News - Making Calls in the Majors

Making Calls in the Majors

Making Calls in the Majors

Delfin Colon will always remember July 28, 2008 as a night of nerves. That was the night thirty thousand stadium spectators, 18 television cameras, and countless home viewers watched his major league debut calling balls and strikes behind home plate in Houston's Minute Maid Park. It was a side of the plate few minor league umpires ever see, a side that promises more than the meager pay, budget hotels, tiresome travel and heckling that fills their days in the lower leagues. For Colon  (Greenville College Class of '91) it was a dream come true.

Only 68 slots comprise the roster of major league umpires. When Colon entered the system in 2000, and for the next 11 years, it averaged only one vacancy each year.

The minor league roster contains 225 slots - that's 225 major-league hopefuls working grueling schedules, packing the miles on their own cars, regularly taking hits from wild pitches, enduring insults from spectators, players and managers, and missing their families. Still, the prospect of that rare call "up" to the majors keeps them going.

Umpire schools add to the talent pool by graduating about 300 new candidates each year. Colon, a graduate of the Hunter Wendelstedt Umpire School in Florida, officiated nine minor league seasons before he was called up to the majors as a vacation fill-in. "I was very lucky," he says.

Evaluators who recommend umpire candidates for positions look for qualities that protect the integrity of the game:

  • Good character
  • Accurate judgment
  • A professional manner
  • Confidence
  • A strong presence on the field

It's a tall bill by any standard and a testament to Colon's strengths. His natural curiosity about how people and things work helped him make the most of his experiences, a treasure in a field where experience is critical for advancement but opportunities for experience are rare. "You have to be able to learn on the job," he explains.

As a student at Greenville College, Colon majored in communication, an asset in a profession where careless responses can have dire consequences. "The GC experience helped me learn about different cultures, backgrounds, and religions," he says. "It helped me have professional and personal relationships with people from different backgrounds."

Though Colon remained a Triple-A umpire, he called games for two seasons in the majors, an experience that gives him instant credibility in professional circles. Today, he umpires in his native Puerto Rico, a choice that has allowed him to be closer to his family and help his mother since his father's death in 2010. Some callings, it turns out, eclipse even the majors.

Some Q&A with Delfin Colon

Tell us a little about baseball in your life, and the path you took from playing college ball to umpiring professional games.

Thanks to my father, baseball has always been a big part of my life. But, it was actually volleyball that opened my eyes to the umpire profession. Volleyball is a big sport in Puerto Rico. It is played in all of the high schools there, kind of like football [in the U.S.]. When I moved to Houston I became a member at my local YMCA and also joined a volleyball team just for fun. We started to play in some local weekend tournaments. To be able to play, we had to have a certified referee and a scorekeeper. I decided to become the certified referee. After that, I started watching sports in a different way. I wanted to know more about their rules. So, when I watched Major League Baseball, I wondered how those guys got to be umpires at that level. That was how the process started. I went to umpire school in January of 2000 and was on a minor league baseball field that July wondering what I got myself into.

Our alumni often talk about specific professors, coaches or experiences that inspired their choices in life. Was this true for you?

Coach Dave Altopp will always be a big influence in my life. He encouraged me
to work hard, make and reach my goals and to never quit. Also Dr. Sandra Salguero-Schmidt helped me learn the culture and language. Both Coach Altopp and Dr. Schmidt were tough, demanding, yet very caring people. No matter where I go, I like to be around people with those same qualities and try to treat people the same way.

You found a measure of success in a field that is rather discouraging for many. What qualities helped you navigate the system?

When I got in [to the system], I promised myself that I was not going to quit. They were going to have to fire me first. I would reach the highest level that I could, and if they did not think I was good enough, fine, but I was not going to quit. It's easy to say, but I wanted to quit so many times, at least twice a season for whatever reason - I was homesick, I had a bad game, bad hotels, you name it. But, I knew all of that would improve at the next level. Every level I went up it got a bit better and a bit closer to the big show. I was very lucky, and I have a great family that kept me going.


*Photo Credit: Caleb Groom

This story was published on February 08, 2013

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