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19-year-old umpire thinks he made the right call in career choice

Ryan Powers, who played high school baseball in Riverside, hopes to make the majors but he's happy to be in the Gulf Coast League.

October 05, 2013|By Kevin Baxter

JUPITER, Fla. — It's not quite 10 on a hot and sticky Saturday morning when Ryan Powers strides onto a remote back field at a minor league training complex.

Carrying a protective titanium mask that reeks from previous sweat-soaked bouts with the punishing South Florida weather, he wears bulky pads beneath his uniform of gray slacks and a black polo shirt.

Powers is an umpire. At 19, the second-youngest in professional baseball.

Behind the plate for the next two hours and 15 minutes, he will squat low more than 200 times, render decisions on nearly as many pitches, and try to maintain order among teams of newly minted Major League Baseball prospects.

For his trouble, he will be paid $65, plus expenses — about half of what he used to make for umpiring junior college games near his mother's home in Riverside.

Yet he is living his dream.

"Every day I wake up thankful, just knowing that I'm a professional," he says. "You feel accomplished. Not that I'm anywhere close to where I want to be. But it's the first step. I do not take it for granted. Ever."

Where Powers wants to be is the major leagues — the same place all the players, managers and coaches in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League want to be.

To a man, they face long odds. None longer than Powers.

Each year, there are 1,200 players and about 300 managers and coaches on major league rosters. There are fewer than 100 major league umpires.

Turnover is so rare that during the first seven years of George W. Bush's presidency, there were as many openings for Supreme Court justices — two — as there were for big-league umpires.

"Somebody has to go and you have to be ready to go right up," Powers says. "You have to be the No. 1 guy. It's about timing and luck."

And paying your dues.

Becoming an umpire wasn't always Powers' career goal. He played baseball his first three years at Martin Luther King High in Riverside, and was a defensive back and linebacker on the football team.

"I wanted to be on TV, either on Sundays playing football or I wanted to be on TV playing baseball," Powers says. His high school coaches knew there was little chance of either happening.

Umpiring was different. It was more about brains than brawn; about control and presence more than quickness and coordination. "I thought it was easy," Powers says. He was working junior college games while still attending high school.

Most big-league players prove themselves in lengthy apprenticeships, and it's no different for umpires. Powers' path began with a five-week winter boot camp in Florida.

Away from home and on his own for the first time, Powers almost washed out early. He called his mother after three days to say he was quitting.

"I do not want to do this," he told her. "It's too hard."

At that point, he would not have been missed. Instructors said he had developed a number of bad habits while working unsupervised in Southern California. Basic things eluded him, such as remembering to grasp his protective mask with his left hand so his right hand was free to immediately signal calls.

"It came down to the wire with him," says John Libka, one of the instructors. "He had a good last couple of days there."

At the graduation ceremony for the 180 students, Powers was among 27 who received a diploma with the notation "honor student." That meant he had qualified for a 12-day spring evaluation by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. (PBUC), which decides who goes on to the pros and who goes back to the bush leagues.

When he made that cut, he was sent to work in a summer league for college players, a finishing school for umpires awaiting assignments in the minor leagues.

The Coastal Plains League, with teams across the Carolinas and Virginia, wasn't a bad starting point. The games were played in the cool of the evening in spacious stadiums before crowds in the thousands.

Then came a promotion, though in many ways it didn't feel like one. In June, Powers was assigned to the Gulf Coast League, the lowest level of competition affiliated with Major League Baseball.

Room 205 of the Juno Beach Holiday Inn Express is in such disarray the maids aren't sure what's trash and what's treasure.

Three empty pizza boxes have been stacked for days on a round table and the remnants of a six-pack of beer sit near the television. Clothes are strewn everywhere because it's moving day.

The two-man umpire crews in the Gulf Coast League work six days from one location and share a hotel room. On their day off, they pack up and drive to the next assignment. Rarely are they separated.

"Even if you love the guy, you still get sick of being married to him for 2 1/2 months," says Libka, the umpire instructor. "You do everything together."

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