Justin Phillips announces strikes with a low, guttural rumble that can be heard from the outfield.
To add a bit of showmanship to his performance, Phillips turns his body to the right, pauses, and then throws up a firm fist to prove his groan indicated, “Strike one.”
His style belies his slight stature. At 5-foot-6, Phillips, 18, is often dwarfed by some of the 13- and 14-year-olds whose games he umpires.
His presence on the field, however, shows he is serious about what he is doing. Phillips doesn’t aspire to be the next Pujols or Griffey. Instead he looks up to guys with names like Hirschbeck and Kellogg.
Phillips wants to become a major league umpire.
“I started umpiring when I was 14,” Phillips said while sitting in his office, a dingy, dirty room below the press box on Field 3 of the Columbia Sports Complex.
Phillips is the chief umpire of Daniel Boone Little League. He had been supervising games on a Monday evening and he was anxious to get back to the fields.
“It was the first year my brother started playing baseball out here,” Phillips continued. “I was playing as well, and one of the coaches here asked me if I would be interested in umpiring, because he was on the board of directors here. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll try it out.’” In his first attempt, Phillips had to call his younger brother’s game. Ryan Phillips played on the Daniel Boone Little League team that reached the Little League World series in Williamsport last year.
After his first game in blue, Justin Phillips was hooked.
“I know I didn’t have the talent to play,” Phillips laughed. “And I love baseball, and I can stay around it by doing this. It really makes it enjoyable, because I love being around kids, being around the game, seeing good baseball and calling the games.
“I can go out on the field, and really take charge of a game.”
Of course, being chief umpire at a little league park in mid-Missouri isn’t exactly a huge resumé builder for an aspiring major-league ump. And Phillips acknowledges that fact. He plans to attend umpire school in Florida within three years of graduating from college.
“To start out, you have to go to a five-week course in the middle of January in Florida,” Phillips said. “There are only two professional umpire schools that you can go to, both in Florida. I’ll go to the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School, in Daytona Beach.”
The other umpire school is the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, in Kissimmee, Fla. Both schools were started by major league umpires. And both schools are the only path to become a major league umpire, according to Brent Rice, an instructor at Wendelstedt Umpire School.
According to the school’s Web site, the five-week course runs from the beginning of January to the beginning of February each year and costs $2,950, which covers lodging, insurance and course material.
Days begin at 8:30 a.m. with meetings, followed by conditioning and mechanical work on the fields. The days end at 3:30 p.m., but after the first 10 days the students begin to umpire high school and college games in the area.
While anyone can attend the school, Phillips said odds are slim that most of the students will continue as umpires.
“You have to graduate in the top 5 percent of that class, out of 300 to 400 aspiring umpires,” Phillips said. “After you do that, you have to go to an evaluation class, where they take the top 5 percent of each school and evaluate them together. They only take the top 2 or 3 percent from that group. If you graduate out of that, then you get your name put in the minor leagues, and you start in rookie ball. On average, it takes seven to 10 years to even be considered as just a reserve major league umpire.”
Rice said the chances of a graduate becoming a major league umpire aren’t as remote as Phillips thinks.
“Around the first of February, we are given a list of umpire positions opening in the minor and major leagues,” Rice said. “We select the top students based on that number. Usually, 25 to 30 students, out of around 150, will go on.”
The selected students then attend a one-week placement camp where they only work games to get evaluated. After that week, each student is assigned to a certain league and level to begin their career.
“It could take as long as 10 years or as short as four years to reach the major leagues,” Rice said.
According to Rice, the amount of time it takes an umpire to reach the major leagues will shrink in upcoming years. In the past, umpires would be evaluated and re-ranked at the end of each season in order to determine promotions. Now, every umpire of each level of professional baseball is evaluated at midseason and after the season.
“Now, umpires can get promoted two or even three times a season,” Rice said, “which frees up more jobs for new umpires.”
While he has a chance to continue his career as an umpire, Phillips still has a fall-back plan for his future.
“I’ll be a freshman at Mizzou this fall, and I’m probably going to go into accounting,” Phillips said.
Phillips said that while he wants to finish college before attending the umpire school, he plans to head to Florida soon after his graduation so that he can start his umpiring career early. Meanwhile, he is honing his skills to help his chances of making the major leagues. For now, it’s all about building confidence for Phillips, especially when dealing with coaches.
“I remember that in my first game, we had...” Phillips paused, “an animated coach. He really got on the home plate umpire for a call he made. I was in the field, and I felt like I really stepped up. I was in between them, trying to separate them. At first, it was hard to deal with, because it got under my skin. But, as I’ve done more and more games, I’m more confident in myself.”
Phillips added that he’s done between 500 to 550 games.
“You’ve got to do as many games as you can to get good,” Phillips said. “Now, it takes a lot for me to get upset with a coach. I let them speak their minds, because I know it’s not directed at me as a person, it’s directed to me as an umpire. I let them argue, because that’s the way baseball is supposed to be.
“You’re supposed to yell at the umpire.”