Life rough for minor league umpires, but it's the only way to top

THE BALTIMORE SUN

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. -- Every once in a rare while, when minor-league umpire Kevin Dykstra gets ticked off enough, he puts on a one-man show for some overly zealous umpire-bashers at Pompano Beach Municipal Stadium.

"I bend over, put my butt in their faces and cup-check them," said Dykstra, who has subtly perfected the crotch-grabbing gesture made famous by comedian Rosanne Barr. Funny thing is, the bashers don't realize they have been insulted because Dykstra sweeps home plate at the same time.

It makes him feel better.

"The players have their little holes that they can hide in," said Dykstra, 25, who lives in Corona, Calif., and is the younger brother of Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra. "But I have no place to hide."

Umpires: the most abused, least appreciated men in baseball. From Little League to the majors, umpires take the heat.

Michael Paruolo, a third-grader at Cresthaven Elementary School Pompano Beach: "In my Little League, they're real mean to umpires. They scream at them. They say, 'You can't call!' They say, 'You're dumb.' Real mean."

In professional baseball, there are 262 umpires. Sixty of them have reached the pinnacle of their dreams -- the major leagues -- where bigger really is better. They umpire in front of 30,000 raving fans, or 40,000 or 50,000. They call balls and strikes for Dave Henderson of the Oakland Athletics and for Vince Coleman of the New York Mets. They earn from $60,000 to $175,000 a year for eight months of work.

The other 202 are in the minors. After struggling to be in the top 15 percent at umpire schools, they struggle again to make it in the top third of Major League Baseball's Umpire Development Program. If they fail, bye-bye baseball. If they succeed, they struggle some more -- usually for several years -- to move up through Rookie ball (salary: $1,500 a month), Class A ($1,600), AA ($1,700), AAA ($2,500 to $2,800). There are surprise evaluations -- several a season -- and two annual report cards.

Then they wait.

In 1991, two umpiring positions opened in the major leagues. One-hundred umpires were left waiting till next year. Unlike minor-league players, minor-league umpires cannot skip levels. This year Umpire Development has established a retention plan that will attempt to limit a minor-league umpire's career to 10 years. After that, said Chuck Murphy, president of the Class A Florida State League, if Umpire Development has not shown interest, your career in umpiring is over. Few exceptions will be made.

"If someone told me I'd be in the minors for 20 years and then guaranteed me a job in the majors, I'd stay right where I am," said Wayne Kraus, 24, who lives in Louisville, Ky., and is a first-year umpire about to be assigned a Rookie league.

"Twenty-five years!" shouted Doug Eddings, 22, a third-year umpire in the Florida State League, which includes the Fort Lauderdale Yankees and Miracle of Pompano Beach. "Why shouldn't we wait that long? This is the greatest job in America. You work three hours a day and get paid decent money. And if we make it into the big leagues, it's awesome."

Kevin Miguez, 25, who grew up in Broussard, La., and played a year-and-a-half of Class A ball as a catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers, said umpiring has been another way to stay in baseball -- a game that umpires love as much as the players. "You can't get any closer," Miguez said. "I'd rather be an umpire. You're in the game every pitch, and it's a feeling you just can't describe. You're the one in control. You're the one responsible for what happens."

Lazaro Diaz umps with Kraus and played 1 1/2 years of Rookie and Class A ball as an outfielder with the Minnesota Twins' organization. "If I knew umpiring was this fun, I wouldn't have played baseball," said Diaz, 28. "No curfews. No practice. Stay out late. Sleep late. Less pressure. Go to the park one hour before. Have the whole day to yourself."

During the day, umpires do a lot of golfing, movie-going and mall-hopping. During the off-season, they pick up odd jobs and umpire for amateur leagues. Sometimes, though, they don't do much of anything.

"It feels so much better on the other side," Diaz said.

Not always.

By the time 19-month-old Patrick Louis Gulick is 18, his daddy, Doug, figures he will have been with his son about nine years.

"It puts a strain on the family," said Gulick, at 29 the FSL's oldest umpire. Now in his fourth year as an umpire, Gulick travels by himself from ballpark to ballpark, assisting as the third man in what usually is a two-man crew.

"Patrick is going through major developmental stages, and I'm missing out," he said.

