Today is an important day to remember the women in our lives. I recently discovered a website devoted to female umpires called Women Umpiring Baseball. The site is run by umpire Kate Sargeant, a graduate of both the Jim Evan’s Academy of Profession Umpiring and the Wendelstedt Umpire School , and she agreed to an interview with me to discuss umpiring and gear for female umpires:
MWU: Please talk about your background and how you ended up at umpire school.
Sargeant: My dad introduced me to umpiring when I was 15. We volunteered for the local Little League together. It was something he'd done for a few years, and when I needed to do a community service project for school, he suggested umpiring. I loved it right away. My first plate job, I was very flinchy. I kept turning my head, and sure enough I took one in the ear. He was right behind the backstop, telling me to suck it up and keep working, and even laughing a little because I learned that lesson the hard way. Metaphorically, he's been behind the backstop ever since. We both started umpiring high school ball in 2000, when I was a freshman in college, and we'd debrief my games over the phone. Throughout college I kicked around the idea of going to umpire school, but didn't really plan on going. However, when I graduated, he offered to send me to umpire school as a graduation gift, and I went to the Evans Academy in 2004.
MWU: What has your experience been like since umpire school?
Sargeant: After going to Evans in 2004, I was completely hooked, but I had so much to learn that I didn't even know how much I had to learn! I kept working youth ball and went back to school in 2005. I still had a long way to go and of course the outcome was the same, but I wanted to persist. In the spring of 2005 I attended the Mountain Collegiate Baseball League's umpire tryout. Jim Evans acted kind of a like an umpire consultant for them and helped with the tryout, and I was later told that he put in a really good word for me. I umpired for the MCBL in 2005, and in 2006 had the opportunity to work for the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. I attended the Wendelstedt School in 2007 and earned the opportunity to go to the PBUC evaluation. The evaluation didn't go as I'd hoped and I was low on the reserve list. I was hired by a fledgling independent league, the New York State League, that summer. The league ceased operations after only three weeks, but I was able to fill in for another two weeks in the American Association, which was very educational. Although PBUC hired pretty deep in 2007, I didn't get a job in the affiliated minor leagues, so in 2008 I umpired for the independent United League. I returned to Wendelstedt in 2009, was reserve-listed, and decided it was time to figure out what I want to do besides umpiring. My hopes for the future include umpiring college baseball, and supporting girls and women who are involved in baseball, especially those who umpire.
MWU: What are some of the challenges women umpires face?
Sargeant: It's hard for me to speak for all women who umpire, because every umpire faces unique challenges as he or she develops. One thing that's pretty universal is having a hard time finding gear that fits well. Beyond that, I can only speak for my personal experiences. It's harder to develop the fraternal, mentor-type relationships you see so often between young umpires and more experienced guys that can have a really beneficial impact on a young umpire's development. Because I didn't play baseball as a kid, I lagged hugely behind other young umpires in my knowledge and understanding of the game and worked hard to make up for it. That's something I've heard other women express, but there's a generation of girls growing up now playing in organized baseball leagues, either with other girls or coed, so maybe it won't be so much of an issue in the future. As I started trying to get work in leagues with traveling umpire crews, other people started being concerned about things like the appropriateness of me being in an umpire room with the rest of the crew, or how partners' wives and girlfriends would react to me. One guy even told me he could never work with me; not only would his girlfriend object, but he felt there would be sexual tension between us that would make it impossible to work together! Those things were annoying, but once I was in those leagues I think it became apparent that I knew how to carry myself with propriety, and the "problems" people worried about never developed.
MWU: Is there a particular level of baseball that is intolerant of women umpires?
Sargeant: I think there are a few people who are intolerant of women umpires, and they are found at every level, from peewee to professional. It was really disheartening in 2007, right after the PBUC evaluation, to receive a phone call from a friend in the affiliated minor leagues who was at spring training in Arizona. He said the word had spread through the grapevine that "a girl was trying to get in," and there were certain minor league umpires who were not happy about that at all. However, it was equally disheartening to work a high school baseball game last year and hear some rowdies in the crowd shouting invectives against female umpires. In both cases, the issue wasn't the quality of work I was putting forth--it was my gender, and perhaps a perceived threat to the status quo. I think what's important at times like those is to keep focused on the job, and not let a few rotten apples spoil the whole barrel.
MWU: What advice do you have for women who want to get started in umpiring baseball?
