At the time, he earned $40,000 a year as a teacher and supplemented his salary by umpiring high school baseball. “Between my wife and I, we were doing well,” Mr. Martinez recalls.
But the promise of calling balls and strikes for a living — even a meager one (rookie umpires in Minor League Baseball make $1,900 a month and typically work from mid-June until Labor Day) — proved too tempting to pass up; he recently moved to Boca Raton, Fla., found a job as a valet at a nightclub to pay his bills and enrolled in one of the two training programs for umpires sanctioned by Major League Baseball.
Mr. Martinez, 33, who was one of the oldest students in his class, acknowledges that some of his friends in New Jersey consider him “absolutely crazy.”
The long, winding and rutted road to the big leagues is “not for the faint of heart,” cautions Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials. “You are making very little money. You are away from your family. You’re being housed in hotels, two to a room. You’ve got to be diseased, I think.
David Martinez prepares to make a call during a baseball game between the College of Saint Rose and Molloy College at the Lynn University baseball complex in Boca Raton, Fla. CreditOscar Hidalgo for The New York Times
Landing one of the more than 300 coveted positions in the “big four” sports — Major League Baseball, the
National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League — is a rare feat. The jobs generally pay six-figure starting salaries and turnover is negligible; the National Hockey League, for instance, hired just one new referee last year. Major League Baseball just went on a veritable hiring binge, employing seven new umpires, but six of those jobs resulted from the expansion of instant replay and the anticipation of more challenges and reviews.
Despite the caveats, Mr. Mano says he believes that it has become more possible in the last 10 years to make a living — occasionally a lucrative one — officiating. He estimates that top basketball referees working
National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I basketball games can make up to $250,000 in a season, though as independent contractors they must cover the costs of travel and health insurance. Though compensation varies depending on the college conference, baseball umpires working in Division 1 can earn about $400 a game and mileage, lodging and a modest per diem. Hockey referees earn up to about $400 for a Division I college game, linesmen about half as much. Football referees can make up to $3,000 for 60 regulation minutes, but they work the fewest games of the four sports.
But even officials working high school games “pick up some nice money — $8,000, $9,000” — in a season, Mr. Mano said. “You can’t live on it, but it sure beats a second job washing cars.”
Some sports, like wrestling, face a perpetual shortage of officials. Joe Altieri, spokesman for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, says the number of officials in his organization is relatively stagnant — and that concerns him. “We are aggressively seeking officials in high school sports in New York,” he said.
Ashlee Harrison of Norristown, Pa., a basketball referee, likes the work.
“Right now, it’s the best part-time job I’ve ever had,” said Ms. Harrison, 32, who jumped into officiating four years ago after coaching high school basketball. As with many new officials, at first she refereed games played by 12-year-olds for as little as $25; she now makes far more and sometimes works seven days a week at the women’s junior college and Division III levels.
“The games I drive to can be two, two and a half hours away,” said Ms. Harrison. “It’s literally an eight-hour day by the time you get back.” But she expects to consider officiating as a full-time job soon.
When Ms. Harrison is not working a game, she is probably working out. League executives demand that officiating recruits be in great physical shape, on top of requiring sharp vision (contact lenses are acceptable, but glasses could invite fan derision).
Mr. Martinez, for instance, runs at least two miles and spends about an hour in the gym five days a week. “You are out there for nine innings. You don’t sit at all — not one second — whereas the teams take a break between innings,” said Mr. Martinez, who says that umpires have “the toughest job in baseball.”
Joe Borgia, the N.B.A.’s vice president for referee operations, readily acknowledges that he uses weight to size up officiating prospects.
“The first thing you are looking for is someone who is athletic, who can run the court,” he said. If someone is “50 pounds overweight and can’t run,” Mr. Borgia says, he skips to the next ref.
To hunt for the strongest recruits, Stephen Walkom, the National Hockey League’s director of officiating, is organizing the league’s first officiating combine in Buffalo this summer to test prospective referees on and off the ice, as if they were players preparing for the draft. “We need athletes first,” said Mr. Walkom. Aside from strengthening their bodies, aspiring officials must develop their networking skills. Mr. Mano counsels new referees to join officiating associations to learn about local “assignors,” the talent coordinators who book officials for collegiate games.
Some assignors operate off-season camps, which Mr. Borgia likens to job fairs. Current or former pro officials also stage clinics to teach their craft (some call it an art) and informally scout new talent. Starting in April, Ms. Harrison plans to attend one program each month throughout the summer at a cost of $100 to $300 each. “You want people to know who you are,” she says.
Mr. Mano has thought about establishing “a good housekeeping seal of approval” for officiating camps. Some programs, he warns, “simply take your money because they are in a position of authority.” He urges officials shopping for a camp to conduct some research and interview former graduates.
