10 Behind-the-Plate Secrets of MLB Umpires
Even if you’re not Major League Baseball’s most devoted follower, you probably know a few things about MLB umpires right off the bat. They wear blue or black, they’re stationed at strategic points around the diamond, and they ignore a lot of verbal abuse from fans who feel untouchable when shouting grievances from the stands (or on Twitter).
But beyond making calls and ejecting the occasional agitator, what does the job really entail, and what does it take to do it well? We spoke to Mike Everitt and Jeff Kellogg, who both became MLB umpire supervisors in 2020 after more than two decades of officiating in the league themselves, including a handful of World Series each. Read on to find out how umpires cope with mouthy managers, what they do during the off-season, and more fascinating behind-the-plate insights.
1. MLB umpires don’t have favorite teams.
As hard as it is for baseball fans to believe that umpires manage to stay impartial in a sport they love so much, relinquishing their favorite teams from childhood happens pretty much automatically—and long before they reach the big leagues.
“You lose that very early on,” Kellogg, who grew up a Tigers fan, explains. “I love sports, and I’m a fan of other teams in different sports, but as far as baseball, no, I'm really not a fan anymore of any of them.”
Everitt, who grew up in New Mexico, chose his own favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles, based solely on its mascot. “I just loved that bird,” he says. But he no longer has any special affinity for its eponymous team. “There’s a difference between being a fan of the game [and being a fan of] the Orioles or the Yankees or whatever the case may be. I’m a fan of the game and a fan of the umpire profession, but no particular team or player.”
2. But MLB umpires are part of a team.
Much like shortstops shift to second base during certain double plays, MLB umpires know how to cover each other so everyone has the best vantage point possible for each play. Fans may not always pick up on how calculated their movements are, but any umpires in the crowd probably will.
“When a crew is working together, and you’re able to see it from a different perspective, like above in a press box ... it’s like an orchestra,” Everitt explains. “One guy goes out, the other guy fills the spot, another guy moves up, and then they have these plays and they’re adjusting their angles and everything is just moving in sync. It’s kind of a cool thing.”
Each crew comprises four umpires, and they’re stationed at a different base each game—home plate, then third base, then second, then first. Being involved in every pitch makes home plate especially challenging, but the other three spots call for ceaseless concentration, too.
“You might think that working third base is kind of a night off or you could catch your breath, but you soon find out that’s not the case because you could have one play that you've gotta be ready mentally [for] and in the right position at times,” Everitt says.
And, yes, they're a team off the field, too. “You just kind of develop as a brotherhood,” Kellogg says. “Some of my best friends in the world are umpires that I've worked with through the years.”
3. MLB umpires travel a lot.
It might be more difficult for umpires to practice their preached impartiality if they spent most of their time officiating for a particular team, but they don’t. Unlike the teams themselves, umpires don’t have a home stadium; they bounce from city to city for the entire season.
“There’s, I think, a misconception that we live in the cities [where] we work,” Kellogg says. “So when you meet people and you tell them, ‘Oh, no, we travel. We’re a crew of four; we travel all summer long,’ they don’t realize that.”
After each crew receives their schedule in March, a travel agency usually helps them book all their accommodations for a big chunk of the season. Kellogg used to plan his through the All-Star Game in July, and book flights and hotels for the remainder of the season during late spring. Being on the road so often can be exhausting, but each city has its own perks. “You find something in each city that you can enjoy, whether it’s a place to go have a bite to eat after a game, or whether it’s family able to come and see you,” Kellogg says.
For Everitt, the relationships he fostered with people at certain hotels and restaurants over the years became one of his favorite parts of the job. “They’d make you feel home when you weren’t at home,” he says.
4. Some MLB umpires have other careers during the off-season.
Since umpires don’t really have MLB-related responsibilities during the off-season, they can use that time for whatever they want. “[Because] of the way our contract is structured, you get paid year-round, and so you really just enjoy being home. You just enjoy being with your family,” Kellogg says. “Go to as many things as you can that they’re involved in, because you miss so much when you’re gone.”
That said, some people nurture secondary careers off the field. “We have a lawyer, we have a financial advisor, we have people in real estate,” Kellogg says. Longtime umpire Joe West, also known as “Cowboy Joe,” likes to write and perform country music during his downtime.
Giving back to their communities is also a special passion of many MLB umpires. Through their charitable foundation, UMPS CARE, umpires grant college scholarships to students, distribute toys to children in hospitals, and more.
5. MLB umpires practice their punchout calls.
Becoming an umpire initially entails shelling out a few thousand dollars to attend one of two umpire training programs, both in Florida. While there, you’ll practice telling your balls from your strikes (with the help of a pitching machine), de-escalating arguments (with the help of role-playing instructors), and perfecting the gestures that correspond to each type of call. Most of them are standardized, but umpires can get a little creative when calling someone out after a third strike.
“The ‘punchout’ is an umpire’s signature mechanic,” Slate’s Seth Stevenson wrote after attending umpire school himself. “A third-strike call is the one place where he is allowed, even encouraged, to demonstrate some flair. When minor league supervisors assess rookie umps, they sometimes tell them to work on their punchout.”
