Young umpires of the Northwoods League: It's their call

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2011 - 7:17 AM

For two young and determined baseball umpires, the chosen road to the bigs is long and uncertain, lined with low pay, budget hotels, insults and midnight meals.

They work the job, they endure the life, mostly for the view. Sam Hansen and Malachi Moore swear that if the light's just right, if you free your mind and squint at the horizon, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the major leagues.

Sometimes. At the moment, though, the view is blocked by a wall of porta-potties.

Hansen and Moore are umpires, young and green and ambitious, and on this warm June evening, they are standing in the grimy storage bay that serves as their dressing room in Mankato's Franklin Rogers Park, canisters of propane scattered at their feet and old advertising banners slouching in the corner.

There are no showers, no couches, just a card table and a couple of plastic chairs set up amid the boxes. The garage door bay is wide open, and early-arriving customers peer in at the umps on their way to the porta-johns, which stand a few feet from where they will change into their uniforms.

Hansen shrugs at the slapdash quarters, unfazed. "Usually they close the door," he says. "Sometimes they forget."

Life as an afterthought. That's the existence that Northwoods League umpires accept, even embrace, as a fair-value tradeoff for the right to take the first step or two along a million-mile journey to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Target Field. Hansen, a home-schooled Minnesota farmer's son about to earn a master's degree in public administration, and Moore, a just-barely 21 L.A. native who grudgingly surrendered his ball-playing ambition for umpire school, seem as different as TV cop-drama partners.

But they share one important trait. Like the 350 college players who each year swap their summer for a chance to sleep in buses around the Upper Midwest, eat concession-stand leftovers and hone their not-yet-professional-grade baseball skills -- "Basically, we're one big internship for the minor leagues," says Rochester Honkers General Manager Dan Litzinger -- the pair of newly minted umpires gladly suffer the mundane present in exchange for a Powerball-ticket future.

Winston Wood, who hires, instructs and supervises the league's staff of eight two-man crews for the 16-team circuit, says he's "up-front with these guys -- there are real sacrifices involved."

Yeah, a few. There's the meager pay: The league this year authorized a raise to $3,750 per ump, up from $3,000, for three months' work. "I umpired some youth games over the weekend," says Hansen's father, Dale, "and I made more money than Sam."

There's the workload: The Northwoods League assigns its umpires 76 games in 81 days, counting playoffs, and the rare off days are consumed, like many gameday mornings, by the constant travel.

And there's the working conditions: a blur of budget motels, midnight meals, painful bruises from foul balls, and "the only job where it's normal for people to yell insults at you," Wood says, including the occasional nose-to-nose shouting match with a manager.

Umpires have no home games and no teammates besides each other. They share hotel rooms, eat most meals together, do laundry together and basically travel everywhere as a pair.

Isolation, homesickness and greasy meals in late-night diners are as much a part of the gig as balls and strikes.

"I try to work out, read the Internet, study [the baseball rule book]. I talk on the phone a lot to my family and my girlfriend," says Moore, who arrives at the ballpark with Hansen each day roughly an hour before first pitch. "Anything to make the day go by."

A lot of those days are spent in Hansen's 1997 Dodge Stratus, piling more miles on to its 147,000-plus odometer. After their two-day visit to Mankato, for instance, the pair will set out for Rochester for four days, then double back 150 miles to Willmar for one game, trek to Brainerd for one more, then embark on a 200-mile journey to Thunder Bay, Ontario -- each leg, of course, followed by a ballgame immediately upon arrival. The Northwoods League, which stretches from Alexandria, Minn., to Battle Creek, Mich., reimburses umpires for gas, but the wear on their cars is theirs alone.

"I hope it makes it," Hansen says. "Hope I do, too."

• • •

Making it, though, is something few umpires ever achieve, and the odds are strongly against Moore and Hansen building a career out of their summertime job. Only 68 umpires work full time in the major leagues, and only 11 of those jobs have changed hands since 2000. With an average of one vacancy a year, the chances that one of the 225 minor league umpires will be promoted to the big leagues is far smaller than the average player's.

Hansen and Moore understand the statistics and realize that even if they are the exception to that cruel reality -- something only one Northwoods League alum, vacation fill-in Delfin Colon in 2008-09, has achieved -- their dream will only arrive after six to 12 years and another 10,000 hotel rooms' worth of minor league ball. And they haven't even broken into the pros yet.

No time to ponder the long odds now, though. Once a stadium worker arrives to close the door, Moore and Hansen execute their pregame routine. Hansen's got the plate on this night, so he unzips a large rollerbag and pulls out his RoboCop suit of armor -- steel-plated shoes, chest protector, shin guards and face mask, roughly $800 worth of equipment that each umpire must provide for himself -- to protect him from foul balls.

As Hansen sprays Febreze on his clothes to cover the sweat, Moore unwraps three dozen new baseballs and rubs dirt into their slick and shiny cowhide, making them easier to grip. Each ump stretches, then changes into uniform shortly. Just before game time, they kneel as Moore says a quick prayer, pull on their NWL caps, and walk out onto the green grass with a confident air that signals: We're in charge.

"It's very important to look professional, to act like it. I'm very aware of how I look," Moore says, knowing that players and managers will sense weakness and try to exploit it. "You have to sell your call. ... You're sort of selling yourself."

