Rich Rieker, the director of umpire development for Major League Baseball, said recently that the clinic provides an unmatched opportunity for aspiring umpires to learn the game. The cast of instructors will include former big league umpires Bruce Froemming, Ed Rapuano, Chuck Meriwether and Ed Montague, who collectively have more than 100 years of experience in the Major Leagues.
Last year, said Rieker, MLB held umpire camps in such far-flung locales as Atlanta, San Diego, San Juan, Puerto Rico and the Urban Youth Academies in New Orleans and Compton, Calif.
Thirty umpire candidates were chosen from those camps to progress to a week-long camp, and 17 of them went on to work as Minor League umpires. It's rewarding for Rieker, who said that the pool of qualified applicants has begun to improve over the eight years of active camps and clinics.
"For the longest time, we did sporadic camps around the country and not really an organized scouting effort," he said. "But in the last year and a half, we've gone to more of a recruiting format. It's just a five- or six-hour camp, but we try to have our staff identify people with skills and a desire to umpire. We try to identify those in the brief one-day camp, and then vet them out at the one-week camp."
And if they succeed at the later one-day camp -- which will happen at some point later this summer -- the umpires can earn a scholarship to umpire school and a job in the Minor Leagues. These clinics at the Urban Youth Academies are giving inner-city kids a chance to a different future within the game, and if they succeed, they quickly learn that the road to the Majors is paved with hard work.
"We try to be all-inclusive," said Rieker. "We have sessions on the lifestyle of baseball and the travel involved, the time that it takes to make it to the Major Leagues. We'd hope that we're informing them in all facets of the game, and not only that, but in health and nutrition, trying to keep them stretched out. You can't umpire if you're hurt, and if you're hurt, you can't be moving up to the next level. We try to give them a full picture of life as a Minor League umpire for what's going to be expected of them."
Nestor Ceja, a young umpire plying his trade in the Class A California League, can look back on his own time at the umpire clinics. Ceja absorbed what he was told and received a scholarship to the ump school, and after passing his courses, he got a chance to take the field professionally.
Now, Ceja is working full time in the California League, and during the fall, he spends time helping teach the next class of qualified applicants. Teaching allows Ceja to keep the concepts fresh in his mind, and it also allows him to demonstrate to his supervisors that he knows them cold.
"That part's a little stressful, because your supervisors are watching and you don't want to say something that veers a student off the right path," he said. "At the same time, you want to be proactive with what you're saying, and if you see something that needs to get done, you go and do it. And you have to do it right. Dealing with the supervisors is a great thing if you're doing things right."
Ceja, more than a veteran umpire, can relate to the campers and can tell them what the life of a young umpire is like. Ceja went to umpire school right after college, and he worked last season in the Class A Midwest League, which is halfway across the continent from his California home.
"It's going to be a grind, just like it is for managers and players. You have to take it one pitch and one game at a time," said Ceja. "It can take nine years or 10 years or more to make it to the Majors, but you've got to believe that you're the next guy. And if you don't, you shouldn't be doing this.
"Last year, I was in the Midwest League, which ranges from Iowa to Kentucky, Wisconsin to Ohio. I'd never been to that part of the country and would probably never be there without this job. But last year, I saw my family on April 2, when they took me to the airport and didn't see them again until September 10. There's things at home that you'll miss, but you've got to keep the ultimate goal in mind."
Now, Ceja said, he's fortunate to be umpiring in his backyard, but he's excited for wherever the game will take him next. There will be more MLB umpire clinics held in San Juan and Santa Domingo in June, and Rieker said that there's another clinic planned for Atlanta sometime in August.
The hope, he said, is to find a few people at each clinic that may have a future in the game, and then to see which of them can take their skills to the next level. It's like a scouting combine for umpires, and the top potential candidates can get a scholarship to make their hobby their profession.
"We're just trying to offer an opportunity to people who wouldn't normally be exposed to professional training," said Rieker, speaking to the mission of the umpire clinics and the Urban Youth Academies. "It's more or less like the clubs do with players: We're trying to find the best umpires."