Matthew Carey, 21, works on a safe call warm-up drill at Major League Baseball's… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
Normally, baseball umpires are the ones who declare a rain delay if inclement weather comes during a game.
But in Compton on Saturday it was the operators of Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy who were watching the skies for a predicted rainstorm from a Gulf of Alaska storm front.
Had it turned rainy, the final exam for 54 fledgling umpires wrapping up a weeklong crash course in how to conduct baseball games would have been moved off a pair of ball fields and under cover, according to Rich Rieker, director of umpire development for MLB.
Located on 10 acres next to El Camino College's Compton Center campus, the $10-million MLB-run sports complex features two big-league-size ball fields and two smaller softball fields.
The officiating school is designed to prepare wannabe umpires for jobs with minor league teams and, eventually, the major league. Over the past seven years, however, it's turned out to be even more valuable for local parks and recreation districts, Little League groups and other amateur sports organizations.
Four big league umpires and a group of them from the minor leagues conducted classes in such subjects as the philosophy of the strike zone, home plate positioning, strategies for two-person umpiring (major league games have four) and techniques for dealing with runners on one, two or three bases.
Each of the student umpires was aware that the 68 big league umps can earn up to $370,000 per baseball season for calling balls and strikes and settling on-field disputes. But they also realized that many youth team umpires or those working in recreational leagues work for free or for token sums as low as $5 per game.
"It's not the money. It's the love of the game of baseball," said former minor-league umpire Dick Runchey, 61, of Plymouth, Mich. With 45 years' experience in umpiring, he was one of those conducting the MLB workshop.
The students put their new skills to work Saturday by taking turns umpiring games played by high school and inter-squad college teams such as the one from Cal State Dominguez Hills. The umps said they are willing to start at the bottom.
"The umpires in my league are terrible," said Steven Hogan, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate from Atlanta. "I want to be able to show them how to do it."
Hogan, who wants to eventually become an athletic trainer, paid the $1,100 cost of the umpire school enrollment and airfare with the help of his parents. He said he came away from the training with an appreciation of umpires' attention to footwork — both their own and those of base-runners who might not touch second as they race toward third. "An ump always has their chest aimed at the ball," Hogan said.
Fifteen of the umpire students were sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps and had their tuition waived by MLB.
Lance Cpl. Jeremy Kleineck, 27, of Brainerd, Minn., said he intended to take his newly learned skills back to Camp Pendleton, where he will officiate at on-base ballgames. "Baseball gives us the opportunity to take our minds off what's going on in the world," he explained.
Kleineck said he wouldn't hesitate to call a higher-ranking Marine out after a third strike or a home-plate tag. "If a lieutenant's out, he's out," he said.
Retired Marine 1st Sgt. Rogelio Haro said he ended his 25-year Marine career earlier this year after "three close calls" in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of those incidents involved a roadside bomb that left him with a fractured skull, said the 43-year-old Temecula resident.
His goal is to become a big league umpire. "But I'm a realist. To do Little League or Pony League games would be gratifying. I'll work for free. If I do Little League games the rest of my life, I'll be happy. But there's always the chance you'll be called up to the show."
Major league umpire Ted Barrett, 47, of Gilbert, Ariz. has called big league baseball games for 16 years. He agreed with Haro that every level of organized baseball benefits from good officiating.
He is pleased to "teach the game, its rules and its values" to budding umpires, Barrett said.