Humbled by umpire school

"This was the worst umpiring performance at an Angels game since Leslie Nielsen in 'The Naked Gun.'"

-- first sentence in my column after Game 4 of the 2009 American League Championship Series

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- I admit it. I've abused umpires.

I've maniacally yelled at umpires as if I was an angry combination of Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox and Earl Weaver ("Are you kidding me!?!?! I was SAFE!!!! I swear to God I'm going to take that &*#%@ base and shove it down your %^#*@ throat!!!"). I've screamed at them from the upper deck, certain I had a better read on the play than they did ("He tagged him on the back of the calf!!!!"). I've ripped them in newsprint and in cyberspace, ridiculing their skills, their sight, their ego and, of course, their high body-fat percentage.

And like all of you, I was convinced that I could do their job as well as they can. No, better. I mean, at least I know the difference between a double down the line and a #*@!&^$ foul fair ball, Phil Cuzzi, you no-good, Yankees-loving, lazy @#$&$@!!!!!

"Baseball doesn't need instant replay. Baseball needs the umpires to get their calls right in the first place. … Is it too much to expect supposedly the best umpires in the business to perform a little better in the postseason? Or to have a little thicker skin when they don't?"

-- from my column after Game 1 of 2010 Twins-Yankees division series

But here I am at the umpire school alongside 158 students who have invested at least $3,000 apiece for the five-week course, the vast majority wearing full umpire gear and uniforms they personally purchased for up to $500, all racing into position and authoritatively barking calls, hoping and praying they will be among the few dozen good enough to receive an offer to umpire in the minors this summer for barely minimum wage, with the dim possibility they could be the one from the class who might reach the majors in about a decade … and I can't even take my stupid mask off properly!

Every time I try, the mask either gets caught on my cap or tangled on an ear or twisted on my neck until I nearly strangle or just generally botches my vision of the play. And that's only on the few occasions I actually remember to take off the mask.

Forget about taking the mask off, though. I don't even put the mask on properly, either. "Never look down while putting on your mask," instructor Tripp Gibson tells me. "You don't want to take your eyes off the field. Put it on with your head up."

For that matter, I don't even know how to hold the mask properly when I'm not wearing it. "Always hold the mask in your left hand," Gibson says. "Because you almost always make the call with your right hand."

And I thought Calculus 124 was difficult.

[Note to editor: Can I delete what I wrote after Hunter Wendelstedt gave Ron Gardenhire a quick thumb in Game 1 of the Twins-Yankees Division Series last October?]

[Note from editor: No.]

"Umpires are human and they will make mistakes. The problem is some still act like God when they make mistakes. You would think they would have learned from Jim Joyce's mea culpa after the Armando Galarraga gaffe that a little humility goes a long way. Instead, Wendelstedt didn't bother explaining himself to the media after the game. …"

The recession is bad for the economy but good for enrollment at the Wendelstedt Umpire School.

Nicholas Stewart can attest to that. He's at umpire school on leave from his job as an investigator for the Mississippi state department of employment security. In between umpire sessions, I hear him take unemployment eligibility questions from a student who recently left the army after three tours in Iraq.

Mike Trujillo, 48, a former contractor who hasn't worked in the housing industry since its collapse in 2008, drove all the way to Daytona from Taos, N.M., sleeping in his Ford Explorer and bribing motel maids $5 to let him use a vacant room's shower in the morning. Zack McFarland, 28, is a lawyer but when he couldn't find a job in that profession and was forced out of the Marines due to an injury, he decided to try umpire over lawyer, figuring he would be hated in either job. The $3,650 umpire school tuition/food/lodging tab was so steep for Dave Attridge that he says he literally sorted and rolled coins into wrappers to bring to the bank.

"I'm all in," Attridge says. "And when I say that, I mean I'm all in emotionally and financially."

I meet a chemist, a biologist, a nuclear engineer, a pizza delivery guy, a lawyer, a Christian bookstore employee, a math teacher, a janitor, a bull rider, several veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, and the self-professed record-holder for single-season ejections in the Dutch pro baseball league. "I was young then and I didn't know when to bite my tongue," Bob Bishop, 48, says of his Dutch ejection record, adding that umpire school has "taught me I really didn't know much about baseball. I thought I did, but I didn't. I will never complain to an umpire again."

Matt Chambers is here on the GI Bill after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan. "It was 90 percent total boredom and 10 percent total terror," he says of his service. During the downtime, he finished a degree in nuclear engineering. As for the terror, he took a round in the shoulder in Kandahar. The bullet is still there, a painful reminder for Chambers when he lifts his arm after several weeks of making calls in class.

Think about that the next time you feel like getting on an umpire because you think he missed a strike on the outside corner.

Before we go any further, let me clear something up about that strike zone right away so that you actually know what you're talking about the next time you cuss out the umpire who is "squeezing" your team's pitcher.

