Lance Barrett is like most big-leaguers. He’s fulfilling a long-held dream.
This season, the Crowley High School graduate will work the fields of major league ballparks across the country. After nearly a decade in the minors, Barrett is seeing a plan that he hatched as a teenager come to fruition at the top of his profession.
Barrett is one of seven new full-time major league umpires added to the squad of 74 for the 2014 season. At 29, he is the youngest active umpire at the major league level.
“I was very blessed and very lucky,” said Barrett, who lives with his wife in Haslet.
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He’s also been a good umpire for his entire 20s. When he was 14 living with his mom in Crowley, a neighbor who umpired little league games suggested he could earn some spending money by doing games. Barrett had never considered himself a huge baseball fan as a kid. (“Being from Texas, I was a diehard football fan.”) But he immediately took to umpiring.
So much so that he graduated a year early from Crowley to enroll in umpiring school in January 2003. Nowadays, getting to the big leagues is even more stringent for umpires than it is players. First of all, the five-week umpiring school, of which there are two to choose, is mandatory for anyone working in the professional minor league system. From there, umpires must hit each level, beginning with rookie ball. Unlike some players, who could jump from Double A to the majors, umpires aren’t on the major league radar until they’ve reached Triple A.
Along the way, Barrett said, many fellow minor league umpires who, like him, dreamed of making it to the big leagues lost interest, weren’t good enough, or life took them in a different direction.
“Back then, you’re young and naive and you think, ‘This is great, we’re all going to the major leagues,’ ” he said. “But different things happen to different people. They don’t like to travel. Or they have a family early on and they can’t afford it. It kind of weeds itself out. The higher up you go, the tougher it gets.”
Once established in the minors, an umpire with big league aspirations is hoping to move up to Triple A quickly and then hopes to get assigned to the Arizona Fall League.
“That’s the first step of getting on the radar for the majors,” he said. Once on the radar, select umpires are invited to work major league spring training games and eventually, hopefully, they become one of 20 call-up umpires for the big leagues. Those 20 umpires are on call in case one of the 74 big league umpires get hurt, go on vacation, or needs to be replaced for some other reason.
“After doing that for several years you just work your way up to the top and, Lord willing, there’s an opening when you’re next in line,” Barrett said.
It wasn’t always this difficult to become a big league umpire. Joe West, 61, is the oldest active umpire in the big leagues. He only did four years in the minors when he was coming up in the early 70s.
Today’s umpires are put through a detailed evaluation throughout their time in the minors. First-year big league umpires are paid about $120,000, with the most senior umpires making close to $400,000.
They work in four-man crews, get to fly first class between cities and receive $340 per-diem allowance for each series worked.
But getting to the big leagues is tough. Of the approximately 300 who go through umpiring school each year, only a small fraction eventually become full-time umpires at the major league level. More umpires get released from Triple A than move up to the big leagues, said Rich Rieker, MLB’s director of umpire development.
“We rate every play, from every game, from every umpire,” Rieker said. “[Barrett] was well-observed, well-trained and got a well-deserved commission.”
For the umpires struggling at the Triple A level, Rieker said, they’re asked to leave if their performance hasn’t improved after several years.
“We won’t let a guy sit there forever without him moving on with his life or putting him in the big leagues,” he said. There are about 50 full-time Triple A umpires.
“The biggest thing is getting to Triple A,” Barrett said. “You want to get on that dance floor and hopefully you perform and they want you in the major leagues.”
He’s there now, for his first full season. The travel schedule is tough and it keeps him away from home for seven months out of the year, including for spring training where he is now. But Barrett still pinches himself.
“It’s tough living out of a suitcase,” he said. “It’s still a job. But I love this job. I thank God every day for this job. There’s not another job I’d rather be doing.”