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


Minnesota 35 FINAL
Miami 37
Baltimore 13 FINAL
Houston 25
Detroit 20 FINAL
Chicago 14
Cleveland 13 FINAL
Carolina 17
Atlanta 30 FINAL
New Orleans 14
Green Bay 20 FINAL
Tampa Bay 3
Kansas City 12 FINAL
Pittsburgh 20
New England 17 FINAL
NY Jets 16
NY Giants 37 FINAL
St. Louis 27
Buffalo 24 FINAL
Oakland 26
Indianapolis 7 FINAL
Dallas 42
Seattle 35 FINAL
Arizona 6
Denver 7:30 PM
New York 108 FINAL
Toronto 118
Memphis 91 FINAL
Cleveland 105
Boston 84 FINAL
Miami 100
Detroit 105 FINAL
Brooklyn 110
LA Lakers 101 FINAL
Sacramento 108
Philadelphia 96 FINAL
Orlando 88
Phoenix 104 FINAL
Washington 92
Indiana 100 FINAL
Minnesota 96
New Orleans 101 FINAL
Oklahoma City 99
Colorado 2 FINAL(SO)
Detroit 1
Dallas 6 FINAL(SO)
Edmonton 5
Buffalo 3 FINAL(OT)
Boston 4
Carolina 0 FINAL
NY Rangers 1
Toronto 0 FINAL
Chicago 4
Philadelphia 4 FINAL(OT)
Winnipeg 3
Harvard 27 FINAL
Virginia 76
Maine 69 FINAL
Army 72
Ferris State 82 FINAL
Bowling Green 68
San Francisco 65 FINAL
Cleveland State 69
Oregon State 52 FINAL
Quinnipiac 60
Coastal Carolina 72 FINAL
Central Arkansas 55
Holy Cross 48 FINAL
Canisius 67
Southern Miss 55 FINAL
Georgia State 68
Western Carolina 66 FINAL
UNC-Asheville 62
Creighton 58 FINAL
North Texas 62
Maryland 73 FINAL
Oklahoma State 64
Cornell 61 FINAL
Radford 74
Vermont 55 FINAL
Saint Louis 58
Loyola-Maryland 52 FINAL
Stony Brook 67
Reinhardt 72 FINAL
Winthrop 100
Ark-Little Rock 46 FINAL
Green Bay 66
TX-Pan American 72 FINAL
Nebraska Omaha 77
Alabama State 63 FINAL
Evansville 81
Hartford 82
Goshen 55 FINAL
Valparaiso 82
Bryant 48 FINAL
Denver 46
Austin Peay 63 FINAL
Lipscomb 69
Tennessee St 47 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 65
South Dakota 67 FINAL
Montana 62
Samford 64
Coker 52 FINAL
South Carolina 78
Boston College 71
Northern Ariz 66 FINAL
Hampton 75
SD Christian 61 FINAL
San Diego 71
UC Irvine 55 FINAL
Bradley 47
Troy 65 FINAL
Nicholls 64
Seton Hall 47 FINAL
Georgia 65
Appalachian St 59 FINAL
Alabama 60
North Dakota St 52 FINAL
Kent State 53
San Jose St 53 FINAL
Washington St 82
Alcorn State 45 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 78
Sacramento St 47 FINAL
Seattle 66
Nevada 3 FINAL
Louisiana 16
Utah State 21 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 6
(23) Utah 45 FINAL
Colorado State 10
Western Mich 24 FINAL
Air Force 38
South Alabama 28 FINAL
Bowling Green 33
BYU 1:00 PM
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
Cincinnati 12/27/14 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Duke 12/27/14 1:10 PM
(15) Arizona State
Miami-Florida 12/27/14 3:00 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Cal-Irvine 55 FINAL
Denver 63
St Marys-CA 52 FINAL
George Washington 70
TX-San Antonio 49 FINAL
Nicholls 57
Portland State 71 FINAL
Columbia 66
Tenn Tech 62 FINAL
Morgan State 56
Auburn 56
Quinnipiac 70 FINAL
