'I want to make it work': How one MLB umpire is preparing to call games during the pandemic

·MLB columnist
·7 min read

When the news arrived in Garden City, Kansas, there’d be baseball again in the summer, there’d be a brief conversation about that between Todd Tichenor and his wife, Kelly. Like most they’d hunkered down to ride out the coronavirus pandemic along with their three children, the youngest 8 years old.

Todd had spent every summer anyone could remember on one ball field or another, some of them just down the block and others in big cities, stadiums packed with people, lit up and crackling with drama.

There wasn’t much question about what would happen if there were to be baseball games. Todd would go umpire them. Todd and Kelly had that talk anyway, just so everyone would be comfortable with the decision, just in case, because this summer isn’t like the rest.

On Monday evening, at the end of a six-hour drive, Todd pulled into the road that divides Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium, had his choice of parking spots, and worked the plate for a Royals intrasquad game.

“This is what I was born to do,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I love umpiring. This is what I did and what I grew up as. I grew up in a small town in western Kansas and this is how I made movie money on the weekends. Then it just grew into this, grew into a passion, and now it’s pretty cool I’m in the big leagues. I wouldn’t have passed this up for the world. I want to get it back. I want to make it work. Everybody, we need to as a family make it work.”

This would be his 14th season working major-league games, the last nine as a full-timer. It’ll be his first season wearing a mask on the bases, and two behind the plate, which he intends to do, as much as he can. The rest, the details of which he’s not too sure about, he’s pretty much done before.

Home plate umpire Todd Tichenor, right, is handed a bunch of baseballs by a ballboy before a spring training baseball game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Royals, Friday, March 6, 2020, in Surprise, Ariz. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Umpire Todd Tichenor, right, is ready to work MLB games in the shortened 2020 season. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

As he hears it, and he’s allowing for changes as they come, umpires are to be assigned areas of the country — East, Midwest and West. When possible, they’ll drive from assignment to assignment, otherwise deadhead the occasional team charter, and maybe stick around for entire homestands instead of the usual series at a time, and in the process probably get under the skin of a few players and managers. It comes with the job and he’s good with that, too.

“It really is going to remind me back to Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A, when you saw those teams forever,” he said. “In my mind, it’s just like life. If you see somebody, let’s say somebody’s 0-for-12 for a series and then you have to see them again, they’re going to be upset with you. That’s life. They’re not yelling at me, they’re yelling at the uniform. I understand that. It’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be hard to do. When you see somebody — on both sides, players, managers and umpires — the players and managers don’t want to see us that long. You know, probably the same with us. It’s going to be hard to see somebody 12 times in a row. But it’s a crazy year.

“Supposedly we’re going to have that [schedule] in the next couple days, so we’ll figure it out and see what happens. It’s gonna be crazy. Like driving Wichita to El Paso. I did that many times. So, we’ll see.”

He sat Tuesday evening in his black umpire’s uniform, Zooming with reporters from the ballpark’s press conference room, chuckling over sacrificing hotel points for the good of the cause (umpires have been asked, for health and safety purposes, to lodge in the visiting team’s hotel of choice) and hitting the open road like the old days. Over just a few minutes it becomes clear he adores his job — doing it, talking about it, doing right by it.

Tichenor, 43, and the dozens of major-league umpires like him are the other element to the coming weeks and, with any luck, months. They, too, will be tasked with performing expertly and fending off the spray of a pandemic while maintaining their composure and looking after the health of everyone around them.

As such, they are another in a series of long jump shots in the wind that will have to be true — and at worst get a shooter’s bounce — if there are to be baseball games.

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 03: Home plate umpire Todd Tichenor (13) class a strike on Cleveland Indians outfielder Jordan Luplow (8) (not pictured) during the second inning of the Major League Baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians on May 3, 2019, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Umpire Todd Tichenor says he tested wearing a face mask under his protective mask during a Royals intrasquad game. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Tichenor said he will be game for whatever comes, including wearing a mask.

“So, I did last night,” he said of his first game back, in which he worked the plate. “Yeah, I’m gonna try to. My personal feeling on it is — I don’t know what the players’ is, I saw some wearing them and some not — I think they’re probably the same as us, where they said it’s optional, since we’re getting tested as much as the players are. So I tried it.

“I wanted to do it last night and see what I could do. They gave us the nice masks to try. I wore it the whole game. Sometimes I let it slip from my nose. That was the tough part, was keeping the full mask on. I kinda just told myself, if I can do that 80 percent of the time, maybe I’m saving somebody 80 percent of the time. Maybe I can try to get it done and do it. Last night was a beautiful night here. I couldn’t believe how nice it was with the shade. I couldn’t imagine a 1 o’clock 100-degree day, Sunday afternoon game. It’s going to be tough. Like I said, my goal is maybe get 80 percent out of it. Wear it and get it done and if I have to take it off for an inning, I saw a couple catchers last night, they came out for most of ‘em. I think one time I saw the catcher not come out with it. Kinda me the same deal, if I can prevent it 80 percent of the time I’m good with it.”

That’s how Tichenor talks, too, one thought tumbling into the next, sometimes before the first one is through, with plenty of western Kansas mixed in. It’s folksy and charming, and his hands work along with his thoughts, and he leaves the impression he’ll by god get through that 1 o’clock, 100-degree, masked-up ballgame if that’s what it’s going to take.

After all, it’s all part of it, well now it is anyway, and what you do is show up and do the job like everybody else. Might as well love it. This, too, is the man who’d take two flights back to Garden City on an off day to surprise 8-year-old Teagan, “my baby girl,” over lunch.

So, a few long drives? A soggy mask at the end of four hours? For a chance to make it all work? For a chance at baseball?

“I do it,” he said. “No complaints.”

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