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."

  • related content

  • Video: Ump dreams

    Saturday July 2, 2011

    Two Northwoods League umpires are fighting long odds in their hopes of some day making it to the majors.

  • Photo gallery: It's Their Call

    Saturday July 2, 2011

    For two young baseball umpires, the road to the 'bigs ' is long and uncertain, lined with low pay...

  • Tricks of the trade

    Saturday July 2, 2011


  • 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...

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Dallas 6:00 PM
Sacramento 6:00 PM
Toronto 6:00 PM
Houston 6:30 PM
Philadelphia 6:30 PM
Cleveland 7:00 PM
Oklahoma City 7:00 PM
Portland 7:30 PM
LA Clippers 8:00 PM
San Antonio
Charlotte 8:00 PM
Phoenix 9:30 PM
Golden State
Washington 12:00 PM
NY Islanders 1:00 PM
Arizona 2:00 PM
Los Angeles 6:00 PM
Florida 6:00 PM
New Jersey
Carolina 6:00 PM
NY Rangers
Toronto 6:00 PM
Dallas 6:00 PM
Columbus 6:30 PM
Tampa Bay
Edmonton 9:00 PM
Chicago 9:30 PM
San Jose
Boston College 11:00 AM
Western Mich 11:00 AM
Eastern Mich
NC State 11:00 AM
Georgia Tech
Wisconsin 11:00 AM
Stony Brook 11:00 AM
New Hampshire
Notre Dame 11:00 AM
Providence 11:00 AM
St Johns
Davidson 11:00 AM
Saint Josephs
Xavier 11:00 AM
Seton Hall
Tulane 11:00 AM
Auburn 11:00 AM
Texas Tech 11:00 AM
West Virginia
Arkansas 12:00 PM
Penn State 12:00 PM
Lipscomb 12:00 PM
South Florida 12:00 PM
Bradley 12:05 PM
Indiana State
UMass Lowell 1:00 PM
Green Bay 1:00 PM
Cleveland State
Georgetown 1:00 PM
Coll of Charleston 1:00 PM
Villanova 1:00 PM
Arkansas State 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Vermont 1:00 PM
TCU 1:00 PM
Iowa State
Kennesaw St 1:00 PM
Kansas State 1:00 PM
Boston Univ 1:00 PM
Illinois State 1:00 PM
Albany 1:00 PM
Butler 1:00 PM
LSU 1:00 PM
Miss State
Mount St Marys 1:00 PM
Sacred Heart
Richmond 1:00 PM
VA Commonwealth
Virginia Tech 1:00 PM
Wake Forest
IUPU-Ft Wayne 1:00 PM
Nebraska Omaha
Loyola-Maryland 2:00 PM
Tenn Tech 2:00 PM
Bethune-Cookman 2:00 PM
Florida A&M
Valparaiso 2:00 PM
UAB 2:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Idaho State 2:00 PM
North Dakota
Evansville 2:05 PM
Rutgers 2:15 PM
Ball State 2:30 PM
Southern U 3:00 PM
Alcorn State
UNC-Wilmington 3:00 PM
Coastal Carolina 3:00 PM
Morgan State 3:00 PM
William & Mary 3:00 PM
James Madison
North Carolina 3:00 PM
Coppin State 3:00 PM
MD-Eastern Shore
Ole Miss 3:00 PM
Wichita State 3:00 PM
Northern Iowa
Loyola Marymount 3:00 PM
Winthrop 3:00 PM
George Washington 3:00 PM
Rhode Island
Bryant 3:00 PM
Robert Morris
Long Island 3:00 PM
St Francis-NY
Fair-Dickinson 3:00 PM
St Francis-PA
Massachusetts 3:00 PM
Saint Louis
Georgia 3:00 PM
South Carolina
Central Conn St 3:00 PM
SIU Edwardsville 3:15 PM
Eastern Ill
Ohio 3:30 PM
Central Mich
Eastern Ky 3:30 PM
Morehead State
Incarnate Word 3:30 PM
Campbell 3:30 PM
Vanderbilt 3:30 PM
