West-bound: An Australian’s journey to American umpiring

Harlan Ambrose
July 20, 2012

In Australia, when you tell someone that you play baseball it’s often met with looks of incredulity and shock. “Really?” is the most common response. But Tom West takes it to a new level when he tells people that he umpires baseball.

I grew up with baseball, playing in tournaments and weekly games in the Australian summer. My first encounter with Tom was during one of the club games two years ago. In Brisbane there are around six amateur grades (for the adults) with no more than 10 teams per grade. When it comes to umpiring, more often than not it’s other club members and volunteers who step in to do it. But on rare occasions the game might receive official ‘blues’ such as Tom.

Since my first encounter with Tom, he has continued to umpire and has been acting as a baseball ambassador in Queensland. He works in schools, promoting the sport and bringing it to youngsters whilst umpiring both local and national competitions.

Tom was recently one of the standouts at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring and his work there has led to the biggest opportunity yet: a contract to umpire Rookie Ball in the United States.

I knew I had to sit down and talk to him about the opportunity. When you tell people you play baseball it’s odd enough, but to umpire in Queensland and get an opportunity in the States? That’s something few have done. 

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Harlan Ambrose: How’d you get into baseball?

Tom West: I think when I was about five years old I started playing T-ball, as well as soccer and haven’t stopped since. Haven’t gotten better since, actually.

HA: What about umpiring, how’d you get into umpiring?

TW: Both of my parents were pretty involved with the local club and when I was 11 years old they asked if I wanted to help out umpiring a T-ball game. It all started from there. The next year I went to my first umpires’ seminar. I loved the hidden complexity of the game, there are so many rules in baseball that so many people don’t know about and it intrigued me to keep learning about it.

HA: You were 11 when you went to the seminar?

TW: I was 12 years old when I went to my first seminar, which was a basic introduction. It was a day course and a brief overview of the rules and mechanics.

HA: Were there any other 12 year olds?

TW: [laughs] No, I was definitely the youngest there. Even when I went to my first Level 1 seminar which was just a three-day course, I was 14 and I think I was the youngest umpire in Queensland for a long time. Obviously not anymore, there are a lot of good young umpires coming through which is great to see.

HA: What sort of role do you see for yourself in umpiring? Where are you off to next?

TW: Next year I’m off to umpire Rookie Ball. Probably the bigger thing for me is umpiring in the Australian Baseball League (the Australian Baseball League is the second attempt to maintain a professional baseball organization in Australia.) That’d be great. I haven’t been given a certain indication of whether that’ll happen, but I’m sure there’s a good chance it will happen and umpiring in any country in the top league is a pretty big deal for me.

HA: How did you get the Rookie Ball offer?

TW: Early this year I went to Jim Evans’ Academy of Professional Umpiring after being given a scholarship through Queensland Baseball, which was a five-week course. I worked my ass off out there for five weeks. The top-16 students were selected to move forward to the evaluation course and through there they selected and assigned umpires. I was lucky enough to be called up earlier this year.

HA: 16 out of how many?

TW: This year we had 110 at Jim Evans’ Academy and there were similar numbers at the other two schools, one of them being slightly smaller but there were 16 picked from each school and sent to the evaluation course.

HA: You’ve umpired a couple of my games and you always stood out. You were moving around and really taking authority which I think a lot of the umpires, especially the low level guys, don’t really do. They don’t take it too seriously.

TW: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I mean, I guess no matter whether I umpire a little league game or a national final it’s something you want to take pride in. You don’t necessarily want to be noticed, the best games you umpire are when no one notices you, but, you do stand out when you are a little bit younger and in our baseball association here there’s not many young, maybe as mobile umpires [laughs]. It’s always good when you don’t stand out because you’ve not done anything wrong usually.

HA: It’s funny that you hit on that because you share an unfortunate last name for umpires, at least from a player’s perspective. Joe West, he’s often in the spotlight for injecting himself into the game. What kind of style do you feel you have going?

TW: I’m definitely not a Joe West. I don’t like filling out paperwork where possible and I think if you make the right call and you say the right things a lot of the time you stay out of trouble. I think there is a picture of me on the website. I had a strike three mechanic for a while where I’d injured my knee playing soccer and I got up on one knee to make a strike three call. In this photo I’m about two or three inches off the ground while calling this guy out on strike three.

HA: Have you ever looked in the mirror and worked on your strike three calls?

TW: [laughs] I try not to. I feel like a bit of an ass when I look at myself in the mirror, doing a strike three mechanic. I guess you want to look sharp, you don’t want to look sloppy, and the best way to assess yourself on that type of thing is looking at it on video or looking in the mirror so, maybe I’ve done it once or twice but I try not to.

HA: It certainly plays against you if you are timid or if the players feel like they can exploit you. Assertiveness, is that something that you strive to show in games? Even though you were maybe the youngest guy there, just making sure that guys couldn’t push you around, is that something you thought about?

TW: Oh definitely, I mean when I first started umpiring A-grade, Brisbane A-grade, when I was 16 I probably got away with a couple of things for about six months or so. Because I was only 16, maybe coaches didn’t want to scare me as much or, I’m not sure, maybe I just got very lucky. Certainly by the time I was 17-18, a few people tried to assert authority over me when I was umpiring, which you can never let happen, otherwise you lose control of the game and game management for someone like myself who’s not necessarily a big guy or even an older guy is essential otherwise you will lose control.

HA: Did any players in the States comment on you being Australian or were any of them surprised by an Australian presence – especially when it’s not a player?

TW: Oh definitely. I don’t think they believe me sometimes. One guy said “if you keep faking that Australian accent I’m going to get really sick of it by the end of the game.” This was the catcher, and I had to break it to him. I said, no mate, I really am Australian. He said, well I don’t believe you and I don’t think he believed me at all, even after the game.

HA: What did he think your motivation was to fake an Australian accent?

TW: I don’t know. I think there were only five other international umpires going for a job this year, one of them being Taka Matsuda, who we sort of adopted as an honorary Australian. When he was over here I think he tried to throw in an Australian phrase here or there. The Americans certainly like the Aussie lingo; I think it’s a bit of a changeup in baseball. Travis Hatch (a fellow Australian umpire currently working in the minors) said the other day that maybe you could get out of trouble a couple of times if you throw in the Aussie lingo.

HA: Soon you go over and do Rookie Ball, where can you go from there?

TW: It’s just like a player. You work your way up through the minor leagues. You go to Advanced Rookie, Short Season-A, Long Season-A, Double-A, Triple-A, and then by the time you get to Triple-A you hope MLB is looking at you, but it’s certainly a very long road with as much success rate as a player, if not less, because there’s less turnover. The Australian boys at the moment have worked very hard to get to Triple-A. To try to touch Double-A, you have to take it one season at a time, don’t look too far into the future and live each day as if it was your last, to use a cliché line, and just work your ass out there.

HA: How many years have you been umpiring now?

TW: I started at 11. I’m almost 21, so about nine years.

HA: And over that span is there a particular moment or a particular call that you’ve made that’ll go down as your favorite? Or maybe just a particular moment that you enjoyed while umpiring?

TW: Probably the strike three call I got airborne on. It was to finish a game. To have fun while you’re umpiring, I think that’s the key. You’ll never get far in umpiring unless you have fun so every time I work with [certain] other umpires, I know that I can have fun with them without being unprofessional. All those times are actually highlights for me.

HA: Before I let you go there was one question I wanted to ask. I feel like you’re going to have a great answer for this. Is there a particular rule that you love?

TW: [laughs] There’s this one rule, rule 7.07 in the baseball rules. That’s pretty sad that I’ve actually quoted the number [laughs]. It’s when a catcher’s interference occurs while a runner from third is trying to steal home on either a steal or a squeeze play. You end up enforcing a balk because of the catcher. And that’s because a catcher’s interference wouldn’t score that runner usually, he would have to go back. Your brain’s probably turned to mush by the time I’ve finished explaining that rule.

HA: Have you ever –?

TW: I haven’t, but I remember telling my old man about it, and he does a little bit of umpiring. He’s mostly a coach, and it happened in one of the games he was coaching and I think he couldn’t get fast enough out of the dugout to tell the umpire the rule for this play, and he’s told me ever since, I think he was quite chuffed.

HA: Alright, well thanks for sitting down with me.

TW: Alright, have fun writing it.

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The Author:

Harlan Ambrose