August 29, 1998—late in the Major League Baseball season that is captivating America as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa race each other to beat the single-season home run record set by Roger Maris in 1961. McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals are the home team against the Atlanta Braves; rookie umpire Hunter Wendelstedt is working third base in the second game of a three-game series. The sellout crowd of 47,627 has come to see one man, McGwire—who gets ejected in his first at-bat of the game.
“The crowd went berserk. They were throwing stuff on the field I didn’t know they made any more,” Wendelstedt recalls. “They’re throwing the little bottles of Coke and Sprite I hadn’t seen since I was a kid.” He had the privilege of working on his dad’s (legendary umpire Harry Wendelstedt’s) crew for that game and for the last few weeks of the 1998 season. A landmark year for the Wendelstedts, 1998 was not only Hunter’s first season in the big leagues, but was also the season that Harry retired.
“Dad was great. I was on the field with him for a couple of different situations that were amazing.” How Harry handled the McGwire ejection is a great case in point. The umpire called a strike and McGwire lost his cool. Hunter says, “The home-plate umpire, Sammy Holbrook, did everything to keep McGwire in the game. The manager, La Russa, was ejected first; then, pitching coach Duncan went; and finally, Mark went.” As the crowd grew increasingly dangerous, Harry took control, calming Holbrook (also a rookie umpire) down, and laid down a plan for the rest of the game.
Wendelstedt continues, “[Dad] says, ‘Listen. I’m going to handle everything else. I need a couple of things.’ He looked at me and the other guy on the field, an umpire named Rich Rieker. Dad says, ‘Rich, Hunter, after every half inning, you’re going to meet me right behind second base. No one has that good of an arm. If they want to throw stuff at us, they’re not going to reach us behind second.’”
Wendelstedt says his dad then turned to Holbrook. “‘Sammy, I’ve worked with you all year. You’re one of the better young umpires in the big leagues. I need you to bear down now for the next eight innings and do the job that I’ve seen all year long. Block it out. Every pitch that you call, right or wrong, they’re going to scream at you. Don’t worry, go out there and do the job I know you can.’” Harry then strode over to the Cardinal’s dugout, where, Wendelstedt says, his dad laid down the law: “‘You’ve got a sellout crowd here. This game’s going to be forfeited in about one minute if you do not make an announcement to stop throwing stuff on the field. We can either play baseball, or I’ll end the game right now.’” They made the announcement, Wendelstedt says. “He had that kind of respect.”
A Misplaced Gator
Wendelstedt, who calls Madisonville home, is one of just 68 Major League Baseball umpires. “There are fewer big league umpires than there are United States Senators,” he points out. Raised in Ormond Beach, Florida, just north of Daytona Beach, Wendelstedt came to New Orleans in 1988 to scout out Loyola University as a possible, although highly unlikely, college choice. He had attended a Florida Gators-sponsored punt, pass and kick clinic at the Daytona Speedway when he was about 5 years old. “I went out there, got my first Florida Gators hat, met all the players and knew I was going to the University of Florida.” He notes, “[That] makes my wife and all the Louisiana people cringe.”
He remained resolute that Gainesville would be his future academic home, but his high school guidance counselor insisted that he apply to more than one university. Two schools he had visited during his time on the school debate team, Boston College and Washington and Lee, made his list. Then, one day—just to get out of class, he says—Wendelstedt sat in on a presentation by a representative from Loyola. “I thought it was a good presentation and went up and talked with him afterwards. He said to come in for a visit. We hadn’t planned on any other trips,” Wendelstedt says. He’d already toured the other schools he had applied to. “I convinced mom and dad to go to New Orleans.”
It was love at first sight. “The minute I checked in, I felt, ‘I’m going here.’ I hadn’t even set foot on campus. I just fell in love with the city.” Brian Berrigan, Loyola’s admissions director, befriended Wendelstedt and took his dad, Harry, fishing rather than have him endure Hunter’s boring orientation session. Berrigan’s friendship would become pivotal in cementing Wendelstedt’s ties to the New Orleans area. After 12 years of participating in many activities with Berrigan’s family—Saints games, fishing, crawfish boils and becoming a member of and riding in Endymion—Hunter married Berrigan’s sister Katherine and officially became part of the family.
