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With a spring training call-up, a female umpire inches closer to history

Jen Pawol is on the verge of the unprecedented, though that was never her plan. She did not become an umpire for the fame. She never did this for attention. But minor league season after minor league season, correct call after correct call, promotion after promotion, she has waded reluctantly into the spotlight. Now she is hurtling into history.

Major League Baseball announced Monday that Pawol, a 47-year-old umpire who has been working her way through the minor leagues since 2016, will be one of 24 minor league umpires invited to work major league spring training games starting later this month - a well-known prerequisite to a major league debut. She also will be promoted to crew chief of her Class AAA umpiring crew, which means she will be the most senior official at every minor league game she works this year. Pawol was promoted to Class AAA only last season. No woman has ever umpired a regular season MLB game.

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Her résumé has become big league ready at a torrid pace. The same year she was promoted to Class AAA, Pawol was selected to work that level’s championship game. She was also selected to work the Arizona Fall League, another milestone, one that comes with the added bonus of providing replay training and other experience relevant to umpiring major league games.

Most umpires deemed fit for fall league work have a chance at a spring training call-up, so when Pawol received one, it was not exactly shocking. But when she got that call from her supervisors last Monday, Pawol said, she hollered anyway.

“I just said: ‘Thank you so much. I’m going to do a great job,’” Pawol said. “… It was a really special moment for a lot of reasons.”

One reason a spring training call-up is significant is that only two women had ever received one. Pam Postema umpired major league spring training near the end of her career in the late 1980s. Ria Cortesio made it to big league spring training in the early 2000s. Pawol said she has been texting with both of them since she got the news.

The other reason it matters is that it might foretell another call-up soon. When big league crews need a substitute, they pull them from the list of potential call-ups that includes only umpires who have served in spring training games. Pawol, as a Class AAA crew chief, will be one of the more senior officials on that list. She is now one step away from the majors, with as much momentum in that direction as any woman in history.

“This is a big, big deal. It means so much,” said Pawol, a reluctant inheritor of the spotlight who said that when fans ask her for autographs, she insists they get those of her fellow umpires, too. Sometimes fans heckle her. Sometimes, she says, they tell her things such as “you’re going to do it!” and “keep going!”

That attention is the most uncomfortable thing for Pawol, but more is likely on the way. While women have broken into the ranks of NBA and NFL officials in recent years, the role of MLB umpire has been harder to crack.

Umpires are a part of MLB’s fabric, familiar characters in the daily plot despite being lauded most when they do not draw attention to themselves. For decades, umpires have stirred everything from comedy to histrionics to unbelievable stoicism in some of the sport’s more memorable scenes. Never before has one of those scenes included a woman. Never has a woman been closer to taking that strange stage, uncomfortable though the spotlight that comes with it might be.

“I’d say I’ve put the gas to full throttle. We’re going for it, full speed,” Pawol said. “I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’ve grown into my shoes, I’ve grown into my wins, so to speak. This is the narrative. This is the storyline, the plot. People are exciting and encouraging. But when it comes down to it, I just have to get my next play right.”

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