For any rookie umpire, it's really important to find an association or similar group, attend trainings, commit to learning as much as possible, and be open to feedback. Ask a lot of questions. One really exciting resource that's being developed is a wiki site I created, http://grassceiling.wetpaint.com/, which is a place for women umpires to find resources and connect with other umpires. Along with several other umpires, I hope to turn Women Umpiring Baseball into a nonprofit organization with a mission of supporting women in baseball, especially umpires. One thing we're working on is creating opportunities that will enable women to connect with each other on the field. For example, we're partnering with Baseball For All (http://www.baseballforall.com/) to provide umpires for their Girls' International Baseball Academy camp and tournament, and in addition to umpiring we'll present an introductory umpire clinic to the girls. In this way we hope to provide ways for women who umpire to network and share their experiences with each other, and also be positive role models for girls who love baseball and need to see that there is a place in the game for them.
MWU: You mentioned the challenges in finding good fitting, quality equipment. First, is there a particular brand of plate shoe that is more comfortable for women?
Sargeant: I don't think there's a big gender difference in how shoes fit. Feet are feet. I used the Gerry Davis patent leather boots for a few seasons, until I wore them out, and since then I've worn Honig's plate boots, which I personally find very comfortable. I'd really like to try to New Balance plate shoes, but the smallest size they make is a men's 8, and I'm a 7. I've also heard guys with unusually large feet complain that New Balance doesn't make shoes large enough for them, so I guess it works both ways! Having said that, I do know some women whose feet are so small that they have a real challenge finding any brand of plate shoes that fit. A suggestion I've passed on to them is to look for welder's shoes, which I understand have a wide size selection and offer similar protection to plate shoes.
MWU: Are masks or helmets preferred by women umpires? Are there any advantages or disadvantages with a mask or helmet while wearing longer hair?
Sargeant: I think what kind of mask any umpire wears is a matter of personal preference. I've worn both the traditional and the hockey-style masks, and I've seen other women using both styles. The first woman I saw using a bucket had very long hair and didn't seem to have a problem. When I choose a mask, or any other protective equipment, my first concern is that it will do its job. I'm a lot more concerned about protecting my face and my brain than I am about managing my hair. If I think a certain mask will offer my head the best protection, that's the one I'm going with.
MWU: Are shin guard sizes an issue?
Sargeant: For me they aren't, although I'd imagine they might be for people who are a lot smaller than the average umpire. I also think that if any piece of equipment is going to be too large, shin guards are the most forgiving. When I was learning to umpire, I used my dad's shin guards, and while the fit wasn't ideal, they did the job just fine. If I'd borrowed his chest protector, it would have been a whole other story.
MWU: Do small chest protectors fit properly? I have heard from a woman umpire friend that the size small Wilson Gold fits her smaller frame.
Sargeant: Small chest protectors do fit me well. My first vest was a Honig's K-1, and I thought it was really comfortable. I tried on a Douglas All-American hardshell that I liked a lot, but last time I talked to the company, those vests weren't being manufactured anymore. After trying them on every time I ran into a Gerry Davis sales rep and being pleased with how well they fit, I recently bought a 10.75" Wilson Platinum and I can't wait to use it this season.
A lot of people have the misconception that the most important thing regarding chest protectors for a woman who umpires is that she is able to protect her breasts. That's so silly; if a chest protector does its job protecting bone, it will certainly protect flesh as well. A much greater concern is for a vest to be adjusted so that it protects her collarbone instead of sliding down and leaving that area unprotected; for it to fit snugly and not move around as she moves or require constant readjustment throughout the course of a game; and, if possible, for it to fit her frame so that her profile looks like one of an umpire, and not a linebacker.
MWU: Do all of your pants and shirts require alteration?
Sargeant: All of my pants absolutely require alteration. No matter which equipment supplier I use, they are always too roomy in the seat, both in terms of length and depth, so a lot of material has to be taken out. I also need to have belt loops moved so my ball bags can be properly situated. However, I tried the slacks designed for women by Honig's and was disappointed. Although they fit well, they were cut differently and had different details than most uniform pants and I didn't look "in uniform" when standing next to other umpires. I'd rather buy the pants everyone else wears, and go to the trouble and expense of having them altered so they fit my body.
I've never had shirts altered, although I know other women who have. I'm large enough that a size small uniform shirt fits me, but if I was much smaller in frame or stature I'd probably have to have those altered, too.
Thanks, Kate for a terrific interview and great information! Visit Kate's site at Women Umpiring Baseball and Baseball for All for more information.