For those who have followed the Wild Things during their 18 years in the Frontier League, the names of the players are familiar. Guys such as Josh Loggins, Aaron Ledbetter, Mike Arbinger and James Harris left their marks on baseball in Washington, though none of them was here for more than three seasons.
Frontier League Hall of Famer and Cecil native Chris Sidick played for Washington longer than any player, seven seasons. But eight years pales in comparison to some people who have been on the field at Wild Things Park during all 18 seasons, trying to remain anonymous.
Ron Whiting Sr., Jim Schaly, Mike Shields, Sal Giacomantonio and Mike Martin have been making treks to Wild Things Park each summer since 2002. They are members of the Frontier League’s group of umpires.
“We have some umpires who have been with us for two decades. It’s one of the unique things that make this league special,” says Steve Tahsler, the Frontier League’s deputy commissioner. “You have managers and front office staff who have loyalty to the league, and so do umpires. That stability helps build the league’s reputation when brining in young umpires.”
Who are these guys?
The Frontier League is a developmental league for players 27 years old and younger who either went undrafted out of college or were given a quick release from major league farm systems. Players want to beat the odds and go from the Frontier League to the majors, just like St. Louis outfielder Jose Martinez or Cincinnati pitcher Tanner Roark.
Though a developmental league for players, the Frontier League is a mixed bag for umpires. Two of the 64 umpires on the roster, Schaly and Mike Fichter, have beaten the odds. Schaly was a replacement umpire in the American League for 10 days during the umpires’ strike in 1995, and Fichter spent six years in the majors, calling 557 games.
“We’ve found that we’ve had better luck with the older, more experienced umpire, one who knows how to defuse situations,” says Steve Tahsler, the Frontier League’s deputy commissioner. “We have young guys, too, who were recommended by the older umpires.”
Some umpires have been with the Frontier League for a decade or more. Others are younger umpires who hope to someday make the major leagues. Many are former umpires in the affiliated minor leagues who saw the difficulty of moving up the ranks and quit for a more promising occupation while doing umpiring as a second job.
“When Bill Clinton was president, during his two terms, he appointed more Supreme Court justices than Major League Baseball promoted umpires to the big leagues,” said Brian Miller, a Frontier League umpire from Lakewood, Ohio.
Miller, 35, spent five years as a minor league umpire, advancing to the Class AA Eastern League.
“I remember sitting in Erie in 2014 saying to myself that I didn’t want to do this anymore. In the Eastern League, you get 11 off days all season and you spend some of those driving. They did a good job of scheduling, moving your crew on to the next town, but that league goes from Portland, Me., to Akron, Ohio, to Richmond, Va. You might spend an off day driving from Portland to Richmond.”
The Frontier League is similar to Class A in that it uses two-man umpiring crews. With the league down to 10 teams, only 10 umpires are needed each night. According to Deron Brown, the supervisor of umpires since 2012, only a half-dozen umpires work games in every league city. Most limit their travel to two or three cities. Umpires are limited to working no more than 12 games in any ballpark each season.
Still, the miles add up. The two closest opponents to the Wild Things are the Lake Erie Crushers in Avon, Ohio, which is 175 miles away, and the Florence Freedom in northern Kentucky, 272 miles from Washington.
“Umpiring is a hard life,” Tahsler said, “but these guys are used to it. It’s second nature to them. The umpire really never has a home game.”
All Frontier League umpires work college baseball, where the pay has significantly increased over the past decade. Not so in the Frontier League, where an umpire typically nets less than $200, including travel reimbursement, for one game. He will get motel accommodations, when needed.
“Nobody says they want to umpire in the Frontier League to get rich,” Miller says. “It’s the camaraderie, with the other umpires and the players, that keeps you in this.”
There are two former Frontier League umpires currently in the major leagues. Tripp Gibson has been there since 2013. John Tumpane is in his 10th season and gained national attention in 2017 when he helped prevent a woman from leaping off the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. Gibson and Tumpagne have umpired major league postseason games.
Brown said the secret to being a good umpire in the Frontier League involves more than just getting each call correct.