"I love that little boy. I love my wife. But I love baseball, and it's my life. I'm in this game, and I don't want to leave unless I have to. I don't want to be what-iffing 10 years from now."

If they are lucky, minor-league umpires have about five days to be with their families during the six-month, 136-game season. In addition to their monthly salary, the umpires get hotel fees, health and life insurance and about $15 a day for food. They pay for their rental cars, but get 20 cents a mile if they drive their own.

Mike Fitzpatrick, who is in charge of umpire development for the FSL, said a new compensation package is being formulated that will cover transportation costs, meals, lodging and salary. For now, though, it's a matter of scraping by -- especially for those with families.

Doug's wife, Sheryl, lives in Ocala with Patrick and works as an insurance collection specialist for a local medical center to supplement her husband's $9,600 salary.

"It's tough, very tough," Sheryl Gulick said. "You have to be devoted to each other. You have to have trust. They're free all day long. And you're home struggling trying to take care of a house and be everything to your child."

When the season has ended, Doug Gulick -- who has a degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Florida -- scrambles to find a job to pay the bills. Just when they're getting used to each other, it's back to baseball.

"One season I saw my husband three days," said Joy Harvey, whose husband, Doug, is the senior umpire in Major League Baseball and so respected by players, managers and fellow umpires that he has been nicknamed, 'God.' "The minor leagues are built to get rid of you. It's just grueling out there."

The distinguished looking Harvey, 61, is in his 30th year as a National League umpire. Before that, he spent four years in the minor leagues, earning $250 a month. By 1962, Harvey had moved up to the majors and was earning $7,000. In 1991: $175,000.

During spring training, Harvey spends much of his time with minor-league umpires. He takes them out for steak, pizza, whatever.

"I've never forgotten where I came from," said Harvey, who has three sons. "It's a hard life. They all think they're going to make it to the big show. And they have to. There's no way in the world you can have doubts and still make it.

"What I tell these young umpires is that they must live a life above and beyond the normal morality, beyond the everyday person on the street. The whole of the game is dependent on the integrity of umpires."

Someone has to enforce the laws, and in baseball, it's the men in blue. [The last woman umpire, Theresa Cox of Birmingham, Ala., worked in a Rookie league and was released in 1990. No woman has ever made it past Class AAA.]

Police officers carry clubs and guns. An umpire's only weapon is ejection, which he uses about six times a year.

"I don't envy those guys one bit," said Chuck Murphy, the president of the Florida State League who doled out 125 fines (averaging about $20) to players and managers for umpire abuse DTC in 1990. The quickest way to get fined? Call an umpire a bleep.

"The language is awful. They [players and managers] spit in their faces with tobacco juice, hit them in the nose with the bills of their caps. It's scary."

Nelson said some managers enjoy drawing blood with their caps. "They take their bill and kind of peck away at you. Yeah, I've been cut. I've also been slammed into three times by a pitching coach at full speed. I ended up halfway down the third-base line."

Dykstra once had a manager lie on his stomach across the plate. He ejected him. After some major dirt-throwing, the coach calmly walked back to the dugout and threw every baseball onto the field.

Just last week, Miracle Manager Fredi Gonzalez -- normally a mild-mannered guy -- got ousted for arguing balls and strikes and punctuating his remarks with a couple of expletives.

"I would have thrown myself out if I were the umpire," Gonzalez conceded later. "They've got to take charge. If not, hell, it's like letting the inmates run the asylum."

And the asylum is not limited to on-field behavior. At Pompano Beach Municipal Stadium, a large blue wooden sign with the words Blue Review is hung on the first-base bleachers. Behind it, the same four rabid Miracle fans verbally attack the umpires nonstop every game. The most irritating, Bill Margolis of Dania, is called "The Mouth."

"He's got a set of lungs that are unbelievable," said Miracle owner Mike Veeck, shaking his head. "I-95 is a lot safer because these guys vent at the ballpark."

Scott Massengill, Dykstra's 27-year-old partner from Fort Myers, said he would love the Blue Review guys to "shut the hell up and get a real life."

But frankly, he's more concerned about his own: "If I get to the big leagues, I won't hear those clowns anymore. All those voices will sound like a big blur, a hummmm.

"No way I'm quitting. I'll be here until I make it -- or until they tell me to get out."

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