Sarah Thomas is set to officiate the Super Bowl. How long until a woman becomes an MLB umpire?

·8 min read

During the summer of 2017, as an umpire in the rookie level Gulf Coast League, Jen Pawol watched the new Tiger Town spring training facility being built. It was her second season officiating in affiliated baseball, after spending 10 years working high school, NCAA, youth baseball, and women’s pro softball games. Pawol is just the seventh woman ever to umpire in professional baseball and one of just two working today. There has never been a female umpire at the major-league level.

The following year, Pawol got a glimpse of big league action and the brand new stadium when she umpired a Tigers spring training game.

“And guess what? There is a women's umpire locker room there,” she said.

To be honest, the logistics of getting changed into their uniforms on the two-person umpire crews that work lower level minor-league games were never actually as complicated or prohibitive as people assume. There would be an extra room somewhere Pawol could use or else she and her partner took turns in the bathroom or else they put up a screen.

“I get asked this a lot,” Pawol said, “But my relationship with my partner, we are very mature.”

Still, the dedicated locker room for female umpires stood out. It was a structural, officially sanctioned sign that the sport was shifting, from the top down.

Before she was scouted by MLB umpires at a clinic in Cincinnati in August 2015 — which is how she ended up at umpire camp, where she earned a scholarship to umpire school, which graduated her into the minor-league system — Pawol spent a decade convinced that her gender precluded her from working in professional baseball. That’s a problem; but it’s one that the game is trying to address.

“No one ever encouraged me over those 10 years. And this is what has changed,” Pawol said. “No young lady has to flounder for 10 years thinking that because of their gender, they're not welcome to try out for professional baseball.”

NFL official Sarah Thomas will be the first woman to work the Super Bowl.
NFL official Sarah Thomas will be the first woman to work the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek)

Difficult progress

This weekend, Sarah Thomas will become the first female official to work a Super Bowl, five years after she became the first female official in the NFL. Seven women have refereed in the NBA this season, and just recently, Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder worked together in the first regular season basketball game with multiple female officiants. Around MLB, women have ascended to new heights in baseball operations this offseason as well.

In 2021 it’s a little bittersweet or ironic or oversimplified to be celebrating firsts for women like that. The exceptions to systemic sexism within sports — and indeed, the perpetuation of a hierarchy with men’s sports unequivocally at the top — is a retro form of progress. But it’s progress nonetheless. And in officiating, which has roles with the potential to offer a relatively even playing field for anyone interested in the game, the total absence of women is stark.

“How come there's not more women?” Pawol asks rhetorically. “Like, it's this long, obscure process that's hard to get information on.”

The pipeline into baseball is narrow and runs through just two certified umpire academies. Plus, it’s a hurdle just to make women aware of the opportunity to pursue umpiring. It requires affirmative recruitment to get them to embark on an often thankless career with few visible role models.

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That’s why the high-profile opportunities for female officiants in other leagues are important. And why the question for baseball becomes when can we hope to see a woman umpire at the major-league level?

“The road to become a major-league baseball umpire is a long apprenticeship,” said Matt McKendry, the senior director of umpire operations at MLB.

Just like for players, aspiring umpires have to work their way up through the low-paying grind of the minor-league system. Triple-A umpires get the chance to call major-league games on assignment, but opportunities to break into the bigs full time are rare. There are 76 major-league umpires, and only when one of them retires does a job open up. Most minor-league umpires won’t make it, and for the ones that do, McKendry says the process can take over a decade.

“It's a reason why a lot of people give up,” Pawol said. “Outside of baseball, it's a real sacrifice. You only work half the year in the minors. And then what do you do with the rest of the half the year? Well, you can't get a full-time job, because nobody's gonna hire you because you’re gonna leave in March.”

“A lot of very qualified candidates have opportunities elsewhere that they've pursued in the past,” McKendry said. He thinks that development process can be streamlined. Doing so won’t change how difficult it is to crack the major-league ranks, but it should make umpiring more appealing in the world of professional officiating, cut down on the attrition rate for promising prospects, and hopefully jumpstart progress in an industry that’s been slow to change.

“One of our goals is to try and shorten that timeline and be able to expedite people who we feel are strong candidates,” McKendry said.

In the past few years, there’s been a conscious push to seek out strong female candidates and a recognition that pointing them in the right direction is just the first step.

“We realized it doesn’t end when we send them out, that we have to support them through the system,” said Rich Rieker, MLB’s director of umpire development. For instance, bringing in women like Emma Charlesworth-Seiler, the only other female pro umpire in recent years, as instructors for umpire camps over the winters. Instructors get an opportunity to re-familiarize themselves with the rules, offseason employment that’s otherwise hard to come by, and they provide aspiring women with visible testament to the opportunity in the industry.

Out of an umpire clinic in Vero Beach in December 2019, three women were offered scholarships to umpire academy. Two were put on a list for minor-league consideration.

Then the pandemic happened.

The entire minor-league season was canceled in 2020, costing players who didn’t merit a place at their team’s alternate site and all the umpires a year of development. Now, another minor-league season is likely to start late. In between, the entire system was slashed. MLB cut a quarter of the affiliated minor-league teams as part of a restructuring this offseason. The full effects of that decision are still being worked out as MLB exerts greater authority over the farm systems, but ultimately, fewer teams means fewer games means fewer umpires needed.

In 2019, there were 240 minor-league umpires. Going forward, “We really don’t know what that number is going to be,” Rieker said.

Home plate umpire Todd Tichenor signals during the fourth inning of the first baseball game of a doubleheader between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
While there are women umpiring in the minor leagues, MLB hopes a woman can join the MLB ranks, alongside umps like Todd Tichenor (seen here), within five years. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

What’s the timeline for seeing a woman umpire in MLB?

Spring training was called off last year two days before Pawol was scheduled to fly out. She’s 44 now and missed what would have been her fifth season umpiring in affiliated ball. But she doesn’t think about it that way.

“If you had a goal that you knew was going to take 10 to 15 years to achieve — or not, maybe I don't get picked — but if you're budgeting 10 to 15 years, this is one year in that decade or more,” she said. “One year is not going to make or break it.”

Pawol thinks in terms of hundreds — hundreds of reps practicing, making a call. If she can do each one, say, 300 times, she’ll have it down. Umpires have to be focused, decisive, accurate enough to not get noticed, quick enough to keep the game going. What looks rote is in fact the hard-earned second nature of knowing where to move and where to look on every single play. It’s never an option to say you didn’t see what happened even for an instant. They have to be just as confident on obscure rules that come up once in a career as on the calls they make a dozen times a day.

Despite and in spite of all the heat they take when a call is wrong, major-league umpires are remarkably good and unflappable. That takes reps, hundreds of them. And reps take years.

Pawol thinks about making the majors every second of every day. Still, she estimates that she’s five years away from being one of the 76. Rieker puts the timeline for seeing a woman umpire a major-league game at three to five years.

McKendry thinks if they streamline development, it could be less.

“Maybe we can reduce that timeline from three to five years to two, three years,” he said.

So, we’re getting there, maybe. But in the interim, the women who are in the system already are putting in the work to make it look seamless, unremarkable even, when they do make it.

“This is what I am, you know, this is like my mindset. I used to be a ballplayer, I used to be a catcher,” Pawol said. “Every day, I want to be on the field.”

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