Behind The Masks: Two Umpires Make It To Majors

At baseball games, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the action on the field whether it’s who had the game-winning hit or which pitch struck out this player. Many times the unsung heroes of the game aren’t on either team at all. They have no fans cheering them on and it’s easy to forget about them until it comes to a controversial call when they will no doubt get the short end of the stick every time. I’m talking about the umpires who make the games we love to watch so much possible. I’ve always wondered how umpires make it to the majors so a few months ago I caught up with almost 15-year veteran Marvin Hudson and Lance Barrett who is entering his first full season as an MLB umpire to talk about their careers.

Hudson began his umpiring career in high school umpiring local T-ball and Little League games before switching to high school ball after graduating college. He said he never even thought about umpiring professionally and was initially backed into it.

“I was a catcher in college and the umpire talked me into doing some small college for him. I thought if I’m going to do that I’m going to move up. I was hoping to move up for Division I baseball so I went to an umpire clinic in Atlanta and was seen by some big league umpires at that time including Joe Brinkman,” Hudson said.  “They all said you need to go to umpire school so I went to Joe’s umpire school. I did well and wound up getting a job then and worked my way up.”

Hudson spent the 1992 season in the Appalachian League followed by seasons in the South Atlantic League, the Florida Instructional League, the Southern League, the Hawaiian Winter League, and the International League before being promoted to the majors in 1999.

“You never forget the phone call telling you that you’re going to the majors,” Hudson said. “You get the phone call for the first time going up as a Triple-A umpire that you’re getting to go up and work in the big leagues and going into a big league spring knowing you’re getting the opportunity to give it a shot to be in the big leagues and the all-star game.”

Hudson said working as an umpire is hard especially road trips away from his family for two weeks at a time but that it’s special seeing his family share the experiences with him.

“It’s not just me. You have to have a good family at home when you’re gone so it’s cool seeing your family get rewarded too,” Hudson said. “Seeing the rewards they get to do with you and seeing them happy at All-Star games and playoff games. It’s thrilling for me.”

Lance Barrett’s career started out very similar to Hudson in that he also began his career working Little League games.

“When I was 14, my next door neighbor umpired Little League games and asked me if I wanted to make cash over the summer. I said sure I’d love to ride along with you,” Barrett said. “I would work game during the summer and the local association I came from had an instructional clinic. I went there and met with some instructors and thought ‘Wait a minute, you can make a career of this?’ The more I read and learned about it, I felt it was the direction God was pulling me in.”

Barrett started his professional umpire career in 2003 beginning in the Appalachian League just like Hudson. He worked his way up through the minors before getting the call this January that he was going to the Majors.

“It was a very emotional day for me,” Barrett said. “My wife and I bawled our eyes out that day. It’s been a dream that both of us have been pursuing and we’ve been through so much with it. You chase after that carrot for so long with the long road trips, the days away from home in the minor leagues, staying in bad hotels, and making no money. To finally get to walk out on a major league field where the lights are a lot brighter and the stadiums are a lot bigger. That phone call was fantastic and something I’ll never forget.”

The pair said they are constantly putting in as much training as possible whether it’s reading a rule book and treating it “like a Bible re-reading it over and over again” or teaching and attending instructional clinics. With years of experience under their belts and countless hours of training they both have one more goal on their umpire bucket lists.

“I think for everyone on staff the top of the mountain after you’re hired is to work a World Series,” Barrett said. “One day I would love to have the opportunity to work a World Series.”

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Canada and Curveballs: Raising The Profile

When one thinks about Canadian sports, hockey is normally the first sport that comes to mind but the Great White North has been slowly increasing its presence in baseball. There have been 230 Canadian players in the league since Major League Baseball first began in 1871. There are currently 28 Canadians playing in The Show with standout players such as Brett Lawrie, Justin Morneau, Joey Votto, Ryan Dempster, and Erik Bedard.

One player who has played with these guys and hopes to join them in the majors soon is Frisco RoughRiders’ pitcher Kyle Lotzkar. The right-handed hurler grew up in Tsawwassen, British Colombia and said he only started playing baseball because of his friends.

“I just joined because a lot of my friends were playing,” Lotzkar said. “It’s starting to get where hockey is a year-round thing so (baseball) was just a summer sport for me.”

Lotzkar said there are no high school baseball teams in Canada so he joined a travel team that traveled to the US to play in various tournaments in Northern states. Lotzkar found success pitching quickly attracting attention from the national teams. He played on the Canadian Junior National Team in 2007, was on Canada’s provisional roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and with the Canadian national team in 2011 and played in the Pan American Games and the Baseball World Cup winning a bronze medal. They were some of his first experiences playing beside major leaguers and Lotzkar said it was a great opportunity to learn from them.

“Playing against a lot of those guys who are in the major leagues now was just awesome. The first thing I realized was that a lot of those guys throw really hard at 100 miles an hour and are you know, major league hitters, so you have to learn how to pitch and not just throw but make your stuff move and change speed so those guys can’t hit.”

He added that events like the World Baseball Classic are exposing more Canadian players and their skills to scouts around the country.

“I think Canadians are starting to get noticed a lot more because of continued success and a lot of big names are coming from Canada so more scouts are coming up here, especially Western Canada,” Lotzkar said.

It was one such scout who saw Lotzkar who was drafted in 2007 by the Cincinnati Reds. Looking back, he said it was funny that he now plays in the Texas Rangers organization because of the way draft day unfolded.

“It’s funny enough because I was drafted by the Reds, 53rd overall, and I actually thought Texas was going to draft me because they had the 54th pick and they told me they were going to pick me,” Lotzkar said. “I didn’t know the Reds were interested and they got me the pick before so I thought I was going to play for Texas but ended up with the Reds.”

Lotzkar’s professional career started out solid in the Reds’ organization but a series of injuries including a broken elbow, Tommy John surgery, a torn rotator cuff, and a torn hip labrum led to several disappointing seasons including a chance to play in the 2012 All-Star Futures Game and being put on the Reds’ 40-man roster. Cincinnati designated Lotzkar for assignment on September 16, 2013. Lotzkar said he has no ill feelings towards the Reds and understood the decision even if the timing was a little strange.

“The Reds were great to me. They gave me a lot of opportunities. I just couldn’t stay healthy,” Lotzkar said. “They released me while I was still at their facility rehabbing with them. I was released and wasn’t officially part of their organization anymore but I was finishing my rehab with them. It was weird.”

The next month would be a roller-coaster as Lotzkar weighed his options and tried to decide what his next move would be.

“For awhile, I was definitely considering going into indie ball. That whole process was like you’re on the 40-man roster with the Reds and then all of a sudden they release you and they took me off the 40-man. I was like holy smokes, I might not be able to get a job because I was injured when they released me.”

But Lotzkar didn’t have to worry for long as the Texas Rangers signed him on October 23rd.

“The Rangers, fortunately, are a little more progressive and they don’t mind if guys have a history of injuries and they have confidence in their medical staff and they’re not afraid to pick up guys with injuries,” Lotzkar said. “Plus they almost drafted me originally so there was a little bit of a history there and I’m pretty fortunate they picked me up.”

Lotzkar said spring training went well and he has adjusted well within the organization.

“The organization is a really good fit for me. I came in prepared and I think they noticed,” Lotzkar said. “I came in and was in really good shape and was healthy. I stuck to my routine and preparation and pitched good.”

With 2014 marking his first healthy season in years, Lotzkar is back on track to rejoin his national teammates on the major league stage and give Canadian baseball fans yet another reason to cheer.