Canadian ump calls him as he sees ‘em
* Umpire Dave Attridge (left, in home plate umpire gear), shown here before a game with the Philadelphia Phillies affiliate in the rookie-class Gulf Coast League with umpiring partner David Arrieta-Quintero. Photos supplied by Dave Attridge. Photos Supplied. ….
By Kevin Glew
Even when players and coaches were barking at him in the sweltering Florida heat this summer, Dave Attridge never wished to be anywhere but calling balls and strikes.
Mature beyond his 23 years, the Grimsby, Ont., native, who was the only Canadian umpire in the Gulf Coast League (GCL) this season, feels fortunate to be living his dream on the diamond.
“Umpiring is a higher calling in baseball. It’s a noble trade and those who share the field with me will agree with that,” said Attridge, when asked why he has chosen to become a pro umpire. “I love baseball. Baseball has given me so much in my life. And I feel privileged to share in a small part of it. Umpiring baseball has really defined my life in a positive way.”
Attridge started umpiring at the tender age of 13 when he realized that his playing skills weren’t going to make him the next Toronto Blue Jay.
“The credit actually goes to my mom,” explained Attridge. “There was an ad in the newspaper looking for umpires for the local association. I was living in Burlington at the time, so it was BOMBA (Burlington Optimist Minor Baseball Association). And my mom said, ‘I want you to get a summer job. So you can either flip burgers or you can do something outdoorsy, so maybe umpiring is the right fit for you?”
His mom was right. Even with overzealous parents chirping in his ear, the thick-skinned youngster enjoyed making bang-bang calls, and over the next nine years, he’d enhance his umpiring credentials at the provincial and national levels. And even before Baseball Ontario named him the province’s top senior umpire in 2008, he was asking Dave Margetts, the umpiring chief of BOMBA, how he could make a career out of officiating.
“He was a young guy who seemed excited about umpiring,” recalled Margetts, who remains in close contact with Attridge. “He impressed me because he wanted to learn as much he could. The biggest thing for him was that he was always willing to learn and trying to get better.”
Margetts encouraged him to attend an umpire school. So after completing the computer and networking program at Centennial College, Attridge registered for the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Fla., in January 2011. The cost for the five-week program exceeded $3,000.
“It was a really big financial burden. I came straight out of school, so I wasn’t exactly rolling in the dough,” he explained. “I rolled coins to be able to go. I literally spent every penny I had.”
Attridge arrived at the umpire’s school along with 160 other attendees – a group that included military members, engineers and lawyers with experience levels ranging from Triple-A to none at all.
To have a shot at turning pro, the 22-year-old Canadian would have to be one of the select group to earn a recommendation to participate in an evaluation camp with the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation (PBUC) in Vero Beach, Fla.
For five grueling weeks, Attridge was schooled in everything from rules to positioning, and the decision on whether he’d receive his recommendation came down to the final Sunday.
“Umpire’s school is five weeks long and you certainly won’t be perfect every day in those five weeks. You’re going to make mistakes. I was afraid that my mistakes were going to cost me a job in professional baseball,” he said. “That Saturday night (before the Sunday) was probably one of the most nerve-racking nights of my life.”
But that Sunday turned out to be a joyous day when he was informed that he’d be one of the 22 aspiring umps recommended to PBUC.
At the intensive two-week PBUC camp that March, he was educated in minor league policies, paperwork (mileage reports, incident reports, etc.) and professional decorum. He also received on-the-field instruction before being extensively evaluated on his performance. Unfortunately, his rating wouldn’t be high enough to earn him an opportunity to umpire in the affiliated minor leagues.
However, as he was driving home from the PBUC camp, the resilient Canadian decided to try to latch on in the independent pro ranks. So he turned his car around and headed to Shreveport, La., to enlist in a one-week tryout camp. He impressed at the camp and was offered a chance to umpire in the American Association and Can-Am League, but unfortunately, he couldn’t obtain his work visa in time for the 2011 season.
But these setbacks didn’t deter Attridge. Rather than mope, he went home to Grimsby and continued to preside over amateur games and got himself into the best shape of his life.
“After umpire’s school, I was on cloud nine. But it (PBUC and the visa issues) just brought me back down to earth,” he said. “It made me realize that I need to put more work in. It actually bolstered my resolve.”
Chris Marco, who has umpired alongside Attridge numerous times in Southern Ontario, wasn’t surprised that these setbacks inspired his colleague to work harder.
“The biggest thing about advancing through as an umpire isn’t necessarily your skill, but it’s how you respond to criticism from your superiors,” said Marco. “And there are people that go through the evaluation process – I’ve seen it happen here in Ontario – and they sit there and basically cut up the evaluator and say, ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ I’ve never heard Dave do that. Anything I’ve ever heard any evaluator tell Dave, it’s been ‘Yes, sir,” and he goes out there and the next time he takes the field, he implements that change in his game.”
Attridge was invited back to PBUC in March 2012, where his performance improved and he was offered a GCL assignment.
The GCL employs a two-umpire system (one ump behind the plate and one on the bases). In his first professional season, Attridge doled out just two ejections. Blue Jays’ GCL skipper John Schneider became Attridge’s first when he argued a close call at the plate in Lakeland in the ninth inning on Aug. 8.
“It’s a credit to the professionalism of the coaches and managers that I ejected that the next day when I saw them they didn’t think anything of it,” said Attridge. “It was business as usual. They didn’t hold any grudges against me.”
Now in his 10th year of umpiring, Attridge has grown accustomed to dealing with unhappy managers and coaches.
“In the game of baseball, just because you eject someone doesn’t mean it has to be a horror story,” he said. “There are times when you can have a legitimate argument, and you see one thing one way and the coach or manager or player sees it another way. And sometimes you’re not able to resolve those differences, and that results in an ejection.”
With the measly wages paid to minor league umpires, it’s a good thing Attridge has adopted this approach. Unlike players, umpires can’t skip a minor league level en route to the big leagues, they have to officiate at least one season at each level before they have a shot at a major league assignment.
“The way we interpret it in the minor leagues is that it’s a job interview that takes about seven years to get you to the big leagues,” said Attridge.
Despite the arduous road ahead, Attridge remains undaunted. One of three Canadian umpires – joining Regina native Stu Scheurwater (Triple-A Pacific Coast League) and Barrie, Ont., native Scott Costello (Short-Season A, New York Penn-League) – in the professional ranks, Attridge hopes to represent his country in the big leagues sometime within the next decade.
With the GCL season over, Attridge has returned to Grimsby to referee basketball games and search for off-season employment in the IT field.
He credits mentor Chris Teliatnik, Margetts and Marco for helping him advance to the pro ranks. And the support of his mother Lori and stepfather Donnie has also been crucial to his success.
Next season, Attridge will likely move up a rung in the minor league ladder to class-A Short-Season.
“My journey in professional baseball has been really positive and it’s been everything that I ever wanted and more,” he said. “It’s been a great journey that’s been comprised of a bunch of small victories. That’s how I’d describe my journey so far: It’s been a bunch of small victories, starting with getting to umpire’s school, then graduating umpire’s school then PBUC and now to the Gulf Coast League. The next victory will be spring training and Short-A ball.”