So you want to make it to “The Show?” Well, before you can impress the fans at Fenway with your four step patented punch-out you must prove your stuff to today’s interviewee. Justin Klemm is the Executive Director of the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. PBUC (pronounced “P-Buck”) is the entity responsible for the training, evaluation, and recommendation for promotion, retention, or release of all umpires in the Minor League Baseball system throughout the United States and Canada. Mr. Klemm was gracious enough to answer a few questions of general interest to amateur umpires including insight into what it takes to be a pro and information on umpire safety.
MWU: What are your responsibilities with PBUC?
Klemm: As Executive Director I am charged with facilitating and operating the program that evaluates and trains all of the umpires assigned to the minor leagues.
MWU: How big is your organization?
Klemm: The organization consists of myself, five full time evaluators and supervisors, one administrative assistant, and a part-time supervisor. Our program supervises around 220 umpires currently on roster ranging from the AAA level down to the Rookie Leagues.
MWU: That sounds like a large responsibility for such a small group.
Klemm: It’s fairly large, but the bulk of our AAA observation is handed off to the major league level. In terms of actual evaluation we handle from AA down which consists of about 180 umpires.
MWU: Tell us a little about your personal background and experience?
Klemm: I attended umpire school in 1994 and worked nine years in the minor leagues up though the AAA level. During my four years at the AAA level I worked up and down in the major leagues. I also worked one off-season in China and one in Australia.
MWU: China sounds fascinating. What was that experience like?
Klemm: It was fantastic! I was invited to China to work with a group of their umpires during their national Olympics after the 2001 season in Guangzhou, about four and a half hours by train from Hong Kong. I spent about three weeks there working with their umpires during their national tournament.
MWU: How did you get started in umpiring?
Klemm: I played up through college at Temple University and when I was done playing someone recommended umpiring to me. I went to umpire school twice. The first time I was not fortunate enough to get a job, so I went and worked at the Cape Cod Baseball League for a summer. I was able to work with and learn from a number of amateur umpires, many of whom were high in the college ranks or former professionals. These umpires worked with me and when I went back to umpire school I was able to get a professional job. While my amateur career was short, it had a huge impact on where I ended up.
MWU: What is the process for becoming a professional umpire?
Klemm: It is required to go to one of the two accredited umpire schools, either to the Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires or Jim Evans' Academy of Professional Umpiring. From there generally the top twenty-five graduates are sent on to the PBUC Evaluation Course which is held in March every year in Cocoa, Florida. Out of those fifty candidates we will select a certain number based upon the number of openings we have in the system. Those selected will start at the lowest level of the minor leagues.
MWU: Are the invitations to the Evaluation Course strictly limited to the top candidates from the umpire schools?
Klemm: They have been in the past, however this year we have created a working relationship with the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate summer league based in the Carolinas. We have sent a select group of reserve list umpires to the Coastal Plain League to gain experience while waiting for the call to the professional leagues. If an umpire successfully completes that season and we have not called to offer a position, we will invite the umpire back to the Evaluation Course for one last try without having to go through umpire school.
MWU: What is a typical day like during the Evaluation Course?
Klemm: A typical day consists of about two to three hours of classroom in the morning from 8 a.m. to 10 or 11. We’ll break from there and, because it is an evaluation course, there is much more emphasis placed upon the applicant’s evaluations - not only on the field, but also off the field. We conduct one-on-one interviews, but the majority of our opinions come from observing that umpire work games that are played daily after morning class until 6 in the evening. After the games our staff will meet from 6 to 9 to discuss the candidates. Over the course of the ten day evaluation we wean our list down to our selected candidates. It is essentially a ten day job interview.
MWU: What criteria are used to grade the candidates? What do you specifically look for?
Klemm: We look for a variety of things. The off the field product is just as important as what we get on the field. The umpiring on the field is a priority, but because we can afford to be selective we really look at the individual’s potential. We try to project where that individual will be eight to ten years down the road because our job is ultimately to train and develop attractive candidates for Major League Baseball.
MWU: What are some of the intangible qualities you look for in a candidate?
Klemm: First and foremost character and the ability to get along with others. This job will quickly weed out guys that do not have the commitment to give the six to ten years it takes to reach the top. Many umpires have come into our system and been capable of working at the major league level, but incapable of sticking out those six to ten years that it takes to get there. So perseverance is another quality that we look for in a candidate.
MWU: What advice do you have for someone preparing to attend umpire school in the hope of a professional career?
Klemm: I think the two biggest obstacles many students encounter when they go to umpire school are first, not knowing what they are getting into and the commitment and time it takes to reach the major leagues. The other thing that has become a really huge issue the last couple years is physical conditioning. We see a lot of guys with a lot of ability and are capable of coming into our system, however they lack in the physical conditioning area.
MWU: At this point I’d like to ask a few questions about umpire safety. I recall that you were injured while working behind the plate at Shea Stadium in 2003. What happened?
Klemm: I was hit on the side of the head by a broken bat. It was a right handed batter and the catcher had taken away the slot – he had squeezed inside. The batter was on top of the plate and there was an inside fastball. The bat subsequently broke partially and as the batter followed through the bat snapped and struck me.
MWU: In looking back at that injury was there anything that you could have done differently to prevent that injury?
Klemm: I wasn’t doing anything that I hadn’t done before. I think the fact that I was wearing a mask and not a bucket [a hockey style mask] contributed to the severity of the injury. Other than that, in terms of my positioning and head height everything was the same as I had done a million times before. It was unavoidable. Working the plate is a dangerous occupation!
MWU: What is being done to improve umpire safety?
Klemm: Our organization is obviously concerned about the safety of our umpires. We’ve looked at a number of things from our teaching methods to equipment. We’re working closely with Mark Letendre the director of medical services for Major League Baseball. We have worked with Dr. Micky Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Sports Medicine in neurocognitive testing on head injuries. We are trying to stay ahead of these types of injuries, but at the same time we can’t forget that the plate is a dangerous place to work. We certainly have more to learn and a ways to go. The advances in masks and especially the hockey style masks like the new [Wilson] EFX which causes the impact to dissipate more are helping us. We are not there yet, but at the same time we are far ahead of where we were ten or fifteen years ago.
MWU: Have you seen any evidence that one type of mask is more effective in absorbing frontal impacts and preventing injuries?
Klemm: The studies that I have read and the information that I have been shown have indicated that the bucket is more effective. However, while we know the bucket protects more from side and rear injuries in terms of broken bats or other side impacts it has been shown no more or less effective at reducing concussions than a standard mask.
MWU: Do you find that there is a particular stance or position that is safer than another?
Klemm: There is not a particular stance that is safer than another. We have seen some information that indicates that the scissors stance has contributed to neck problems. The biggest thing that we emphasize to our umpires is the importance of staying in the slot. That area has been shown to be the safest area for the umpire to be. As he inches out towards the point of home plate or beyond, especially working opposite a hitter, an umpire gets into real danger areas with the speed of the ball coming off the bat.
MWU: So the slot is definitely safer than setting up over the catcher?
Klemm: Absolutely. But I think that all of us being “Type A Personalities” and wanting to get the pitch right we tend to move towards the point of the plate in an attempt to get a better look at the pitch.
MWU: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
Klemm: I have enjoyed answering your questions, sharing what information I have, and helping out as many umpires as I can. I look at this like we’re all in this together –amateur and professional umpires alike.
My many thanks to Justin Klemm for giving his time and sharing his experience and knowledge. I found him to be a real class act and a very forthright and generous person.