Texas A&M
South Alabama 4:00 PM
Western Carolina 4:00 PM
UNC Greensboro
Detroit 4:00 PM
Idaho 4:05 PM
Eastern Wash
Marshall 4:30 PM
Louisiana Tech
Jackson State 4:30 PM
Miss Valley St
Houston Baptist 4:30 PM
Sam Houston St
Louisiana 4:30 PM
Texas State
Denver 4:30 PM
South Dakota St
Oral Roberts 4:30 PM
South Dakota
Texas 5:00 PM
Citadel 5:00 PM
Fresno State 5:00 PM
Colorado State
Yale 5:00 PM
Ark-Pine Bluff 5:00 PM
Grambling St
Nebraska 5:00 PM
Hampton 5:00 PM
Norfolk State
Purdue 5:00 PM
Alabama A&M 5:00 PM
Prairie View
Dartmouth 5:00 PM
Pepperdine 5:00 PM
St Marys-CA
NC A&T 5:00 PM
Savannah State
Delaware State 5:00 PM
SC State
Western Ky 5:00 PM
Southern Miss
Nevada 5:00 PM
Akron 6:00 PM
Bowling Green
Colgate 6:00 PM
FIU 6:00 PM
Brown 6:00 PM
George Mason 6:00 PM
NC Central 6:00 PM
East Tenn St
Saint Peters 6:00 PM
Alabama 6:00 PM
Abilene Christian 6:00 PM
Char Southern 6:00 PM
Hawaii 6:00 PM
Long Beach State
New Orleans 6:00 PM
McNeese State
Lafayette 6:00 PM
Elon 6:00 PM
Fla Atlantic 6:00 PM
Old Dominion
Harvard 6:00 PM
La Salle 6:00 PM
St Bonaventure
Furman 6:00 PM
TX A&M-CC 6:00 PM
Stephen F Austin
Duke 6:00 PM
Mercer 6:00 PM
Northern Ky 6:00 PM
Fla Gulf Coast
USC Upstate 6:00 PM
North Florida
Longwood 6:00 PM
Ark-Little Rock 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
SE Missouri St 7:00 PM
Austin Peay
CS-Northridge 7:00 PM
UC Riverside
Towson 7:00 PM
UT Martin 7:00 PM
Murray State
San Jose St 7:00 PM
New Mexico
Rice 7:00 PM
North Texas
Toledo 7:00 PM
Northern Ill
Oklahoma 7:00 PM
Oklahoma State
San Francisco 7:00 PM
San Diego
Utah State 7:00 PM
San Diego St
Northwestern St 7:00 PM
SE Louisiana
UCF 7:00 PM
Southern Ill 7:05 PM
Missouri State
Troy 7:15 PM
Jacksonville St 7:30 PM
Tennessee St
Alabama State 7:30 PM
Texas Southern
Stanford 7:30 PM
Washington St
Santa Clara 8:00 PM
TX-Pan American 8:00 PM
New Mexico St
Northern Ariz 8:00 PM
Southern Utah
Middle Tennessee 8:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Weber State 8:00 PM
Northern Colorado
Chicago State 8:00 PM
Grand Canyon
UC Santa Barbara 9:00 PM
UC Irvine
Memphis 9:00 PM
Air Force 9:00 PM
Cal Poly 9:00 PM
UC Davis
Seattle 9:00 PM
Montana State 9:05 PM
Portland State
Montana 9:05 PM
Sacramento St
Colorado 9:30 PM
UMKC 9:30 PM
Utah Valley U
Mount St Marys 10:30 AM
Sacred Heart
Texas-El Paso 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
Arkansas State 11:00 AM
Georgia State
Bryant 12:00 PM
Robert Morris
Central Conn St 12:00 PM
Fairleigh Dickinson 12:00 PM
St Francis-PA
Long Island 12:00 PM
St Francis-NY
Bethune-Cookman 12:00 PM
Florida A&M
Longwood 12:00 PM
Charleston Southern 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech 12:00 PM
Ohio U 12:00 PM
Central Michigan
Western Mich 12:00 PM
Coppin State 1:00 PM
MD-Eastern Shore
Incarnate Word 1:00 PM
Samford 1:00 PM
East Tenn St
Western Carolina 1:00 PM
