More than just baseballs get thrown at the Minor League Baseball Umpire Academy, nestled in Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla. Attendees seeking to improve their umpiring skills, learn two-umpire mechanics and hopefully begin a minor league officiating path in baseball, get everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them. And the kitchen isn’t that far away.
From the facilities to the instructors and equipment, the Academy presents a top-notch venue to students looking to improve or work toward getting picked up in the minor leagues. Dusty Dellinger, Minor League Baseball’s director of umpire development; Brennan Miller, a current instructor who will head to Triple-A this season; and Steven Jaschinski, an 18-year-old attendee looking to make umpiring his career path, describe the facility at Vero Beach and the experience in glowing terms. The accommodations for attendees are exemplary, the food tasty, the fields perfectly groomed and right at the front doorstep of the villas, and the one-on-one instruction and video feedback provide immediate useful learning lessons.
In 2014, Dellinger became director of the academy and umpire development after umpiring 11 years in the minor leagues and three part-time in the major leagues. As part of his duties, he works closely with 16 minor leagues and he supervises seven full-time and two part-time evaluators, a medical coordinator, a technology manager and his special assistant.
“The senior instructors at the academy are the ones you’ll have in the minors,” Miller said. “You get to know them on a professional level. They help guide your career by determining to what level you’ll go and at what pace.”
Held each season for four weeks in January, the most recent academy session ended with 25 umpires being recommended to move up to the advanced course — part of the path to the minor leagues. The Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires, which runs during a similar time period each year, sends a similar number to the advanced course.
“The Academy is very structured,” Dellinger said. “We are very thorough on teaching the official playing rules and the fundamentals of the two-umpire system mechanics. We use demos and drills, and controlled games in the afternoon. The last two weeks of the academy, we really emphasize onfield rules application and situations. We throw all kinds of different scenarios at the students to see if they can properly handle and correctly apply the rules.”
Cage work is also central for the officials’ learning experience. Instructors work on fundamentals of the umpires’ plate stance, their head height, ruling on checked swings, signaling and other basics during the early days of the course. The information is tracked to ensure each attendee gets the right mix of umpiring situations.
As the course moves into the ensuing weeks, activities ramp up. “We mix it up,” Dellinger said. Plate arguments, batting out of order and baserunning situations are all added as more complexities are thrown at the students.
Early Desire to Umpire
Jaschinski and Miller both knew from a very early age that they wanted to be an umpire.
Jaschinski, a Canadian who resides just outside of Toronto, came to visit the facility when he was 13, but knew from an earlier age that he wanted to become a professional umpire: “It was always my intention to go to the umpire academy upon finishing high school,” he said. “I never wavered on what career choice I wanted to pursue. I began umpiring when I was 11 years old. I have been very fortunate to have been coached and guided on the path involved in pursuing this career, from an early age.”
Miller, on the other hand, was at the advanced old age of 12 when the bug bit. “I didn’t become serious about it, though, until after college,” he said with a laugh.
As you would expect, Jaschinski played hockey as his main sport growing up. He umpired but never played baseball at a young age. He would watch the umpires, not the players on TV. “I would imitate them,” he said. “Some people are drawn to the playing side and some to the officiating side. I was always drawn to the officiating side.”
We’re always trying to improve the teaching, particularly from a technology standpoint.
He first came to the facility four years earlier, “Being at the facility really motivated me to come back and attend,” he said. “It was an incredible experience to be a part of the 2017 Minor League Baseball Umpire Training Academy class.”
Miller graduated from the Umpire Academy in 2013. He did not initially apply to become an instructor, instead taking jobs during the baseball offseason. In the summer of 2012, Miller was pursuing a career in law enforcement, getting ready to attend a police academy, when a fellow umpire mentioned attending umpire school. Miller decided to put his law enforcement career on hold and pursue umpiring, loading up his baseball schedule in preparation for the umpire academy.
Last season, Miller worked the Double-A Southern League, and he enters his first year of Triple-A this year. “Dusty and his staff go through the list of those who have applied to be instructors and choose those they believe can best help the Academy and the candidates grow,” Miller said.
After being chosen as an instructor and participating in this year’s academy, Miller found additional benefits for his umpiring from teaching others.
“I’ve gained a lot from teaching on the field,” he said. “Using the two-umpire system is very helpful. Learning the rules is extremely difficult, and as a teacher, you catch things you didn’t learn the first time around. After you hear rules for hours in the classroom, it’s helpful to be able to then go onto the field and apply those rules.”
Providing feedback to others is also beneficial to his own learning process, according to Miller. “When you do something hour after hour, you’re able to better assess yourself as well as the students.”
The Two-Umpire System, Fundamentals and Wacky Calls
Miller describes the daily and weekly progression of going from the fundamentals, like how to properly take the mask off, to “rare, unique calls in the last couple weeks.” Academy scenarios early in the session, for example, start with no one on base. Then a runner is added. Then another. Then a complex scenario is played out and the umpires must address it multiple times. They get numerous reps, something that cannot be replicated during the season. It is a major benefit of the course, he said, along with being able to watch those plays later over and over on video.
Classroom sessions are mixed with field and cage work, and attendees get video of themselves to watch.
Umpires during a regular season seldom have an interference call. It is hard to prepare what to do in that situation. This type of scenario makes the Academy extra useful — giving additional reps. “You can have a whole bunch of games back home and never get an interference call,” Miller said. “Here, you really learn what to do and how to apply the rule. When we go on the field, instructors set up situations in which these interference calls (along with other rare calls) can be practiced repeatedly with feedback. That solidifies how to enforce the rules and helps you become really successful.”
Umpires face many tough decisions. “The Academy sets you up for success in all levels of baseball. It helps everyone succeed in their goal toward becoming a better umpire,” Miller said.