As most of you know, the strike zone goes from the midpoint between the waist and the top of the shoulders down to the knees. And you also undoubtedly know big league umpires never call the high strike. But what you probably don't know is why they don't call the high strike. Because it's not a strike. The final line in the rule book defining the strike zone specifies it "shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball." Most every batters dips down to swing, effectively lowering the strike zone several inches.

So why don't broadcasters ever explain this? "We wonder the same exact thing," says instructor and major league umpire Ed Hickox.

The official strike zone is just one of the many things I try to grasp at umpire school, along with what base to award a runner after an overthrow, the apparent fourth out (don't ask) and the difference between base pants and plate plants (the latter are flared like early '70s bell-bottoms so you can wear shin guards underneath). This is good. I now know plate pants are what I should ask for at the store to better fit my growing waistline. "I'm going to go ahead and say that they're probably not going to have them in every men's clothing store," says Gibson, 29.

Instructor Brent Rice discusses such finer points during morning sessions at a banquet room of the school hotel. You've probably never heard of Rice but there's a good chance you've seen him on YouTube. He had the unfortunate honor of being the home plate umpire when Braves minor league manager Phil Wellman had his infamous nut-out, burying the plate in dirt, crawling along the ground like a soldier and flinging the rosin bag at Rice as if it were a grenade. "How much was the dry cleaning bill for your pants?" another instructor asks Rice.

I feel a little bad about bringing that up because it wasn't his fault Wellman completely lost his mind. Plus, manager-umpire confrontations are such a small part of the game. Sure, there are arguments and ejections but they really are relatively rare. The key to avoiding them is knowing the rules and calling them authoritatively in a manner that lets the teams understand you know them.

Which is why we receive frequent tests each morning. "Write your name on the 'graded by' line," Rice tells us when we correct each other's papers. "Do not grade ahead, you are not that smart. Yet."

No kidding. I've covered baseball for 25 years and have seen more than 2,000 games at the major league level. I've watched countless others on TV. I know the game. And I get 20 percent of the questions correct on one test.

One hypothetical scenario we do not go over is one I heard a comedian pose long ago: Say a player has a wood leg and he gets a hit. If he takes off the prosthetic limb and leaves it on first base, can he take a really long lead? "No," Jake Dallas tells me. "If it's detached, it's no longer part of his body."

Dallas, 24, should know. He recently graduated with a biology degree from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and was looking into grad schools for neuroscience and prosthetics research but decided he wanted to ump instead. "My relatives wonder what I'm doing here."

It's a fair question, given that one day a representative of the New York collegiate baseball league -- a summer wood bat league -- visits to say he needs umpires for the summer and is offering the grand salary of $600 a month.

Umpire school is a prerequisite to ump in the majors or minors and just the beginning of a very long and arduous road. Of the 158 students in this class -- their umpiring backgrounds range from Triple-A to Little League to no experience at all -- 23 will receive recommendations to go on to the umpire evaluation course run by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation (PBUC), and 45 will be sent for placement in independent leagues. The ones at PBUC will combine with graduates from the Jim Evans umpire school, and the best ones will be offered a job at rookie ball this year, earning roughly $60 per game.

An average of one umpire -- one -- from each year's class will reach the majors. Reaching the majors as a player is hard enough but at least players retire when they get into their 40s. Big league umps hang around longer than Jamie Moyer.

Umpires at the major league level earn six-figures (plus first-class travel) and salaries can approach $400,000 with seniority. But as is the case with the players, salaries below the majors are distinctly minor league. First-year umps earn $1,800 a month. Triple-A umps earn $3,200. Bear in mind that is only for the season, which ranges from three to five months. After that, it's find a winter job to help pay the bills (and good luck with that).

"You spend the first couple years in the majors paying off your credit cards from the minors," says Hunter Wendelstedt, who attended this very school two decades ago (his father, Harry, took over the school from another umpire decades ago).

A good player prospect can skip several minor league levels. Many do. But umpires cannot. They MUST ump at each minor league level, which generally means you're looking at eight years to reach the majors. You can graduate from college and medical school in that time.

"You have to see tens and thousands of plays and pitches because let's face it, in the big leagues there's 17 to 20 high-definition cameras all around," Wendelstedt says. "You need to learn the repetition and the angles and where to be and that just takes practice. It takes developing consistency and that only comes through work, plays, pitches, studying the rule book. Because when you get there, you can't make a mistake."

More daunting, to prevent clogging the system with umpires, there is an up-or-out policy. You're allowed up to three years at each level (though there are exceptions at Triple-A). You could be the best umpire in the minors, but if there isn't room above you for several years, too bad -- you're gone. If you want to continue umpiring, you have to start all over again, beginning with umpire school. At least one student this year is doing just that.

Hickox umpired professionally for 17 years before finally receiving a major league contract at age 36 in January 1999. Bad timing. That was the year many umpires handed in their resignations in July in what can best be described as a poor negotiating strategy. Hickox was among those whose resignation was accepted.

