When David Martinez and Anthony Aleman watch a baseball game on TV, they aren’t cheering for either side. They often aren’t even watching any of the players. They’re watching the umpires, the people who comprise what they call “the third team,” and who, if doing their jobs well, most fans don’t notice.
Martinez, 32, who grew up in Jersey City and now lives in Bayonne, was recently selected as a reserve umpire for professional baseball and looks forward to a career that could see him working in places like Citifield or Yankee Stadium.
Aleman, 23, was born and raised in Hoboken and has opted for the time being to work the American/Canadian League that includes teams like the Newark Bears and the Montclair Jaguars, as well as college teams.
Getting ahead as an umpire, Martinez said, is a matter of “Working hard and don’t let the coaches get to you; at the end of the day, it’s just a game. Don’t take it home with you, if you’re going to lose sleep over it, and the next day you’re going to have the same coach, and he’s not even going to remember.”
This is Martinez’s seventh year working as an umpire. His invitation to try out for professional baseball came earlier this year.
“I started when I was 25,” he said. “I was a math teacher at Marist High School for about seven years. But in order for me to go to umpire school, I had to resign. It was a tough decision for me. But my wife, she felt I was capable of making it to the next level, and she thought if I really wanted to pursue it, that I should go after it. I don’t want to be 50 years old watching a Yankee or Mets game wondering what if.”
As a reserve umpire, he’ll likely work in one of the minor leagues, either the Arizona or Gulf Coast leagues.
Both men are members of the Hudson County Umpires Association.
Umpires in this league cover nearly every level of baseball, and the high-school season runs from March to June, while other levels run throughout the summer and into fall.
“The Rookie League started in June and ends in September,” Martinez said.
True believers in the sport
Both men are diehard baseball fans but see their role as something different.
“A true umpire should have the leadership of a sea captain,” Martinez said. “You have to be a leader, strong minded, and thick skinned.”
“More than thick skinned,” said Aleman, “concrete skinned. You have to have a passion for the game, you have to love baseball. When you start working at a level that Dave has a chance to work at, you lose your interest in the teams, and you start rooting for the umpire.”
When these two men watch professional games, they don’t look for stars like Derek Jeter, but stars whose names they know from the rolls of umpiring, often seeing the professionals doing those things both men learned in umpiring school. Sometimes, these are umpires who taught them.
“It’s just amazing, you see this guy, doing what he was teaching us to do, on the field,” Martinez said.
“To see him doing exactly what we were taught at that high a level of baseball is eye opening,” Aleman said. “They still carry the same fundamentals.”
Both men attended the Harry Wendelstedt School of Umpires in Florida, although they opted for different career paths. Martinez is seeking a career in professional baseball. That means he will likely do a lot of traveling. Aleman has decided to stay local and umpire local professional and college games.
“I know if I blow a call, I feel it.” – Anthony Aleman
The school is run by pro umpires, so the men learned a lot, including that even the best sometimes have a bad game, and how important it is to learn fundamentals.
“When we have a bad game, they tell us they go back to the fundamentals that we learned in umpire school,” Aleman said.
“It’s not just going out there and getting in a box or getting behind a catcher, and squatting down and watching the pitch—because if you’re doing that and getting right behind the catcher and watch the pitch coming in, then you’re going to miss nine of ten of them,” Martinez said. “If you step into your slot, get in the right position, and have your head held right, and timing, you’re going to get nine of ten pitches. You’ll miss one of the ten.”
“Umpires do more than just calling balls and strikes,” Aleman said. “That’s the easy stuff. Anyone who learned to umpire can kind of grasp balls and strikes, but it’s all the little things, how to get in position and timing.”
Handling the situation
Umpires work a variety of locations on the field. Games played at lower levels have only two umpires, one behind the plate and one in the field. The higher up the level of baseball, the more umpires. Most games on a professional level have four umpires, one for each base. In big games, such as The World Series, two more umpires work the outfields. Each needs to know how to play the position, where to stand, what to look for, and how to react when a play starts.
“The most important thing—and the biggest accomplishment that an umpire can have—is that no one notices him,” Aleman said.
“If we’re doing everything right on the field, then the crew is invisible,” Martinez said. “We’re the invisible men.”
Aleman said umpires try not to consider the game situation, to treat each pitch or play as a single event.
“The situation does not matter. We have to be the same in pitch one or pitch 400,” Aleman said.
Both men called umpiring a brotherhood, partly because of the close friendships that occur between umpires.
“When you’re out on that field, it’s me and him or me or someone else, we only have each other,” Martinez said. “In a game where there is a brawl all you have is your partner.”
Aleman said umpires do blow calls from time to time.
“I know if I blow a call, I feel it,” he said. “Later when I’m lying in bed, I’m wondering, how did I miss that call, did I call it too fast? I try to go through the process to try to figure out what I did wrong. I can call Dave and tell him this is how I went about it, what do you think? How would you go about that?”
“And I’ll tell him exactly what I think he should have done,” Martinez said. “But I also tell him he has to leave it on the field. I’ve had it happen to me, games where everybody hates me, and want to kill me and I got to go home and go to sleep. Some games went quietly and other games don’t.”
Umpires have huge responsibility. If something isn’t in the rule book, umpires get to be the judge.
In one case, Martinez ran into a pitcher who could pitch left and right handed, and there was no rule in the book that said he couldn’t switch when a different batter came up. In this case, he faced off against a switch hitter. Ideally, right-hand hitters want to hit against left-hand pitchers or the reverse.
“The pitcher switched and then the batter switched and they kept switching back and forth,” Martinez said, and he eventually ruled that each one gets to switch once.
Fights are a challenge, both men agree. But it’s different at different levels.
“In high school you want to defuse the situation as quickly as possible,” Martinez said.
And upper levels, especially when a lot of people are fighting, they let managers break it up while taking note of who the aggressors were.
“But at any level of baseball, it is our job to prevent this from happening, and this is generally something you get from experience, recognizing the signs and taking measures,” Martinez said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.