Getting the Word Out
The four-week course relies heavily on word-of-mouth as previous students tell others about their experience, but the Academy also markets online, promoting with the major league baseball umpire camps and NASO clinics, advertising in Referee and Baseball America, and through its website.
“We’ve averaged around 90 students the last four years, which has been a good working number. We cap enrollment at 120 because students lose reps with more than that, and the experience becomes watered down. We want to ensure that students are always getting the proper amount of reps,” Dellinger said.
Last year, two females attended the Academy. One qualified for the advanced course and was promoted to the Gulf Coast League. One female attended this year and she was selected to the advanced course and will likely receive a minor-league assignment this season.” Dellinger said.
The Academy partners with Justine Siegal, who is an advocate for women playing baseball. “We’ve partnered with her and held mini-clinics at her Baseball for All tournaments,” Dellinger said. “At the opening ceremonies, they run a number of drills, and we’ve done several on umpiring.”
Year to year, there are not major changes to the agenda; however, “We’re always trying to improve the teaching, particularly from a technology standpoint,” Dellinger said. That includes using video while the umpires practice plays on the field and in the cages. When they finish those reps, the video is available immediately for high-definition viewing. “The students love it,” he said.
The Academy uses virtual training in its classrooms. Any change is designed to enhance training and improve the learning curve. PowerPoints, portals of information and additional videos in their education portal are all examples of the Academy’s goal to continually innovate.
8-10 Year Challenge
Dellinger sees an umpire challenge for major league baseball in 8-10 years. In 1999, during labor negotiations, there were mass umpire resignations. Twenty-five Triple-A umpires moved up to the majors. They are now in year 17-19 of their tenure in the major leagues.
“In 8-10 years, we are likely to see those umpires start retiring, which will provide a great opportunity for a large number of our minor league umpires,” Dellinger predicted.
Maybe Jaschinski will be one of those umpires hired in 7-8 years. Both Dellinger and Miller praised his poise, confidence, demeanor and judgment, particularly for an 18-year-old. But Jaschinski knows it will not be easy. He has been dealing with managers and coaches as an umpire for years. Now he must deal with higher-level managers with the stakes raised.
“Handling situations can be challenging for any umpire,” Jaschinski said. “Becoming an umpire at a young age required me to quickly learn how to handle conflict when faced with adversity. I’ve had to find my way and be confident in myself, balancing confidence without being arrogant — that can get you in trouble. I don’t ever want to be known as cocky or arrogant.”
Jaschinski pays close attention to how he carries himself, both on and off the field. “It is important to me to demonstrate that I am responsible, and to work hard to prove my age should not matter,” he said. “I challenge myself to work extra hard off the field, as I believe off-the-field actions are just as important as on-the-field behavior. I take pride in how I carry myself.”
The Academy has been “absolutely amazing” for Jaschinski. He knew it was his plan to attend when he graduated from high school, and has been waiting in anticipation for this 2017 Academy class. “The training and staff have been phenomenal,” he said. “The junior and senior instructors were very knowledgeable, and provided all students with constructive and invaluable feedback, which will allow every student the opportunity to be the best they can be. The facility was outstanding. From housing, to a fitness center, to laundry facility, to the classroom, fields and full meals service, everything a student would require is on site at Historic Dodgertown.”
Jaschinski specifically mentioned and appreciated the curriculum breakdown, and the way the material was delivered to the students — in particular, the way the instructors break down the rulebook, as well as two-umpire mechanics. “Throughout the four-week academy, every single rule, and mechanic is covered in detail, and explained thoroughly, so that all students leave with a good working knowledge of the Official Baseball Rules, and the two-umpire system. It’s been a fantastic experience, one I’ll remember the rest of my life,” he said.
If he were not pursuing baseball umpiring as a profession, Jaschinski said he would have looked into becoming a hockey referee or serving as a law enforcement officer. “I’m the first official in my family. My parents never expected that,” he chuckled. “They’ve been very supportive.”
Jaschinski feels he has made friends for life with the other students. “We’ve created a bond and friendship between us all that will last a lifetime,” he said.
Miller has gotten so much out of his teaching experience that he plans to continue applying to serve as an instructor. “If Dusty will bring me back, I’ll work. Otherwise I’ll find a job in the offseason and make some money until the baseball season starts,” he said.
“Start at the Beginning, Get Ready for the Minors”
Anyone interested in becoming a baseball umpire, regardless of their current level, will not go wrong attending the Minor League Baseball Academy or the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires. Both are based in Florida and run at the start of the new year. “In both courses, you start with the basic fundamentals and work your way up to more complex situations. Both courses provide opportunities to anyone with the desire and work ethic required to become a Minor League Umpire,” said Brennan Miller, a Triple A umpire and an instructor at the MiLB Umpire Academy.
Both courses also feed into the Advanced Course and send similar numbers to get that additional higher-level learning. Here are some quick stats on the two options:
Length: 4 weeks.
Dates: January to early February.
Tuition and course material: $2,395.
Goal: Develop fundamentals in umpiring for use at either the professional or amateur levels.
Training location: Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla.
Housing: On-site villas.
Instructors (2017): 12 Current MiLB umpires, 10 MiLB senior instructors (who continue training you throughout your MiLB career), MLB guest instructors.
Length: 4 1/2 or 2 weeks
Dates: January to early February.
Tuition and course material: $2,450.
Goal: Develop fundamentals in umpiring for use at either the professional or amateur levels.
Began: 1977-2012 (Harry Wendelstedt) 2012-Current (Hunter Wendelstedt)
Training location: Ormond Beach, Fla.
Housing: Hotel (daily commute to training complex).
Instructors (2017): 20 current and two former MiLB umpires, four MLB umpires.
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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.
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