"It took me 17 years to get to my dream job and less than seven months to lose it," he says. "All I had was a two-year college education. I had to find anything I could do with the rest of my lifetime. I went to the local police academy and was a cop for two years. One night I sat down to eat dinner with my wife and I said, 'What if I do it again? I made it once on my skill and merit, what if I did it all over?'"

So that's what he did, beginning in the lowest minors with umps half his age. Thanks to hard work, skill and a labor settlement, he returned to the majors in 2007. He still works as a cop in the winter and also teaches umpire students who will work like hell to take his job.

"If I'm not playing I'll be an umpire or working on the grounds crew or something on the field," says Malachi Moore, a 20-year-old from Compton, Calif. "This opportunity is phenomenal. I'd be an absolute idiot if I didn't take it. I wouldn't be able to look myself in the mirror."

Talking about rules and situations only takes you so far. The essence of umpiring is backing up your knowledge on the field. So after the morning classes, we drive to nearby fields where we put our lessons to practice in batting cages, in simulated games (with ump students manning the positions) and in local high school and college games. When not working in a game, students call balls and strikes off a pitching machine in the cages, watch fellow students from the stands or fill in on the field.

(The students display a wide mix of ability. A couple are overweight and some are not particularly good but many more are current or former college ballplayers with good skills. One even slams a pitch over the distant fence. "You hit a home run at umpire school," an instructor yells. "Congratulations. Now go get the ball.")

Positioning is crucial and demanding. Just remembering where I'm supposed to be on the field is daunting enough, let alone getting myself there in a simulated game. In my first test on the field, I head out to ump at first base, awkwardly moving to and away from the bag, not entirely sure where to stand. I feel like a T-baller.

I'm still thinking about this when Gibson hits a fungo down the first-base line. The ball strikes the bag hard, bounces up and comes right toward me. I leap out of the way as if dodging a bus. I avoid the ball but realize I still have to make the call. I point emphatically with both arms. Fair ball!

I got the call right (take that, Phil Cuzzi) but I was slow to make it and also failed to run to my proper position afterward.

After half an inning in the field, I move behind the plate to call balls and strikes. I stop to brush off the plate and tell the batter, "Son, you best be swinging."

At one point, I decide to show off a bit by raising my arms and shouting the count. "One and two!" I yell this clearly, authoritatively and impressively. There is only one problem. I have the count wrong. It was actually strike three. This probably explains why the batter is heading back to the dugout.

The next batter digs in, I signal to the pitcher to deliver and hunch down over the catcher. The batter hits the ball into the outfield and I rush from behind the plate for a possible situation in the field. I react quickly and properly. Except there is one small problem, to which the instructors alert me. "You forgot to take your mask off!"

I owe Hunter and a lot of major league umps an apology.

Don't get me wrong. Umpire school may be hard but it is fun. Several umpires tell me that it is better than a vacation. And given that the entire five weeks costs less than a one-week fantasy camp, averaging just $100 a day for a shared room, meals and instruction, it's a good deal. A hotel banner even boasts that Dustin Diamond -- Screech from "Saved by the Bell" -- will perform at the penthouse bar. Umpires and Screech -- no wonder Daytona is so popular for spring breakers.

Not every student aspires to ump in the majors, either. Some just want to hone their skills so they umpire better wherever they're at. So during the final days of school, instructor Brian Kennedy calls each student aside and asks whether they would accept a position umpiring in minor league baseball. About three-quarters will say yes.

Why? That's a lot easier to explain than the apparent fourth out. They all love the game so much they could be arrested for stalking.

I've met some major league players who are indifferent to the game -- one former player told me that when he was in the minors, he preferred losing to winning because then they didn't have to play the bottom of the ninth -- but a deep love of baseball is absolutely mandatory for a pro umpire. Without it, there is no way you could endure the years of poverty-level wages, the months away from loved ones, the nights spent sharing cheap motel rooms with a partner, the endless heckling and complaints from managers, players and fans, the constant family sacrifices.

Kennedy worked three years at Triple-A before he was let go. He now umps college games and hopes to get regular work in the ACC (major conferences pay $300 to $500 for a game). He says that in his decade of umpiring in the minors, exactly five major league jobs opened up.

"I had a very supportive wife. I really did," Kennedy says. "But we were separated for long stretches of time. It had to have an effect."

Three major league umpires will retire this year though, which means further opportunities for all these students and instructors. Attridge, the student who paid for the tuition with rolls of coins, finishes school with a recommendation for PBUC and is so jazzed he writes on his website that "A man can change the stars." Rice will work the Double-A Southern League. Gibson will work in the Pacific Coast League, one level from the majors, saying, "I don't see the end of the tunnel, but I can see a little glimpse of light."

And Kennedy? He will ump in Taiwan this summer. He'll be the only American ump in the entire league. But the important thing is he'll be an umpire.

It's like Jim Bouton wrote about baseball's powerful grip at the end of "Ball Four." Once you finally learn to hold onto that mask, it's hard to let go.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.