I'm honored to have the opportunity to interview Hunter Wendelstedt for our first interview in this new feature.
Warren: This will be your tenth year in Major League Baseball. Looking back what are some of your favorite experiences?
Hunter: Every time I walk onto the field, I still get excited. I enjoy being a part of a game that I love and being able to have such a close seat. It is a wonderful time. Some of my most memorable experiences have been my times in the playoffs, both the Division Series and League Championship Series. I also enjoyed being offered the opportunity to umpire the Opening Series for 2008 in Japan and the MLB China Series. It is a terrific opportunity when we are offered these types of special events. Of course, my favorite experience of all time would have to be the incredible opportunity to work with my father in a Major League game. It is the only time in history that a father and son have worked a Major League game together, and it stands out in my mind as the most memorable moment of my career.
Warren: You mentioned that last March you had the distinction of going to China for the first ever MLB games played in China in the stadium which was later used for the Olympics. Tell us how did you earn the opportunity to get those games? And tell us a little about your experience in China.
Hunter: Japan and China were wonderful experiences. Major League Baseball determines the umpires that are selected to be put on that main stage. It was an honor to be selected to work there. The entire event was great. All of the people there were very inviting. During our off days, we were able to visit tourist spots like the Imperial Palace and the Great Wall of China.
Warren: Did you get to meet and work with and/or instruct the umpires from the China Baseball Association?
Hunter: We met both umpires in China and Japan. We worked with several Asian umpires during exhibition games. It was a terrific experience, and they all did a great job. Our umpire school has a working relationship with these umpires already, so I knew several people that we worked with. There was no instructional period, though our school will be hosting a clinic in Tokyo at the end of the year.
Warren: Many amateur umpires are equipment junkies. What is your preferred equipment?
Hunter: Well, Wilson is our official supplier but there are a lot of very good equipment companies and dealers out there. The important thing is that each umpire finds what they think is best. No umpire's body is the same as the other and one chest protector might fit more comfortably on one than it would the other. The same thing goes with masks, shin guards, etc.
Warren: Being the son of the legendary Harry Wendelstedt I think would have two possible outcomes: 1, some doors being opened for you; 2, the bar being set higher, as people's expectations are set higher actually making it harder for you. Which do you feel is more accurate?
Hunter: Both. Absolutely, it is a certainty that more people may have looked at me during my career but with those looks came more scrutiny. I had to prove myself just that much more and throughout my Minor League career I was always compared to my dad. It is hard to be compared to a future Hall of Fame umpire but I have never looked at it that way personally. I just have always gone out and worked hard and be myself. I let my work do my talking for me.
Warren: Other than your father, what umpires influenced you the most?
Hunter: There are so many. I have grown up with umpires like Randy Marsh, Bruce Froemming, Lee Weyer, Dutch Rennert, Paul Runge. The list goes on and on. I was fortunate to be able to work with Marsh and Froemming in the past, and their guidance on the field has been tremendous.
Warren: You have a pretty unique perspective of amateur umpires through the Harry Wendelstedt Umpires School. What are a few of the more common mistakes or bad habits you see people come in to the school with that an umpire could correct easily at home?
Hunter: The habits they come in with aren't necessarily "bad", they're just not what we teach. We teach the way we do for a couple of reasons. The first is that we are able to grade everyone on the same standard. If we had everyone doing their own thing, it would become very, very subjective. The second reason is that we believe that this is the best way to teach umpires. Basically, our teaching system and methods have remained consistent for more than 50 years. This has obviously worked, because our success rate is much higher than all other programs in history, combined.
Warren: What would be your number one tip for working the plate?
Hunter: There are a few things. No matter what the stance an umpire works, it is important to have proper head height, get positioned well in the slot, track the pitch all the way into the glove, and the timing that is used in calling pitches should all remain the same. Those are all equally as important.
Warren: What would be your number one tip for working the bases?
Hunter: I would say timing. If you slow everything down, you will be able to replay the action in your head and then make the correct call. Too many umpires call plays as soon as they happen, sometimes even before they happen. The whole play has to end and then you should be able to say what the decision is in your head, before you make the call.
Warren: As both a Major League umpire and an instructor, what makes an umpire stand out from the crowd and be promoted quicker.
Hunter: Handling situations. The difference between a good AAA umpire and a Major League umpire is the ability to handle the situations that arise on the field. Most umpires at that level can call balls and strikes, safes and outs, fairs and fouls. It is the ability to diffuse a situation, attempt to keep people in the game, but eject when necessary.
Warren: All umpires have a best story which they love to tell about their umpiring experience, what is yours?
Hunter: I love to tell the story of my dad and myself working together in St. Louis for the first time in history. That is an experience that I am so proud of, and love to tell.
Warren: Do announcers who perpetuate rules myths bother you?
Hunter: They don't bother me because we all expect it. There is always going to be the guy that sees an umpire signal Spectator Interference, but then gets very upset that the umpire awarded three bases because he is certain that the umpire gave the Ground Rule Double sign. What I appreciate the most is when an announcer, even if they have to say something on air, checks with us later about a ruling. If they misspoke, then go on air again and correct it, I have no problem. It is the announcers that just spout off rulings that they know nothing about, and make no effort to get it right.
Warren: What is your favorite park to work, including MiLB?
Hunter: I love going to San Diego and San Francisco. Both of those cities are great. But there is nothing like going to the historic ballparks like Fenway or Wrigley.