When he came to New Orleans, Wendelstedt had been umpiring Little League, high school and college games since he was about 12 years old. “Back then, it was a good way to make 20 bucks. I could work two or three games in a day, making $60 at 12 and 13 years old,” he says. “When I got to high school, it was great because I could work all around town. Every once in a while, I’d go out and work the bases at a college game and try to blend in—it was kind of hard to fit in if you were a high schooler among a bunch of college kids—but I could go out and work the bases.” He joined the Veterans Umpire Association to pick up some extra cash while in school at Loyola.
“All my fraternity brothers were going into pre-law or pre-med, and I’m a history major and I don’t know what I’m going to do. Am I going to be a teacher? I love teaching. But I decided to take a semester off and go to umpire school.” He went to the school and says, “The rest is history. I came through and finished at the top of the class. It steamrolled into moving up year after year, then making it into the big leagues.”
Directing our National Pastime
The umpire school he attended (Wendelstedt Umpire School) not only bears the family name and was run by his father, Harry, but also has a long and storied history. “The school was started in 1932 by a guy named Bill McGowan. From him, it transferred over to Al Somers. Dad became a part of the school in 1962 and took it over in 1976 when Somers got into a bad car accident. Dad’s been in some bad health, so I’m kind of running things now. I call him the Bobby Bowden of the program. Technically, he’s the main man, but everybody behind the scenes is taking care of it,” Wendelstedt says. Harry umpired in the big leagues for 33 years and trained hundreds of umpires. “He worked five World Series, five All-Star games and countless playoffs. He’s a future Hall of Famer, no doubt,” says Wendelstedt. When enshrined in Canton, Harry will join only nine other umpires honored there. Harry’s reputation was as a fair, firm and accurate umpire.
The school trains everyone from amateur umpires looking to sharpen their skills in calling games on the playground to experienced umpires looking towards a career in the big leagues.
“Every single baseball game, no matter what level, is important to somebody.” Hunter says he stresses this to his students at umpire school. “That t-ball game is important to the kids playing, it’s important to the grandpa watching his grandson—that’s the way every single umpire needs to look at it. The guy working that Little League game is just as important as I am working the Boston/New York game. People don’t understand that. If I’m working a game with the two worst teams in the league, to somebody that game is important.”
Umpire school is about more than the nuts-and-bolts of the game. “Sure, it’s about day one, when I stand up there and go, ‘Here’s a baseball. Here’s a bat. Here’s a mask. This is how you take your mask off.’ That progresses to bean balls and obstructions and interference and missed plays and appeals.” But, Wendelstedt says, “Umpire school is also about life, and something that people need to realize about life is that you have to be honest with yourself. I think that’s where umpires are the best. We are brutally honest; we’re honest with ourselves and have to be honest with other people, too.”
Unlike other sports, baseball allows players, coaches or managers to come onto the field and question the umpire’s decision if they believe it is in violation of the rules. If a football coach leaves the sideline to question a referee, the team will get a 15-yard penalty. In basketball, a technical foul would be called on a coach who comes onto the court. However, Wendelstedt says, “In baseball, if they come out and want to talk about a possible misapplication of a rule or something they saw differently, as long as they conduct themselves like gentlemen, we’re going to listen.”
But, “There are parameters. When they start to throw their arms up and down to incite the crowd or take their hat off, we’re going to tell them to put it back on. There are different things we’re not going to let them get away with. One is verbal abuse directed at the umpire. When they preface anything with ‘you’ or ‘you are a _____’, unless it’s ‘you are the best umpire I’ve ever seen, Hunter’ (which has never happened), they’re going to be removed from the game, because it’s usually followed up by—well, you can fill in the blank.”
So, in situations such as the McGwire ejection, umpiring is a matter of maintaining control. Wendelstedt says that he, like his father, had to “earn his spurs, so to speak,” standing tall against players and coaches challenging his calls. He recalls that at one of Harry’s games, “[NBA player] Charles Barkley came into the umpires’ locker room, and after all the introductions and pleasantries were done, my old man said, ‘You know what. I’ve watched you and I’m a big fan. But you sure do give those NBA refs a lot of trouble.’ Barkley looked back at him and said, ‘Harry, I only give trouble to the ones that will take it.’”
Wendelstedt has always kept that in mind as players and managers test his limits. “There is a line there with me that up until that point, I’m going to be real fair. Once you cross that line, you’re going to be gone. As an umpire, we have the hammer. But if you use it too much, you’re going to crack your thumb.”
Umpiring, he says, is also about being willing to make sacrifices. “If you’re the umpire calling t-ball, you’re not getting paid. You’re sacrificing your time for the love of the game. If you’re the one doing college, you are getting paid; you’re sacrificing all of your weekends during baseball season to help the greatest game in the world. As for me,” Wendelstedt says, “I’m sacrificing time with my loved ones, my family.” Major-league umpires spend almost half the year on the road, calling the three-game series teams play in the cities that are home to the 30 Major League Baseball franchises.
“We get certain weeks off throughout the year to come home and live a normal life, but usually, every three days we’re doing the same thing. It’s Groundhog Day for us. We’re checking out of the hotel, dropping off the rental car. Jump on a flight, take a nap, go work the game and two days later, we’re doing the same thing. I could be in Seattle on Monday and New York on Thursday and back in L.A. Sunday night.”
This is where having a strong family helps. Wendelstedt has a family of sorts in the crew he travels and calls games with, but says, “For every umpire, there has to be a strong influence at home, because this is where it all starts, right here. I’m lucky that I have Katherine. She is my support system that keeps everything going. The hardest thing is being away from home when something goes haywire. Every umpire has the same story. We’ll leave; it never fails. Two days out and you know you’re not going to be home for another 10 days, and the toilet overflows. It’s just something else that gets thrown on the wives.”
A Dangerous Game
Baseball presents dangers beyond those presented by clashes with players, coaches and fans. Just being on the field can be hazardous to one’s health. Wendelstedt explains, “You know going into the season that you’re going to get hurt at some point. Bats are breaking at record levels now. Getting hit by a 100-mile-an-hour fastball—that’s not fun.”
Developing an “umpire’s instinct” is part of learning the craft, but it requires one to override one’s natural instinct. “It’s human nature, when there’s a projectile coming towards you, you’re going to want to flinch or get out of the way,” Wendelstedt says. “But the worst thing an umpire can do is turn. All the equipment is placed on the body to protect you in the front. By turning, you expose yourself to serious injury.” He says that despite training and experience, “You hope and pray it’s going to hit your shin guard or chest protector or even your mask and not the bare part. But for some reason, it always finds the elbow or the arm where you don’t have protection.”
Bringing It Home
While it’s difficult for everyone in Wendelstedt’s life during the baseball season, he is blessed with having almost unlimited time with them during the off-season. He gets to enjoy Saints games (as well as his Gators) and LSU games with his in-laws. He spends every day with daughters Bridgette and Haley. “I drive them to school every morning, and I pick them up from school every afternoon,” and makes up for the time away from wife Katherine. What does it take to be the wife of an umpire? “It takes a special woman. You have to have a lot of trust, you have to have a lot of faith and you just have to look at the big picture,” he says.
It can be tough, being in a profession that gives little recognition for the 99 percent of the time he’s right. “Controversy sells. Every single picture, it’s always me yelling at someone or someone yelling at me that comes up first on Google,” Wendelstedt says, adding, “I tell my wife, if you see me leading off Sports Center, just go ahead and turn the TV off. It’s not because they’re going to say, ‘Hunter Wendelstedt did a fine job tonight.’ Nothing good has happened if you see an umpire on Sports Center.
“What’s the old saying?—‘Baseball has been berry berry good to me?’” he says, putting on the comedic accent that made the phrase famous. “It really has.” It’s allowed many memorable experiences, among them a trip to China and Japan in 2008 to call a series of games in each country before the Summer Olympics that year. “It was great seeing things you’ve only read about. The Great Wall, Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in China; it was really interesting. To see the differences between China and Japan was amazing.”
His baseball career also allows him to keep his home base in his adopted state. He’s only one flight away from most cities in the country, and says, “I’m living in Louisiana, a place that I love. I’m sending my children to good schools; they’re going to get a quality education.
“My wife asked me if I had any regrets—do I ever want to go back to Florida? And I told her heck no! But I’m lucky to get to go back to Florida for umpire school and spring training and see my friends each year. I love Louisiana. It’s great. You will never get me out of here.”Filed under: May-June 2011, St. Tammany Life, Travel