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|| News Item: Posted 2003-04-01

My Dream Job: From Photographer to Behind the Plate
By Gregory Chittenden

Photo by

Gregory Chittenden working the plate.
The smell of freshly cut the grass, the crack of the bat, the sunshine. Everyone loves spring training and the fresh start it brings. But players, fans and photographers aren't the only people that look forward to that first day of spring training. Every spring I can't wait to put on the uniform and start calling balls and strikes in preparation for another summer as a minor league umpire.

This year will be my seventh season living out of a suitcase for 6 months pursuing the dream of becoming a major league umpire. Strangely enough, the job has many similarities to the life of a sports photographer. Time away from family, the nightmare of dealing with the airlines on a regular basis, grumpy hotel employees and always searching for the best phone deal so I can stay in touch with those at home without breaking the bank.

At one time, my dream was to become a sports photographer at the highest level of the business. A job shooting for Sports Illustrated would have been the ultimate goal.

I worked for a newspaper while in college and shortly after getting out of school. I had some great experiences including covering a NCAA women's Final Four in Los Angeles (that's where I met the publisher of this fine newsletter - he provided invaluable assistance to a young photographer working on the road for the first time).

I will never forget the thrill of covering my first NFL and Major League Baseball games. But in the long run I decided the profession wasn't for me.

So I decided to pursue a job where thousands of people get to tell you how terrible you are every night. One January I packed my bags and headed for umpire school. I had no idea what I was in for but things have worked out pretty well.

After five weeks of training, the school picked 13 out of 90 students for a job in professional baseball and I was one of the lucky few. The odds are against making it. Less than one percent of those in the minor leagues each year (there are about 220 umpires from rookie ball through triple-A) will work full time on the big league level. But what other job lets you go to the ballpark every night to work and be part of the action? It's even better than being in a photo box next to the dugout.

I spent five years working through the lower minor leagues. There were many a lonely night in places such as Pulaski, Virginia , or Kinston, North Carolina working in front of a handful of fans, struggling to find a place that was open after a game to grab some food. As I progressed through the minors, the cities and stadiums got larger. The drives also got longer. I worked double-A in the Eastern League. It stretches from Akron, Ohio to Portland, Maine. And it's the most compact of three double-A leagues. Crews in the Texas League have to drive overnight from El Paso, Texas to Wichita, Kansas, about 800 miles and, work the next night.

Photo by

Gregory Chittenden.
Last season I had the thrill of receiving a promotion to triple-A, working in the Pacific Coast League, only one step away from the pinnacle of the profession. Triple-A is definitely a step up, both off the field and on. The stadiums are bigger and nicer and the hotels are generally much better than those early on in my career. And we are treated that much more professionally. But it comes with an increase in pressure to perform.

Mistakes are expected from a young umpire in the lower minors, but not in triple-A. You are supposed to know your stuff by then. Out of the 300 pitches you see every plate job, you better get them right or you're going to hear about it from everyone - players, managers and fans.

Being so close to my goal is both thrilling and stressful. In triple-A, we fly every fourth day to a new series. It beats the long drives of the lower minors, but any of you who fly extensively know what a hassle it can be. Both airline and security procedures were so unpredictable last season that you never knew what to expect form city to city, trip to trip.

Carrying 70 pound, hard sided equipment trunks got us plenty of suspicious looks as well (love those random checks - our payback is a sweaty, stinky uniform from the previous night). Last year my crew even missed a game on July 4th due to mysterious "mechanical trouble." Funny how the problem was fixed as soon as a flight crew arrived at the airport.

The season is one long road trip. There are no home stands for an umpire unless you happen to live a city in the league. Last season, I left home on March 13 and didn't return until Labor Day except for 3 days over the all-star break.

When it comes to work, we never know when a supervisor might be in the stands so we can never take a night off. I would hate to ruin years of hard work by being lazy one night while someone important is in the stands watching. That's not to say I am so focused that I don't notice other things.

I occasionally notice how great the light is at sunset and wish I had a camera handy or wonder what angles would look good in a particular stadium. I will also never forget the look on a photographer's face when I walked up between innings during a spring game and asked him how he liked his new EOS-1V and 400/2.8 IS.

Why go through the rigorous travel and suffer all the verbal abuse that goes along with the job, especially with the slim odds at making it? Because I love baseball and want to uphold the integrity of the game. While we can't really be a fan of any team or any player, we can be a fan of the game as a whole. We appreciate seeing a great play just like a fan does.

Photo by Gregory Chittenden

Photo by Gregory Chittenden
Believe me, there have been many times that I have thought, "How in the world did he make that play?" And hopefully my hard work will make the game that much better. It is true that every official wants to go unnoticed. We would all be happy to have 2-and-a-half hour games with no controversy, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way. When trouble happens, we just try to get through it the best we can a keep the game moving.

Just like many photographers, umpires like to find the best places to eat and drink in each town. After all, we only have to work three hours a day so what else are we going to do with our time?

Over the years, we have found many a place to enjoy a beverage or a fine meal, all the better if they are off the beaten path. If you get a chance, stop us and say hello, especially if you know of a good place to hang out.

We are generally a bunch of good guys as evil as we may seem on the field when that call goes against your favorite team.

Even though I didn't stick with it as a career, I try to stay in touch with the photo world. My family owns a photo lab and my days during the off season are spent there. I work mostly in the darkroom processing that old-fashioned stuff called black and white film and making custom color enlargements.

I also shoot sports for the sports information department of a small university in town. I regularly look at the site and enjoy the amazing work that everyone posts there. Keep up the good work and remember: umpires are people too. Don't be too rough on us!

(Gregory Chittenden is umpiring in the Pacific Coast League.)

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