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Pro ball is the call for NWL umpires

Tribune photo by Tom Larson Northwoods League umpire Michael Hains calls a strike during the Willmar Stingers’ game against the Waterloo Bucks on July 17 at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. 1 / 2
Tribune photo by Ben Brewster NWL umpire Matthew Scott, left, helps Michael Hains into his uniform. 2 / 2

By Jacob Belgum

It’s easy to imagine how hard it is to get into the major leagues as a ballplayer, but it may be even more difficult to make it as an umpire.

There are 750 active players in Major League Baseball but only 70 permanent MLB umpires. While the chances of an umpire making it to the big leagues are slim, Matthew Scott and Michael Hains are attempting to beat the odds.

Scott and Hains are Northwoods League umpires and were in Willmar to call Stingers games from July 14-20.

Both men played baseball growing up but when they realized they no longer had the skill to move on as players, both decided they wanted to continue being around the game in some capacity.

“It’s better than a desk job,” Scott said. “Getting to be out on the field instead of making sales pitches.”

Hains echoed Scott’s sentiments: “What better seat than behind the catcher?”

To land a Northwoods League job, the two attended Wendelstedt Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Fla. The school promotes itself as the largest umpire school in the U.S. and an employer of 14 current MLB umpires who serve as instructors. Hains and Scott completed the five-week training course and are fresh 2013 graduates.

The majority of Northwoods League umpires are graduates of the Wendelstedt school, according to the NWL’s Umpire Supervisor Winston Wood.

“We have a very close relationship with Wendelstedt,” Wood said. “They typically give us their top prospects after pro contracts (for the minor leagues) are given out.”  

Scott’s and Hains’ stint in the Northwoods League is their first professional job as umpires. Both said they hoped to be sent straight to the minor leagues (low Class A or rookie ball) but have enjoyed the opportunity the league has presented. They felt most of the accommodations were top notch and that their position is essentially an internship for umpires.

The Northwoods League atmosphere is another part of the job they like.

“Every place we’ve gone to has been great” Scott said. “These crowds have been energetic and lively and just like a minor league experience.”

Although they relish the experiences they have had so far, umpiring does not come without its share of hard times. The hours are not ideal and the travel is constant. Those things come with the territory of being an umpire and are natural parts of the job, they said.

 “When you do it for a living, it’s just moving around every day, new places, living out of a suitcase,” Hains said.

He added that “it’s definitely good on our umpiring resume.”

The Northwoods League is not the pros but that does not lessen the pressure on both players and umpires. Many fans take the games very seriously and delight in having their opinion heard, especially when it comes to umpire’s decisions.

“I love hearing what they have to say,” Hains said. “Heckling’s fun … you just have to take it with a grain of salt.”

Scott said he has similar feelings.

“I get butterflies,” he said. “I take it very seriously. If you don’t, you’re going to get eaten alive.”

In order for Scott and Hains to continue making professional progress, they will probably return to umpire school.

Wood said that is the normal course of action for umpires upon the culmination of the Northwoods League season.

 “(Upon graduating umpire school a second time) they typically finish in the top 30-50 graduates which earns them a spot in Minor League Baseball’s PBUC (Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation) extended evaluation course from which pro contracts are awarded,” Wood said.

No Northwoods League umpire has ever earned a full-time position in the major leagues but a select few have earned jobs at the Triple-A level of minor league baseball. Statistics aside, Hains and Scott said they love the game of baseball and the job they are doing.

“If you’re watching baseball, you might as well be involved with it,” Hains said.