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The Making of an Umpire : Before an Umpire Makes It to the Major Leagues, He Has to Learn to Take It as Well as Dish It Out

September 21, 1986|JEFF MEYERS | Jeff Meyers is a Times staff writer

It is April, and umpires everywhere are being taunted by stadium organists playing "Three Blind Mice." Two young umpires in the Class-A California League, one of baseball's lowest levels, are taking their first road trip of the season. Roland Garza, a Mexican-American from Texas, and Jim Friedrichs, a Kansas farm boy, hadn't met until a few days earlier, but for the next 5 1/2 months they will be constant companions. As a two-man umpiring team, they will travel together to games up and down the state, sharing hotel rooms and hot-dog dinners as well as loneliness, boredom and frustration.

After checking in at the Ventura Holiday Inn before a game between the hometown Gulls and the Salinas Spurs, Garza and Friedrichs try to get to know each other. It soon becomes evident that nothing as sophisticated as a computer has matched them. Both are 24 and began umpiring in high school, but they seem to have little in common except a fondness for baseball and movies. "We're sort of the odd couple," Friedrichs says. Garza, tall and gangly with a shock of black hair, is an outgoing city kid from the San Antonio barrio. The soft-spoken Friedrichs helped his family raise Holsteins in a predominantly German-American county where neither blacks nor Mexican-Americans lived.

Whatever fun they have during the season will depend on how well and how creatively they coexist. Garza has been in the minor leagues three years to Friedrichs' two, and once had a partner "who was rough to get along with." So he and Friedrichs agree to talk out problems in the hope of avoiding off-the-field conflicts that could jeopardize their working relationship. Teamwork is essential to their individual advancement, which they call "moving up the line." At the end of the line is the "show"--the major leagues.

Mere mention of the majors gives Garza and Friedrichs a good-time feeling. The show is big cities and jet planes and first-class hotels, not to mention a pension plan, per diem expenses and more than four times the salary they're making now. But it transcends money. When an umpire finally reaches the top of his profession, he will be in an exclusive club for the best 60 umpires in the world. And he will have paid a heavy price in his personal life, sacrificing relationships with family and friends.

Although the Major League Umpire Development Program says it doesn't keep statistics on dropouts and turnover rates, both Garza and Friedrichs have heard that the odds of making the majors are 100 to 1. It took them two years of seasoning in the low minors just to get to Class-A. Early in an umpire's career, advancement to Double-A usually takes place within three to four years, but then the pace slows considerably. The best of the minor leagues' 183 umpires are in Triple-A vying for the one or two major-league openings every year. If an umpire doesn't ascend to the majors after 10 years, he's usually told to quit and make way for younger candidates.

Players, of course, have their own hardships to endure before they can hit the major-league jackpot. But a player with rare ability can travel swiftly up the line. Umpires have to put in their time and wait their turn. Players also have more incentive to stick it out: In the majors, they'll get paid megabucks, date starlets and appear in People magazine. It's harder to explain what motivates minor-league umpires to endure abuse and humiliation before hundreds of fans for the prospect of someday receiving the same treatment in front of millions.

Little kids usually don't want to be major-league umpires when they grow up. Most men (only a handful of women have tried it) become umpires after they recognize their athletic limitations. Garza and Friedrichs admit to being only average high school baseball players. For extra money as teen-agers, they began umpiring sandlot and high school games for a few dollars. Although umpiring didn't provide the same thrills as playing, they liked being involved with the game. To Garza and Friedrichs, an umpire's life seemed glamorous, the travel alluring. And an umpire also has power. "I like being in control," Garza says.

At the Ventura Holiday Inn, Friedrichs stood on the balcony high above the beach and saw the Pacific Ocean heaving in the distance, sunlight glistening on the breakers. He thought back to his first year of umpiring, when he figured he'd seen it all in places like Medicine Hat, Canada, and Walla Walla, Wash. Suddenly, he felt euphoric, made giddy by the postcard view, the high-rise resort hotel and the high-flying expectations.

"What a great feeling," Friedrichs said. "Things don't get any better than this."

As it turned out, they didn't. It isn't long before the hopefulness of spring is replaced by the dog days of summer, and Garza and Friedrichs are having fleeting thoughts of quitting. "This is the time of year," says Garza one hot August afternoon, "when umpiring becomes a job."

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