Shooting for a shot at 'the show'
Craig Barron played baseball hoping that one day he’d be good enough to play professionally. He is currently in the minor leagues surrounded by some of the best baseball players in the world, but he isn’t an athlete, he is an umpire.
“I started umpiring when I was 13 years old, just t-ball and 7-8 year olds playing in Fayetteville,” said Barron before serving as the first base umpire in a game between the Gwinnett Braves and the Norfolk Tide last Wednesday afternoon. Barron, a Class of 2000 graduate at Fayette County High School and pitcher and infielder for the Tigers under Robert Townsend, kept moving up the ranks. After college, as he was umpiring high school games, he was urged to go to umpiring school. He finished at the top of his class in 2005 at the Jim Evans Umpiring School and, just like players signed by major league teams, started out in the Gulf Coast League and the New York-Penn League.
Since then, Barron has continued to move up, umpiring in the South Atlantic League, the Carolina League, AA and now AAA. Now that he is one step away from the majors, he is under more scrutiny.
“In AAA and the majors, you never know when a supervisor is evaluating you,” Barron said. The keys to being a successful umpire, according to Barron, are positioning and timing, both of which come with experience.
“The game speeds up at every level, but with experience it starts to slow down,” Barron said. “You can anticipate and recognize plays.”
In addition to the regular season of baseball, Barron has also umpired in Venezuela in the off-season.
“It was a great experience,” Barron said. “The atmosphere is so passionate. When (Leones del) Caracas and (Navegantes del) Magallanes play it’s like the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, with 30,000 people in the stands. It’s uncanny how much it helps.”
Barron has reached AAA in five years and stated that the average time it takes an umpire to reach the big leagues, not necessarily with a contract, is 7-10 years. The first goal is to be assigned a number which could lead to being called up at any time to do a game. In spring training this year, Barron was an umpire in games between minor league teams and their major league counterparts twice.
Just like any other umpire, Barron has had dirt kicked on him. He has developed a thick skin and attempts to always be professional, making the players or coaches who sometimes argue calls become the aggressors. For the most part, the players and coaches respect and get along with the umpires. There’s often another game the next day and Barron finds it is rare for a call or a game to stick with him.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” said Barron.
Umpiring has its challenges and the biggest one for Barron and many umpires is the travel.
“I’m living out of a suitcase in hotels six months out of the year,” Barron, a Georgia resident, said. He teaches in the Jim Evans Umpiring School prior to spring training, works some college ball before the season gets underway and then umpires from April through September with hopes of doing some fall ball in Arizona. He works with the same crew every day and the members of the crew rotate positions clockwise from the beginning of the season.
Barron has met and umpired a lot of players that have made or are on their way to the majors, telling a young Braves fan before the game that he was at the plate for a rehab start for Jair Jurrjens and thinks that Gwinnett Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman could make the big league ball-club in the next year or so. Because it is close to home, Barron likes umpiring at Coolray Stadium, home of the Gwinnett Braves, but added that the park in Columbus, Ohio, home of the Columbus Clippers, is state of the art.
Barron has learned a lot in his ascent in umpiring professional baseball, but many of the elements that make him a good umpire he learned calling t-ball games.
“The biggest lesson I learned at that level was patience,” said Barron, who added that integrity was a key value in his career. “All we have is our word. There are plenty of times I’ve had to make a tough call and I stick with it.”
Barron acknowledges that many fans seem to think that umpires are inhuman and are always making wrong calls and demanding instant replay to get it right. When an umpire is behind the plate he can make close to 500 calls in a game and Barron, and his colleagues, are trying to make every one of them. They have seen a lot of baseball and Barron hopes to see a lot more before he is done. His goal, like everyone else in AAA, is to get the nod to take the field at a major league park one day. If he keeps making the right calls, that day will come.