In other words, making it to the big leagues doesn’t just depend on technical skill. “Obviously you have to be good, so you have to be pretty good at balls and strikes and safes and outs,” Kellogg says. “But it’s kind of how you look doing the job as well.”
6. MLB umpires aren’t big on social media.
Spend a little while searching for individual MLB umpires on social media and you’ll quickly realize just how few of them use it publicly (or at all). Considering how much heat they get from fans looking for someone to blame for a loss, it’s not exactly surprising. “It’s very difficult, because you want to be able to defend yourself. But you can’t do it nowadays. You can’t put yourself out there and then be on that platform, because you’re never gonna win,” Everitt says.
Withstanding the temptation to argue with resentful fans on social media may be relatively new, but avoiding post-game backlash is a tale as old as America’s pastime. “Early on in my career, before social media, I was given this piece of advice: Don’t pick up the local paper the next day, because the headline is not going to be ‘Mike Everitt is a great umpire,’” Everitt says.
Umpires aren’t the only ones who have to learn to let the ceaseless criticism roll off them—their families do, too. About a decade ago, Everitt’s wife sprung for an MLB cable package so their two kids could watch their dad at work. “They found out quickly that they had to watch the games with no volume,” Everitt remembers. “As a young kid, my boy once said, ‘Man, they’re just not nice to you, Dad.’ I think he was 6 or 7.”
7. MLB umpires might have ice packs inside their uniforms.
Dealing with blistering sun, biting wind, and Mother Nature’s many other curveballs is, as Kellogg explains, “all part of the gig.” For the most part, their coping mechanisms are pretty basic. “In the heat of the summer, you’ve just got to stay hydrated. You dress appropriately,” he says. “I remember being in a game in Milwaukee, and [the team] had the roof open. But there were spots with shade, so in between innings I would go walk to where the shade was to try to cool down.”
A slightly higher-tech method of beating the heat is a special ice pack that umpires can strap to the inside of their chest protector. “You just kind of slip it in there and it helps keep you cool for about three innings or so. And then sometimes you’ll go in the dugout and you’ll just change it out,” Kellogg explains. “But normally you just find a way to deal with it.”
8. MLB umpires get evaluated every game.
The MLB has special technology to track umpires’ performances that goes beyond the digitized strike zone viewers see on screen.
“That box that you see on TV is more for entertainment purposes only,” MLB umpire Mark Carlson explained in a radio interview last year. “There’s a more detailed science to it. So they evaluate our strike zone, and we’re given a report the next day on how we did—balls that we called strikes, strikes that we called balls, and so on.”
Missed calls and other plays in the field are evaluated, too, as are interpersonal situations that arise during the game. Not only does all that data help umpires understand where they have room for improvement, but it also helps their supervisors and other MLB leaders decide which umpires get to work the playoffs—and ultimately, the World Series.
“[People] don’t feel that umpires are always held accountable,” Carlson continued. “We’re accountable every day.”
9. MLB umpires will eject you for insulting them (or someone else).
MLB umpires are pretty generous with warnings before they’ll throw someone out, but when it comes to foul language—especially if it’s an insult directed at someone specific—they’ll occasionally skip the heads-up. “Anything following 'You' is very important. If someone says ‘You,’ whatever they say after that can be pretty bad,” Everitt explains. “That’d be an automatic ejection.”
More commonly, he says, ejections happen when a manager simply won’t stop arguing. “You’d say, ‘Hey, Tom, listen, I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve heard your argument—now we’re starting to repeat ourselves. We’re not gonna reverse the call here. I’ve heard your argument and we need to move on. This conversation’s gonna end.” If Tom refuses to end the conversation, he might find himself getting ushered off the field post-haste.
10. MLB umpires don’t dwell on past calls—but some are hard to forget.
MLB umpires are masters of leaving the past in the past and focusing on whatever’s right in front of them, be it the next game or the very next pitch. But there are always especially memorable moments that they’ll never completely shake.
For Everitt, it was the infamous Steve Bartman incident that happened during game six of the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida (now Miami) Marlins. When Cubs left fielder Moisés Alou tried to catch a ball headed right for the wall, a fan’s (Bartman’s) outstretched hand got in the way. Everitt ruled that since the ball had come down in the stands—and Bartman hadn’t reached over the wall to snatch it—no fan interference had occurred. The Cubs ended up blowing their lead and losing game seven, too. Many fans considered the debacle an ill-fated turning point and even blamed Bartman for ruining the Cubs’ chance to make it to the World Series.
Everitt had anticipated being bombarded by reporters about his decision, but all their attention went to Bartman. Though he admits that his “palms get a little sweaty” whenever he sees the footage, he thinks his call would have been upheld if the league had been using instant replay at the time. And whenever he’s speaking at an event with a lot of Cubs supporters in the audience, he’ll bring it up for old time’s sake. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, where were you in 2003 when the Cubs were five outs away from going to the World Series?’ That always gets the Cubs fans going.”