Warren: When you're not working can you still sit down and enjoy watching a game, or are you paying more attention to the umpires and what they're doing?
Hunter: I still love watching baseball. It is a great game but your loyalties change a little bit after you become an umpire. I still like to see great plays on the field but I am always looking to see the positioning of the umpires, their timing, the rotations, etc.
Warren: Do big league managers still believe many of the rules myths that we, as amateurs, have to hear all of the time?
Hunter: Some do. For the most part though, managers are very well versed on the rules. Actually, they tend to know the most obscure rules out there because they studied it the night before while they were on the plane, or something, but they have no idea that they may elect to take the results of the play if the penalty for catcher's interference is enforced. They miss opportunities like this. Also, though batting out of order doesn't happen that often in the Big Leagues, when it does, it is usually brought to our attention too early. When we tell them that they won't be getting an out, but instead, will just bring up the proper batter to assume the count, they say, "No, no, no. I'll just wait until he finishes his at-bat." But, of course, we can't. Once they bring it to our attention, we have to correct the mistake.
Warren: In this example with catchers interference; at the Major League level do you offer the option to managers or not? Would the answer change at the amateur level?
Hunter: I don't think that my answer changes from one to the other. This gets into "coaching" the teams. Even though they probably don't the players and coaches are required to know the rules, too. We are not supposed to tell them what they can do, only allow them to make the decision on their own. However, that doesn't mean that a reasonable question can't be given a reasonable answer. And remember, some of their questions won't have that question mark at the end of it. It may just be a statement like, "Hunter, there's got to be a way I can get that run."
My reply would be, "Why yes there is," and then wait. If he asks how that is, I tell him. If not, too bad.
Warren: Tell us some of the differences between the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School and the other major school (Jim Evans Academy)?
Hunter: There are several differences that I think are substantial. Our staff is comprised of both umpires from every level of the Minor Leagues and the Major Leagues. I am proud to announce that all of our AAA umpires were sent to the Arizona Fall League and all seven have also received full schedules for this year's Major League Spring Training. Though we have many Major League umpires on staff, our Minor League staff is the cream of the crop. These are going to be the guys that get the next Big League jobs. I credit this to my dad's ability to recognize umpiring talent. He still makes the decisions as who to newly hire on our staff each year.
Consistently, these umpires have gone on to become Major League umpires. Currently, we have 12 full time Major League umpires on staff. Though it is important to have a competent Minor League staff to keep our school abreast of the new things coming out of there, there is nothing that can replace the experience of our Major League instructors. These aren't guys that don't deal with only four-man mechanics. Remember, they teach the Two-Man System every year. They know what they're doing and the system that they teach is one that was designed by my dad. No other program in history can boast the extensive staff that we have. Our nearest competitor's staff is mainly composed of first and second year umpires, who, though may be good umpires, do not have the experience to make them as good of instructors.
Another difference is our teaching methods. Though we have controlled situations (with an instructor holding the bat), daily drills, continual cage work, and camp games, we are the only school that uses live games played by college and high school teams in its curriculum. This is important, not only because it offers the students live game experience but because it is also the only thing that is used at the PBUC placement camp to determine starting leagues and levels of entry umpires. Our students are better prepared for this evaluation than a school that only offers simulated situations. Finally, the results speak for them self. Our school has produced more professional umpires and more Major League umpires, than all other programs in history combined. Since the inception of our newest competitor's first umpire to reach the Major Leagues, our numbers more than double that of theirs. With well over one hundred Major League umpires produced, our nearest competitor doesn't even come close with their less than a handful.
Though statistics can often be skewed, these are hard to move. In fact, they claim that their senior instructor has trained or supervised a large number of the current Major League staff. What they fail to say is that the vast majority of the MLB umpires trained by him were while he was an apprentice instructor with our school.
Warren: What should an umpire considering attending the school know before heading down there?
Hunter: Just work hard. No matter what you've learned in the past, we promise it won't be the same as what you will learn here. Also, knowing the rules is important, but it is more important to be able to apply them on the field. Don't study the rulebook looking for knotty problems; instead, learn the basic concepts that we teach you and you will be able to solve any rhubarb that comes your way. Just taking it step-by-step.
Warren: Your website mentions "The Wendelstedt Rules and Mechanics Manual." Tell us about that and when that will be available.
Hunter: We've already published it. However, the updated version will be coming out by the middle of February. This is necessary as professional baseball makes changes to either the rules or its interpretations. They recently made some changes that we must adjust to. It will be available with the rest of our new product line, at our newly designed website. The new site and product line will be available following the completion of this year's course.
Warren: Your website also talks about "The Wendelstedt Umpire School 2009 Clinic Circuit." What can someone expect from the circuit? Will it be staffed by your regular 5 week staff? Which locations will the circuit be hitting? Will you be changing the locations next year?
Hunter: Our new schedule will be posted with our new website as well. Each clinic will include members of our regular staff, as well as local clinicians and other professional umpires. This upcoming year, we will be traveling to West Virginia, Missouri, California, Vancouver, Hawaii, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Japan. If local umpires, groups, or associations are interested in having a clinic hosted in their area, they are free to contact the school at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also with our new website, we will offer potential students a wonderful opportunity for a non-profit organization called The Umpire Education Tuition Assistance Program. This independent organization will offer students need-based grants between $250.00 and $2800.00.
Warren: Hunter thank you very much for your time. Have a great season and we'll be looking for #21 out there