For that reason, he and Hansen rarely speak on the field. Frequent conversation, they believe, would be interpreted as insecurity about their judgment. "You don't want guys saying, 'I thought you were sure. Now you're asking him?' " Moore says. "Make your call and stand by it. Act like you know what you're doing."

Even if you're not sure. Moore missed a pitch that hit a batter during one game, and grew angry with himself when he saw the replay online afterward. "It hurt my heart," he says. "I was a player. You want to be perfect for them."

You will hear about it if you're not. In the fourth inning, a Mankato baserunner is caught in a rundown between third and home, and the Brainerd catcher collides with him as he makes the tag. But Hansen rules that the ball was in the catcher's hand, not his glove, and calls the runner safe. Lunkers manager Ryan Levendoski loudly argues, at one point taunting, "Is that what your coin [flip] told you?"

When Levendoski renews the argument between innings, Hansen backs up, pivots and emphatically throws the manager out of the game, the Hansen-Moore crew's first ejection of the season. "I don't know how it looked," Hansen admits after the game, "but it felt pretty good."

But after an underwhelming, team-provided postgame meal of Subway sandwiches left over from the players' spread, Hansen rushes back to the hotel so he can watch the replay of the tag on video before writing a report for the league. It's inconclusive, and Hansen declares himself "95 percent certain" he got the call right.

Levendoski, waiting behind the stadium for the game to end, isn't so sure. But he says he supports the league's policy of developing young umpires as well as players, even if it means living with more missed calls than experienced umpires might make. "They're here to learn, just like the players, and you have to respect that," the Brainerd manager says. "They're trying hard, that's the important thing."

• • •

Though it might not seem like it, trying hard has got them a long way already. Each attended one of baseball's two umpiring schools in Florida last January, surviving a grueling five-week course of rules, calls and arguments to finish relatively high -- though not among the top 25, who are offered jobs in the low minors -- in their 160-member classes.

Moore, winner of the Golden Mask award at the Harry Wendelstedt camp for his hustle and effort, was placed on a watch list by organized baseball and essentially invited back next January to retake the course. "There won't be any excuse for me not finishing at the top of the class next year," he says.

Hansen graded well but was ranked a little lower at the Jim Evans camp. He, too, can take the course again next year, though at 26 and with only a thesis standing between him and a master's degree, his decision is far from certain. But the Northwoods League, which chooses from among the best umpires not hired by the pros, invited both to spend the summer in Minnesota.

For Hansen, it was an opportunity he had contemplated for a decade or more. Raised as the middle of three boys on a sheep farm in Morgan, Minn., he fell in love with baseball when he was 9. When he wasn't playing, he learned rudimentary umpiring, and loved the game even more.

Except for a cousin who's a dentist, Hansen is the only member of his extended family to attend college, though he wasn't certain where it would take him. He studied to be a police officer, sold used cars, became a tutor, supervised parking enforcers. When nothing stuck, he went back to Minnesota State Mankato for a graduate degree.

Finished with that, he decided to spend his savings -- $3,500 -- on umpire school, figuring he would regret not knowing whether he could have made it. His parents encouraged him, despite the likely outcome.

"It's an interesting choice, but he's not married. If he's going to do it, now's the time," says Dale Hansen, Sam's father. "He's a determined kid; I don't worry about him. I mean, I know people whose kids are in the military, trading bullets. I don't know where his life will take him, but I think it won't be boring."

Moore grew up with his mother and grandparents in poverty-blighted Compton, Calif. Moore "never thought, never dreamed, never even pictured myself being an umpire," he says. He was an honor student, a second baseman, a center fielder and a future Dodger or Angel, he figured, despite his 5-8 stature. San Diego State even recruited him, though he went to nearby Compton College instead when the scholarship fell through.

He was practicing with his junior-college teammates at MLB's Urban Youth Academy last November when a half-dozen big-league umpires showed up to conduct a clinic. Moore was asked to help, and Kerwin Danley, a 14-year major league veteran, became impressed. At the end of the clinic, Danley offered Moore a scholarship to Wendelstedt's camp, and after wrestling with the end of his playing career, he accepted.

"I really feel this is what I was meant to do. I'm blessed to be in the situation I'm in," Moore says. "I feel like something, someone is guiding me this way."

It might be his older brother, Moore believes. Nehemiah Moore was 19 when he was shot and killed on the streets of Compton, a bystander to a gang-related dispute that involved some friends. Malachi hangs a shirt with his brother's picture on it in every hotel room, and "I think about him all the time, every day. He's my inspiration."

His brother's death "hit him hard. He wouldn't talk about it for a long time, and it still affects him," says Neva Moore, Malachi's mother. "But he does pretty good controlling his emotions. He doesn't really lash out at people. He stays even, and that helps him as an umpire. ... Who knows? He might be that one who gets there."

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  • Northwoods League umpires Sam Hansen, left, and Malachi Moore stretched before a game between the Mankato Moondogs and the Brainerd Lunkers at Franklin Rogers Park in Mankato. Because both have played the game, they understand that umpires need to be limber and quick on their feet to do the job well — and hopefully rise through the ranks.Northwoods League umpires Sam Hansen, left, and Malachi Moore stretched before a game between the Mankato Moondogs and the Brainerd Lunkers at Franklin Rogers Park in Mankato. Because both have played the game, they understand that umpires need to be limber and quick...

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