Eight years of long drives, cheap motels and ballpark food finally paid off for minor league umpire Jim Reynolds.
He made it to the big leagues as a substitute this season. And it looks like he's there to stay because of the labor dispute between umpires and Major League Baseball.
"It's a completely different atmosphere" in the majors, Reynolds said last week from Anaheim, Calif., where he was working a weekend series between the Angels and the Minnesota Twins.
"There's a big difference between going into Toronto and working in front of 30,000 or 40,000 people and four or five thousand in Syracuse."
Reynolds is talkative about the life he's giving up, but he says little about being in the middle of a labor mess.
"I just hope they can get it all resolved up there," he said.
Members of the Major League Umpires Association, wanting a new collective bargaining agreement, said in July they were quitting Sept. 2. The leagues called their bluff, accepting 22 resignations.
Richie Phillips, the head of the major league umpires since 1978, said the big league umps will file unfair labor practice charges against the American and National leagues Tuesday in New York. He will ask the National Labor Relations Board to seek an injunction in federal court to prevent baseball from forcing out 22 umpires on Sept. 2.
Reynolds is one of 25 minor league umpires hired as replacements.
"I think the magnitude of it all is more than I expected," Reynolds said. "The intensity and the atmosphere -- I don't think you can anticipate that."
Professional umpires usually get their start at one of two schools -- Jim Evans' Academy of Professional Umpiring and Harry Wendelstedt's Umpire School -- where they pay roughly $2,500 to $3,000 for a five-week course in umpiring. Students are monitored during the course by Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. scouts, who pick the top candidates for minor league openings.
Like most players, umpires must work their way up league by league until they have a chance at the majors. But unlike players, who can bypass the minors if they're talented enough, umpires don't usually skip levels.
"If you're a prospect player, you're going to play maybe two or three years in the minor leagues. There are some guys who have never been in the minors," Reynolds said. "Umpires, the way the system is set up now, it's six or seven years before you even get a look."
Still, Reynolds said, the players remember the umpires from their early days.
"When you see the guys who you used to see in the minors, they have a smile on their faces and so do you. You spend a lot of time with a lot of those guys," he said.
A minor league umpire's season starts with spring training in late February and can last through September if he is selected to work the playoffs.
The pay is nothing to brag about. Umpires in Class A make an average of $1,800 to $2,000 a month while the top minor league umps in Class AAA make $2,500 to $3,400, said Eric Krupa, administrator for the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based PBUC.
Life on the road in the lower minors can be tough. Umpires have to drive hundreds of miles after a night game to be in a new city for a game the next afternoon, Reynolds said. And the motel accommodations are lacking.
"You try to figure out which bed has the least bend in it," Reynolds said.
As a AAA umpire, Reynolds was making more money and getting to fly between cities.
"There are 14 teams in this league," Reynolds said. "There's two teams that think you're the worst crew and can't believe that you ever made it to Triple-A. There's two teams that think you're the best crew in the league and can't do anything wrong. The other 10 teams tolerate you."
Reynolds was finally called up to the majors in June, when the Boston Red Sox were home against the Atlanta Braves.
"That signified the major leagues to me -- Fenway Park," said Reynolds, who grew up about 100 miles southwest of Boston outside Hartford, Conn. "It was absolutely incredible."