While umpire seminars are popular, the pipeline to Major League Baseball starts at one of two professional schools in Florida. Both umpiring academies, which are in session from early January to early February, cost slightly less than $4,000 for tuition, meals and a shared room. The curriculum, explains Andy Shultz, administrator of the Umpire School in St. Petersburg, Fla., includes things as varied as how to properly put on a mask and techniques for breaking up bench-clearing brawls. In some ways, Mr. Shultz prefers inexperienced students: “What’s great about those guys is there’s no bad habits to break.”
What may not be coachable is “the ‘it’ factor” — defined by Mr. Borgia of the N.B.A. as a mix of confidence, decisiveness, discretion and accuracy.
“Judgment is a huge part of officiating,” agrees Edward G. Hochuli, a National Football League referee and arguably the only celebrity in stripes (case in point: the
Ed Hochuli Fans Facebook page), who is known for his buff build (he played linebacker in college) and his on-field explanations of penalties.
Mr. Hochuli doubts whether prudence can be taught. “You can teach people to be in the right place and be looking at the right thing at the right time and anticipate what’s going to happen,” he said. “You ultimately make that judgment in a split second: Was that a foul or not a foul?”
To improve intangible skills, Mr. Hochuli recommends that raw officials mimic successful peers. “We spend an incredible amount of time studying rules. When your peers are doing that, you get dragged along. ‘Come on, we’re having a rules meeting tonight, come along.’ ”
When Joe Crawford, an N.B.A. referee who also operates the Next Level Referee Training camp near Philadelphia every June, appraises officials, he singles out “schmoozers,” who yammer during games.
“Who are the guys that are holding the ball over their faces and constantly talking to coaches?” asks Mr. Crawford. “We have a saying, ‘It’s the game, it’s the crew and then it’s me.’ If you start deviating from it, and you’re that schmoozer worrying about yourself, then the game suffers.”
Mr. Hochuli, who says he started officiating because “I could make 50 bucks on a Saturday morning working four Pop Warner football games — and I needed 50 bucks,” has witnessed his job brief, and salary, change since he entered the N.F.L. in 1990. “The compensation has certainly gone up,” he said. “When I started out, a 20-year official made 40-, 50,000 dollars. Now a 20-year official can make over $200,000.”
Emerging evidence that football players risk severe head trauma led to a recent class-action lawsuit by retired players who sustained concussions and brain injury. Though the settlement was rejected by a federal judge in January, the N.F.L. now provides its officials with better training about spotting the signs of a concussion.
“There’s just a much higher awareness of it now, and we are constantly reminded by the N.F.L.,” said Mr. Hochuli. After a highlight-worthy collision, Mr. Hochuli said, he will get in a player’s “face, look at him, get him to talk to me. Twenty-four years ago, I didn’t think to do that. Twenty-four years ago, it would have to jump out at me.”
Dean Blandino, the N.F.L.’s vice president for officiating, described referees as “first responders” on the field. In “the last couple of years,” he says, the N.F.L.’s medical staff and Head, Neck and Spine Committee brief officials before the season about recognizing players in distress. “What we are telling our officials,” said Mr. Blandino, “is to basically stop the game and get the attention of the medical staff on the sidelines.”
The emergence of instant replay has both eased and complicated an official’s responsibilities. Replay enables officials to narrow their focus at critical junctures in a game. Mr. Borgia offers an example: A basketball player takes a three-point shot at the end of a period. Before replay existed, Mr. Borgia simultaneously tried to watch the player’s feet (to make sure they were outside the three-point line), the defender (to detect any rule-breaking contact with the shooter) and the game clock (to see if the shooter beat the buzzer). “You can now mainly cut your focus to one thing: Did he foul him or not?” Mr. Borgia said.
Instant replay also lets sports channels repeatedly highlight — and mock — blown calls. Mr. Hochuli said that earlier in his career he officiated games covered by just three television cameras. Now, he says, as many as 64 cameras scour the field. “There are so many cameras looking at everything that you do, if you ever make a mistake — to the boss, or the N.F.L., or the fans or the announcers — you’re not going to get away with anything,” he said.
His boss, Mr. Blandino, notes that social media and officiating blogs intensify the spotlight on the profession. “The attention is more than it’s ever been.”
The scrutiny and the screamed performance reviews from players, fans and coaches can sometimes rattle even experienced officials. “Nobody is out there yelling, ‘Great call, ref. Way to run, ref,’ ” jokes Mr. Borgia. “There’s like a 30 percent turnover in the first year of any officiating because of all the abuse. What we try to say is, ‘They don’t hate you; they hate your uniform.’ ”
Mr. Martinez, the former math teacher, is confident that his experience with unruly high school students has prepared him for abuse on the field. Adolescents, he observes, “are really sassy, and they try to provoke you. They try to get you to say things and do things so that they can try to get you in trouble.”
He will soon have the opportunity to display his cool in the heat of a professional baseball game. Last month, he accepted a job as an umpire in the lowest rung on the professional baseball ladder.
“I’m still floating,” Mr. Martinez says. He recalls routinely lecturing his students to follow their dreams, and now, he says, “My dream is becoming a reality.”