UNC Greensboro 1:00 PM
Gardner-Webb 1:00 PM
Coastal Carolina
Liberty 1:00 PM
High Point
Morgan State 1:00 PM
Presbyterian 1:00 PM
Kent State 1:00 PM
Northern Ill 1:00 PM
Ball State
Houston 1:00 PM
SIU-Edwardsville 1:00 PM
Eastern Illinois
Eastern Kentucky 1:00 PM
Morehead St
Holy Cross 1:00 PM
American Univ
Army 1:00 PM
Niagara 1:00 PM
Lehigh 1:00 PM
Boston U
Navy 1:00 PM
Saint Josephs 1:00 PM
Duquesne 1:00 PM
George Washington 1:00 PM
George Mason
St Bonaventure 1:00 PM
Milwaukee 1:00 PM
Youngstown St
Jacksonville 1:00 PM
Kennesaw St
North Florida 1:00 PM
USC Upstate
Buffalo 1:30 PM
Eastern Michigan
St Marys-CA 2:00 PM
Nebraska Omaha 2:00 PM
Houston Baptist 2:00 PM
Sam Houston St
Mercer 2:00 PM
(25) Chattanooga
No Dakota State 2:00 PM
South Dakota St
Oral Roberts 2:00 PM
South Dakota
Southern Miss 2:00 PM
Western Ky
TX-San Antonio 2:00 PM
East Carolina 2:00 PM
South Florida 2:00 PM
New Mexico St 2:00 PM
TX-Pan American
Utah Valley U 2:00 PM
Jackson State 2:00 PM
Miss Valley St
Louisiana 2:00 PM
Texas State
South Alabama 2:00 PM
Saint Louis 2:00 PM
Cleveland State 2:00 PM
Grand Canyon 2:05 PM
Chicago State
UCLA 2:30 PM
Washington St 2:30 PM
(12) Stanford
Kansas State 3:00 PM
Texas Tech
UNLV 3:00 PM
Air Force
UCF 3:00 PM
Delaware State 3:00 PM
SC State
San Diego State 3:00 PM
Utah State
Sacramento St 3:00 PM
Portland State 3:00 PM
Montana State
Northern Colorado 3:00 PM
Weber State
Hampton 3:00 PM
Norfolk State
NC A&T 3:00 PM
Savannah State
Alabama A&M 3:00 PM
Prairie View
Toledo 3:00 PM
Bowling Green
Ark-Pine Bluff 3:00 PM
Southern U 3:00 PM
Alcorn State
Marist 3:00 PM
Bucknell 3:00 PM
North Dakota 3:00 PM
Idaho State
Ark-Little Rock 3:30 PM
Georgia Southern
BYU 4:00 PM
Santa Clara
Gonzaga 4:00 PM
Pacific 4:00 PM
Loyola Marymount
Abilene Christian 4:00 PM
Colorado State 4:00 PM
Fresno State
New Mexico 4:00 PM
San Jose St
UC Davis 4:00 PM
UC Santa Barbara
San Diego 4:00 PM
San Francisco
New Orleans 4:00 PM
McNeese State
TX A&M-CC 4:00 PM
Stephen F Austin
Old Dominion 4:00 PM
Florida Atlantic
Tenn Tech 4:00 PM
Eastern Washington 4:00 PM
Stetson 4:00 PM
Washington 4:30 PM
USC 4:30 PM
(7) Oregon State
IUPU-Ft Wayne 4:30 PM
Western Ill
Northwestern St 4:30 PM
SE Louisiana
SE Missouri St 4:30 PM
Austin Peay
Columbia 5:00 PM
Charlotte 5:00 PM
(19) Princeton 5:00 PM
Penn 5:00 PM
UT Martin 5:00 PM
Murray State
Troy 5:00 PM
Alabama State 5:30 PM
Texas Southern
Jacksonville St 5:30 PM
Tennessee St
Wyoming 6:00 PM
Oklahoma St 6:00 PM
Iowa State
CS-Bakersfield 6:00 PM
La Salle 6:00 PM
VA Commonwealth
Cal-Irvine 6:00 PM
Cal Poly
Fla Gulf Coast 6:00 PM
Northern Ky
Southern Utah 7:00 PM
Northern Ariz
Green Bay 7:00 PM
Cal State Fullerton 9:00 PM
Long Beach St
CS-Northridge 9:00 PM


question of the day

Poll: How should Timberwolves fans greet Kevin Love on Saturday?

Weekly Question





Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters