A grass-roots approach to finding tomorrow's umps
Baseball using Urban Youth Academy camps to discover talent nationwide
HOUSTON -- There's an interesting phenomenon going on at the Urban Youth Academy, an experiment that allows umpires to grow and learn alongside the players of the future.
Major League Baseball has started prospecting for umpires the same way that teams do for players, and a host of one-day camps around the country has begun to deepen the supply.
More than 60 Minor League umpires have been discovered since the advent of the first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., seven years ago, and an annual umpire camp there has turned into an assembly line for future strike-callers. Twelve men were chosen to attend the Compton camp in November, and 11 of them will move on to a five-week course designed to separate the wheat from the umpiring chaff.
Rich Rieker, the director of umpire development for Major League Baseball, said that he's thrilled by the progress made in finding new umpires and optimistic about the immediate future.
"It's a great profession," said Rieker, a former big league umpire. "And we're giving even more people the opportunity. We're going to the new academy in New Orleans this year. We've been to Houston.
"We'll be going to Camp Pendleton again this year for the Marine Corps. As the new academies open up, we're excited to get there. And as we develop players for the great game of baseball, we're trying to develop the umpires. Because it really takes the edge off if you have subpar performance."
Rieker said that many potential umpires come to the camp with a modicum of experience from working high school or college games, and they're looking to improve their skills or burnish their resume for a professional career. But others, he said, are amateurs who have never considered the job.
Rieker said that some of those candidates have come from the Urban Youth Academies, and others have been scouted from the military. Now, Rieker is searching for umpires all over the country, holding a series of one-day camps designed to funnel talent to the weeklong camp in Compton.
"We know that not everyone can make it out to California, and we want to be able to try to find the prospects and give them an opportunity at a scholarship," said Rieker. "Then we can get them out to Compton, go through that first step and then hopefully on to the umpire schools."
Three Compton residents -- Chris Lloyd, Richard Genera and Jesse Orozco -- were among the group that will be moving on to the next level this year, and they had an able role model in Malachi Moore. Just a year ago, in fact, Moore was in their exact position and hoping for a break of his own.
Moore, a former aspiring player at the Compton academy, made it out of the rigorous umpire selection process last season and worked through his first year on the job.
Moore, in Houston on Friday to help recruit future umpires as part of the Urban Invitational's college and career fair, said that Compton's camp prepared him for his own five-week course. Now, one year later, he's working as an umpire instructor and preparing for a season in the Northwest League.
"It's definitely an unlimited ceiling," said Moore of the academy pool. "The guys catch on and they catch on quick. They don't know much about the profession going in, but once they get a little taste of the Compton camp, they figure it out quick and they want to do it. I'm there to explain things to them, and so are these veteran guys. When the veteran guys come, we all just sit back and listen."
Adrian Johnson, one of those veteran umpires, can speak about the new generation of umpires. Johnson, a Houston resident, became a full-time big league umpire in 2010 and he's played an important role at camps in nurturing the talents of men such as Moore, Lloyd, Genera and Orozco.
From Johnson's perspective, any initiative that brings new blood to umpiring is a net positive.
It's very important when you look at officiating all across the spectrum of sports," he said. "You look at youth sports and you always need umpires. I heard about a game at the academy in Compton last night. There were two highly ranked teams, but they only had one umpire. We need officials, and we need to be able to identify people early that have the interest and bring them along the right way."
Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, has made it a priority to institute programs such as this one. Miller has said that the main mission of the Urban Youth Academy is to create Major League citizens who have a chance at going on to greater education and opportunity.
That could mean scouting, coaching or umpiring, but it could also mean a job outside the sporting world. Miller, a former big league catcher, wants to let today's youth know that they can be anything they want to be, and he wants them to be aware of all the possibilities in this life.
That's the driving force beyond the Urban Youth Academies, and it's also the motivation for the Urban Invitational, the league's tourney to promote baseball at historically black colleges and universities.
"All these guys that are coming out of the umpire camps, there's some fruit being borne," said Miller. "We had the umpire presence here, too, and we've made pitches to the HBCU teams every year that there's an umpire possibility. It's all about opportunity. Having Malachi here helps. Here's a kid who was 12 or 14 years old at the academy, and the next thing you know, he's an umpire."
It certainly didn't happen overnight for Moore, and it won't for any umpire. The journey to the big leagues can take as long as a decade, and it can take you to small cities far away from your home zip code. But in the end, it's an important job and an enjoyable one on a number of levels.
For Rieker, who knows firsthand, it's the greatest job in the world.
"It is arduous, but the dividends at the end are worth it," he said. "Normally, after your sixth or seventh year, if you're working with us, you're going to get some games on a replacement basis based on injuries and vacations for Major League umpires. When you're finally hired, it may take up to 10 years, but at the end of the day you're going to get a taste of that big league stuff in Spring Training after about six or seven years. Now, it may seem like a long time -- and it definitely is -- but it's worth it in the end.