Ria & Mike

It happens that I know–slightly, in both cases–the principal actors mentioned in the longer news stories covering Ria Cortesio’s recent release from her job as a minor league umpire.

A few weeks after I first posted the Fan’s Guide essay on the web, I found an angry note in my email. Ria was annoyed with the section about MWL umpires, and wrote to set me straight. We traded a few messages, I made some slight changes to the page, and we agreed to disagree about a couple things.

We were both surprised that I’d already encountered her name, and her ambition to umpire professionally. She’d been mentioned in a Baseball Weekly article a few weeks before the email exchange, and her name stuck in my mind. I guess the fact that I’d remembered her helped Ria take me seriously. We kept in touch for a few years, trading occasional notes about the Midwest League and about her career. We’ve pretty much lost touch, now, but (like many baseball fans) I’ve kept an eye on her progress–or lack thereof–through the minors.

Last summer was Ria’s fifth Southern League season, which is a really long single-league stint for a minor league ump. Since she didn’t receive a mid-season promotion, her release by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation (PBUC) was pretty much inevitable. She got the word, from Mike Fitzpatrick, a week or so ago.

Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of the PBUC, attended hundreds of Michigan Battle Cats games; so did I. I usually sat in the front row of box 20; he could be found in the back (fourth) row of box 19. While I’d not call Mike a friend, we’ve talked many times over the years. He’s definitely an acquaintance.

It seems fair to point out that PBUC promoted Cortesio about as fast and as far as possible; Triple-A umpiring is under the control of Major League Baseball.

Ria’s firing occurs in two contexts, both of which are significant:

PBUC Technicalities

One of the things Ria emphasized in our early exchange is that umpiring’s a skilled job; the umps, like the players, are evaluated constantly and cannot hold their positions without showing real ability. That evaluation is PBUC’s primary job. I’ve watched Fitzpatrick scout games, but really have no idea what he’s looking for, nor what he and his colleagues see when they’re watching a ballgame. The program is competitive, and umpiring’s an "up or out" profession at the minor league level. This is much like the players they take the field with, although umpire openings at the major league level are far more scarce than are player opportunities.

Mike supervises about 200 umpires from Rookie to Class AA and promotes many of them between seasons. Some resign at each season’s end (the pay’s lousy, as are the working conditions). Some are released "on merit"–Mike’s immediate staff consists of instructor/evaluators, who watch and assess every minor league ump over the course of the season. A few get invited to Triple-A, where the Major League umpire program takes responsibility for their careers. Finally (this is clearly what got Ria, however you read the other context): Since professional ball deliberately staffs the Rookie Leagues with rookie umpires, Mike’s obliged to release a few senior umps each winter in order to make room for the new hires.

Umpire Development Heritage

Professional baseball has only hired six women over the four decades or so the systematic umpire development program’s been in place. I’ve read Pam Postema’s book, and I’m fairly familiar with the career of Christine Wren. These two are Ria’s real predecessors; it’s pretty clear, in retrospect, that baseball’s leaders were opposed to both of them. Wren gave up in apparent frustration after her third professional season, while Postema fought the establishment for over a decade before being forced out. I want to believe that baseball’s current leadership is more enlightened. They’re certainly less overtly hostile, but really I don’t know what’s in their hearts. You gotta wonder; the track record is hard to ignore.

I don’t know what Ria’s got planned, but she’s still smart, articulate, and young. I expect she’ll live a good life. This was worth doing; so are other things.

And I still want to see a woman working behind the plate at the major league level, and don’t really understand why it’s not already happened.