Hartford 58
Hofstra 75 FINAL
Boston College 61
Eastern Washington 55 FINAL
Georgia Southern 42
Liberty 44 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 84
Fairleigh Dickinson 74 FINAL
Brown 79
Buffalo 73 FINAL
Long Island 79
Bucknell 74 FINAL
Mount St Marys 49
Stony Brook 70 FINAL
Wagner 76
Wofford 75
Duquesne 56 FINAL
Providence 67
Maine 54 FINAL
William & Mary 51
Alabama State 43 FINAL
Samford 56
TX-Pan American 43 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 64
South Dakota St 64 FINAL
Marist 82
Saint Josephs 50 FINAL
(5) Notre Dame 64
Radford 60 FINAL
Virginia Tech 73
(3) Texas 67 FINAL
(4) Texas A&M 65
Rhode Island 60 FINAL
Bryant 56
South Florida 90 FINAL
Penn State 87
Sam Houston St 55 FINAL
TCU 79
Evansville 50 FINAL
(14) Maryland 110 FINAL
Coppin State 51
Mercer 59 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 72
Chattanooga 58
Princeton 84 FINAL
Monmouth 53
Eastern Illinois 69 FINAL
Lehigh 72
Rider 67 FINAL
Binghamton 72
SC State 57 FINAL
Clemson 66
Fairfield 63 FINAL
Iowa State 76
Richmond 70 FINAL
Eastern Kentucky 56
Cleveland State 80 FINAL
Morehead St 72
Kent State 62 FINAL
Colgate 61
South Alabama 43 FINAL
UAB 73
Saint Peters 35 FINAL
Navy 71
Youngstown St 52 FINAL
Pittsburgh 78
Lafayette 66
Davidson 51 FINAL
Charlotte 86
Indiana State 73 FINAL
St Johns 67
Southern U 49 FINAL
Florida 78
Wright State 46 FINAL
Purdue 70
(19) Oklahoma St 66 FINAL
USC 62
Houston 54 FINAL
Texas Tech 60
Ark-Little Rock 66 FINAL
Tulsa 59
Dayton 71 FINAL
Vanderbilt 67
Northern Ariz 37 FINAL
New Mexico 56
UNC-Asheville 60 FINAL
USC Upstate 67
North Dakota 81 FINAL
South Dakota 86
Western Ill 57 FINAL
Marquette 65
Elon 67 FINAL
(6) North Carolina 85
Ball State 59 FINAL
Western Ky 84
(8) Kentucky 68 FINAL
(13) Duke 89
New Orleans 58 FINAL
Alabama 87
Chicago State 47 FINAL
Milwaukee 69
Bowling Green 61 FINAL
Bradley 47
Ill-Springfield 56 FINAL
SE Missouri St 73
Northern Ill 42 FINAL
Northern Iowa 51
(23) Iowa 100 FINAL
Drake 98
Central Michigan 64 FINAL
Minnesota 67
Western Carolina 45 FINAL
North Florida 62
Wyoming 71 FINAL
Colorado 76
Portland 58 FINAL
Boise State 94
Cal Poly 63 FINAL
Colorado State 65
No Dakota State 54 FINAL
Grand Canyon 69
Albany 71 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 49
Oklahoma 64 FINAL
Arkansas 71
Idaho State 63 FINAL
Seattle 55
(18) Michigan State 89 FINAL
(19) Syracuse 76
Northwestern 75 FINAL
Arizona State 88
TX-Arlington 46 FINAL
North Texas 38
Fresno State 68 FINAL
Oregon 59
St Francis-PA 75 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 72
CS-Bakersfield 74
(2) Connecticut 86
(10) Louisville 70 FINAL
(24) California 57
Howard 53 FINAL
Virginia 74
Miami-Ohio 42 FINAL
(21) Miss State 68
Illinois-Chicago 55 FINAL
Old Dominion 61


question of the day

Poll: Grade the Vikings offense

Weekly Question





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