to change in the bathroom. We're already used to that in amateur ball. Starting out umpiring, we were used to changing in the parking lot with everybody around. So this is the best. We're good."

It helps, too, that she and Molloy spent 2 1/2 months taking advanced courses at the Dodgertown Complex in Vero Beach last year.

"He's just a phenomenal person off the field. On the field he had tremendous game management skills, communications skills. It's a real honor to be on the field with him. I'll have his back and I know he'll have mine," she said. "I think it will increase the fun. We don't have to break the ice so we can get right into our routine."

And he may be her biggest supporter as well.

"I'm honored to be able to work with her," Molloy said. "She worked real hard to get here. Just watching her work, you knew there was something good there.

"She rightly deserves to have the position she has. There are a lot of people who have tried to get where she is, male and female. For her to get here, that's big. It's the start of something big that we'll hopefully see more of. We need more women to get into this game, 100 percent."

Baseball is making progress in that regard. French shortstop Melissa Mayeux is making her mark in the Major League Baseball development camps, Sarah Hudek is pitching for the men's team at Bossier Parish (Louisiana) Community College, and Justine Siegal was hired by the Athletics as an instructional league coach.

"There are absolutely more opportunities, for women in all professions," Pawol said. "From my own experience, if somebody hadn't actually said this was something I might want to look at, I would have stayed on the softball side. But, you know, I got a fair shot. I answered all my test questions. I was evaluated by dozens of people. I ran my five hours a day at umpire's school like everybody else. Sat there in class for four hours. Did my homework. And in the end, that worked out for me.

"So I'm going to keep focused. I enjoy the work. To be allowed this opportunity to work in professional baseball is the ultimate privilege because it's not something I ever thought I'd be allowed to do. And so far it's worked out."

She doesn't have a personal deadline to make it to the big leagues.

"I'm pretty open-ended. I just have the gas pedal to the metal, and whatever happens, it's better than what I was doing," she said. "It's kind of interesting. I don't know if I'm comfortable yet being allowed to be out there. Just the last four months have I been allowed to be out there. So it's going to take me a little longer to believe that this will be part of my life. But it's pretty exciting."

Sometimes it's the little things. At a league meeting on Thursday, the umpires were given their equipment. And she couldn't have been happier to get a can of the special mud umpires use to take the gloss off new baseballs before they're used in a game.

"It was just the coolest thing," she said with a grin. "I know I'm in the right profession if I'm getting excited about baseball mud."