A Canadian umpire’s Dominican Winter League adventure

Canadian umpire Chris Graham (Brampton, Ont.) entertains an argument from double-A Portland Sea Dogs manager Carlos Feebles on June 24, 2016. Photo Credit: D. Walsh, Portland Press Herald

Canadian umpire Chris Graham (Brampton, Ont.) entertains an argument from double-A Portland Sea Dogs manager Carlos Feebles on June 24, 2016. Photo Credit: D. Walsh, Portland Press Herald

By Scott Langdon

Canadian Baseball Network

The batter popped up into foul territory along the first baseline, near the dugout. As the ball settled into the glove of the Estrellas Orientales’ infielder, the fans erupted, jumping from their seats, shouting, screaming and waving their arms as they attempted to move onto the field in one loud, excited mass. Up to 60 security guards quickly deployed around the playing surface.

Welcome to the Dominican Winter League (Liga de Beisbol Profesional de la Republica Dominicana) or LIDOM, the commonly used Spanish acronym.

“That was the first time in 51 years that Estrellas won the championship,” said Brampton, Ont. native Chris Graham, who was part of the six-man umpire crew who officiated that final game of the 2018/19 Dominican league season last month. “That’s saying something in a six-team league.”

The umpires were hustled off the field by security personnel after the final out. The crew was out of the stadium and on the way to their Santo Domingo hotel with a police escort within 20 minutes. Graham called the escort a “precaution” and never felt threatened.

The passion of Dominican fans for baseball, or pelota as it is called locally, is well known. Games are described as “parties” on the country’s official tourism web site. There have been stories of police searching for weapons at turnstiles, sale of rum in ballparks, fans staying on their feet an entire game while setting off air horns, leading cheers or taunting umpires.

“There was always police and military at the ballparks. But I never felt the fans got on me during a game,” Graham said.

“But they do love their baseball. Every game is sold out, between eight and fifteen thousand fans, depending on the ball park. It is always intense. Every pitch means everything to them.”

The Dominican league runs a 50-game schedule from mid-Oct. to the end of Jan.

The league champion then plays the champions of the Puerto Rican League, the Mexican Pacific League, the Cuban National League, the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League and the Panamanian Professional Baseball League in the Caribbean Series. This year’s series is the first played by the Panamanian league since 1960. They are hosting the tournament in Panama City.

The umpires’ union asks members to “put their names in” if interested in working the Dominican league. Then major and minor league officials put their heads together and select two crews of four umpires, each for an eight-week part of the schedule, to work games with local umpires. Umpires have to be at least at the triple-A minor league level.

Graham, an 11-year professional umpire, has spent two years at triple-A and is a crew chief during minor league spring training games. A Dominican assignment is viewed as a development opportunity, he says.

“The level of play is similar with triple-A, but there are major league players, too. For an umpire, it is a great experience because the atmosphere is intense and every pitch means something.”

Beach time

The umpiring crews stay at a hotel in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. There was always a military presence, Graham says, because the hotel was a five-minute walk from the National Palace which houses the president and vice-president of the country.

The Dominican Republic is renowned for its beaches such as Punta Cana and Bavaro Beach among others. But the umpiring crews don’t have much time to spend on the beach.

“The days can be long. We’re provided with a vehicle and a driver who doubles as security. Distances between Santo Domingo and other locations can involve a four-hour drive both ways. There are no pitch clocks or other rules designed to speed up games in the Dominican league. There isn’t a lot of beach time.

“But, when you live in southern Ontario, especially this winter, I have to admit the thirty-degree temperatures are nice.”

The umpires are paid similarly to their in-season, minor league baseball rates plus a per diem for food. The league pays hotel costs.

“The food is good, like home. We start each day with a free breakfast at the hotel, then cap it off with a post-game meal served at some of the ballparks. You do realize how lucky we are in Canada for the lifestyle we live compared to life for many people in the Dominican.”

Spanish is the official language of the Dominican Republic, although variants are spoken in different parts of the country. It is spoken or understood by more than 90 per cent of the population and is used in business, schools, government and media.

“I don’t speak Spanish, but one of my goals was to learn the language,” Graham said. “Working with local umpires helped me learn a bit. It wasn’t an obstacle.

“I was lucky to have the opportunity to go. I love my job and I came back a better umpire.”

In the family

Graham’s umpiring journey started at the age of 12, motivated by his grandfather, John Graham, 98, and father William Graham, known as Billy, who passed away at the age of 50. Both senior Grahams were long-time, well-known, amateur umpires in southern Ontario.

“I umpire because I love the game of baseball. I grew up with it because of my grandfather and my Dad, in particular. I feel like I’m meant to be involved in the sport, a feeling that comes from my Dad. Baseball and umpiring are a connection we will always have.”

Graham will head to Dunedin, Fla., in mid-March to work minor league games on the back fields of major league spring training. He will begin his third triple-A season in April. It will likely be a memorable one as he and wife, Tricia, are expecting their first child this summer.