Meet the only European umpire in the Minor Leagues

July 5th, 2023
Design by Tom Forget. Photos by Mark Steffens Fotoguy Photography

He’s the most second-guessed person in any ballpark he goes to, and yet for Zdeněk Židek -- better known around the game as “Z" -- this is a dream come true. Originally hailing from the town of Plzeň in the Czech Republic (you may know it for their signature Pilsner Urquell), Židek is the only European umpire in the Minor Leagues.

But how does someone like Židek, who holds a law degree, go from the Czech Republic to the small towns of the Double-A Eastern League, working alongside players who harbor the same dream of one day reaching the Major Leagues?

Well, there's the long answer and the short one.

"It's less romantic than anyone might think," Židek told "I was a softball player and then a fastpitch umpire and we made it to the World Championships. I wanted to step up because I wanted to make a living out of -- I'm a lawyer by profession. So, one day, I just Googled 'How to become a Major League umpire.' It told me to go to one of the professional schools in Florida. I went there and then got the ball rolling."

Židek discusses a call with Vladimir Chlup, manager of the Praha Eagles. Photo by Mark Steffens Fotoguy Photography.

Perhaps most surprising is that Židek has been wanting to umpire almost since the very first day he ever stepped on a ballfield. Introduced to softball by his best friend, he and a group of classmates quickly formed their own team. It didn't take long for Židek to learn that he always wanted to be on the field -- and more than that, he wanted to be the arbiter.

"We went and took an umpiring course," Židek said. "We umpired every weekend. So that's how it started when I was like 12 or 13. And then, all of a sudden, you realize that you're a better umpire than a player, which you know, when you're 14 or 15, you're not very good at umpiring. I can't even imagine how bad of a player was."

Židek proved adept at his tasks and rose up the ranks of European umpires, working over the weekends and pocketing the same kind of money other teenagers got from "flipping burgers," he joked. By the time he was 17 years old, he was tasked with umping the junior girls' European Championships.

There was only one problem? Židek couldn't drive.

"My father took me there, so nobody knew that I didn't know how to drive at that point," Židek said with a laugh. "It was junior girls, so there were actually girls that were older than I was."

While the level of play is quite good in Europe and the Czech Republic, there isn't much money in the sport. The Czech Republic -- whose national baseball team played in its first World Baseball Classic this spring -- has one of the continent's better leagues despite its mostly-amateur status. If Židek wanted to do this with his life, he'd have to come to the United States.

So, after watching "The Third Team," an MLB Network documentary that followed the 2012 World Series umpiring crew, Židek's dream materialized.

“I watched it, like a million times. I even subtitled it for our umpires to see [in the Czech Republic]," Židek said. "That was that was one of the breakthrough moments: How can I do this?”

Of course, before he left for America, he had to take his law exams first.

"I took my law school entry test, that was on Sunday," Židek said. "On a Monday, I flew to the United States for the very first time, and then I saw my first professional game that very week."

Židek looks on to make the call.

Židek speaks softly and carefully, seeming to choose each word the way one counts change, but his eyes light up with an impish glee when telling a joke or debating the minutiae of a call or a rulebook discussion. You have a feeling this is how he would be when working as a lawyer in court -- something he admits has plenty of similarities with his current job. After all, both are duty bound to the rule of law, with the ability to communicate among the crucial parts of the job. One of them just happens to be a little less serious and takes place outside.

At the same time, Židek's personal experience couldn't be more different.

"I specialized in criminal defense and data protection. I was going to jails and courts and really defending people," Židek said. "On the other side, I'm sort of the judge."

His days at the umpire academy began early with trips to the classroom to learn "every word in the rulebook." Then he'd hit the field, with instructors hitting fungoes and the students calling plays. After a short lunch break -- usually with some studying done over the meal -- he'd be back out on the field for another round of calls.

"By day two, day three, you've already lost your voice, your hope in life, your self confidence," he joked. "Everything's gone."

While the work was hard, it was everything that Židek could have dreamed of.

"I remember asking, 'Are those shoes that the instructors are wearing new, or are they just so beautifully polished?' I really thought that it just can't be done this pristinely. From that first day, I knew this is what I want."

As for strikeout calls, it turns out that every umpire doesn't start working on their signature punch out behind the dish.

"One of my great advisors, Mike Felt -- who recently retired -- he told me that the style comes with experience. He said 'Don't worry about your strikeout call. It's going to change 30 times in your career. Worry about the most important things: Getting the calls right, getting in position.'"

Židek greets a batboy before a Minor League game.

He was first assigned to Florida's Gulf Coast League, getting his first action at the Phillies Spring Training complex in Clearwater, Fla. While shopping for swim goggles, he got the call that he was being promoted to the Northwest League.

"Pardon my complete utter ignorance," Židek remembers asking his supervisor with a laugh, "but where the hell is that?"

After the 2020 season wiped out Minor League Baseball for a year, Židek had stops in the Carolina League and South Atlantic League before being promoted to the Eastern League this year. Just as a Minor Leaguer must rise through the ranks, so must an umpire. But where there's 700 Major League jobs, there are only 76 Major League umpiring jobs.

"We're expected to get better every day. We're expected to advance and if that advance stops, that means that we're not going to progress," Židek said. "It is for us to work every day on the craft and then make the chips fall at the end. Because statistics and the numbers are against us. That's quite clear."

He knows that he's the least popular person at the park; that every player, manager and fan will take out their frustrations on him and his calls. He calls that pressure a privilege.

"I always say that umpiring is my way back into society, because I was defending criminals before that," Židek joked. "In my view, if yelling at me makes somebody's day better, go ahead. I'm glad to be of service."

Zidek umpiring a Czech extraleague game. Photo by Mark Steffens Fotoguy Photography.

When the season is over, Židek will return to Europe, finally getting a few months of unbroken time with his wife and young son. Now the head of WBSC Europe Umpiring Committee, he'll look to share his knowledge with the other young umpires who may harbor the same dream that he has -- one that comes on a purely voluntary basis save for the "satisfaction that comes with promoting the best game on the planet and the umpiring thereof."

"The interest and enthusiasm of our umpiring in Europe didn’t match their treatment. There was no official structure, no long-term leadership," Židek wrote in an email. "Umpires were eager to learn but didn’t have the opportunities. You must keep in mind that we are still talking amateur baseball and umpiring -- umpires take their time off to get better, umpire games, go to European Championships – with absolute zero compensation but 'bragging rights.'"

He'll join up with the Czech Republic national team for their practices, squatting down behind home plate and calling balls and strikes for their bullpens as he tries to sharpen his eyes and hone his craft.

And when the winter is over, he'll wait for the phone call that will tell him where he should head next season, always hoping that he's done enough to get moved up another rung on that ladder. Židek may have a law degree to fall back on, but he knows exactly where he wants to be every day: Out on the field, behind the plate.

"Nobody's harder on umpires than the umpires themselves," Židek said. "What people fail to understand is how deeply interested are we in the game, and how deeply we care for it in a very peculiar way."