“People who are really good umpires not only have to get it right, they also must know how to handle people,” he said while in Indiana scouting potential umpires for next season. “There are a lot of guys who can handle balls and strikes and safe and out. But to be good in this league, you have to be able to handle a manager or player who is upset about a call. The umpire has to keep his composure. Guys don’t make it to this level is they can’t handle people.”
That might be one of the reasons loud, animated arguments between managers and umpires are rare in the Frontier League.
“Honestly, we don’t have many issues at all, other than a close play or a discussion thing,” Tahsler said. “Part of that is the people and quality of the umpires we have.”
So, who are the umpires in the Frontier League? What kind of experience do they have? How long have they been in the league?
Though such statistics are not kept, it’s safe to say that nobody has umpired more Frontier League games at Wild Things Park than Ron Whiting.
A Fairmont, W.Va., resident, Whiting wanted to be a major league player. As a speedy center fielder who loved to hit the fastball, Whiting was good enough to be invited to minor league spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1983.
“I was about 6-2, maybe 165 pounds,” Whiting recalls. “I get a roommate, and he’s 6-3 and 235 pounds, only 19 years old and also an outfielder. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name was Bobby Bonilla.”
Whiting said he knew then that his time in the Pirates’ farm system would be short. It was. He was released after 23 days.
Before returning from Bradenton, Fla., and figuring out what his life’s work would be, Whiting received a phone call from a friend. “Do you want to get into coaching?” the voice said. The next day, Whiting had a college coaching job. By the age of 27, he was the head coach at his alma mater, Fairmont State. He had the job for 10 years.
“I resigned in 1996. My record at Fairmont State was 200-200,” he said proudly.
That’s not half bad when you consider Whiting’s teams played at the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels without the benefit of a single athletic scholarship.
After coaching, Whiting turned to umpiring as a way to stay involved in the game. He has called balls and strikes in the Frontier League for all but one of its 27 seasons.
The 60-year-old Whiting says his strength is what Brown and the league put emphasis on – he’s a people person.
“I’ve been blessed with not a lot of stuff happening in games I’ve umpired,” Whiting said in the cramped umpires room at Wild Things Park before working a game with Mark Schmidt of Robinson Township.
“Some people say I bring a calmness to games. There are some umpires who only want to show up and call ball, strike, safe, out. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I like to interact with the players. The camaraderie of being around the other umpires and the players is what makes me want to keep doing this.”
Nate Caldwell knows every inch of Wild Things Park. He used to roam it as a member of the cleanup crew when he was a senior at Trinity High School.
“I came full circle with this place,” Caldwell said. “My goal back then was to come back in a few years as an umpire.”
The 33-year-old Caldwell has made the transition. And for him, umpiring is more than a side job. Caldwell umpires college baseball, the Frontier League and the Atlantic League, which is considered the top independent league.
“I’m just a baseball guy,” Caldwell said. “I have a 2017 Jeep and it already has 71,000 miles on it. I make the trek around the Atlantic League. I might work three days in York, four in Lancaster, three at Southern Maryland. I’m even going to High Point (N.C.).”
Washington, however, is home base for Caldwell, who started in the Frontier League in 2009. He went to the Harry Wendelstedt umpire school in 2007 and again in 2012. Along the way, he spent three years in the minor leagues, the last in the Class A Midwest League.
“The first full season in the minors broke me,” Caldwell said. “My last year, in the Midwest League, I was getting married that year and I could see the writing on the wall. I knew I had to decide if I wanted a wife and life or continue to chase this pipedream of umpiring in the major leagues, so I came back to the Frontier League.”
Chances are you can catch Miller on television this fall, if you like watching soccer.
Miller umpires in the Frontier League, but in the fall he is one of college soccer’s top officials. He has even worked the NCAA Final Four.
It’s an odd combination, but Miller has his parents to credit for his occupation.
“In 1998, when I was a teenager, my parents told me I had to get a job,” Miller recalled. “I saw there was a class on soccer refereeing being offered, so I took it and made a little money at that. The next June, there was a baseball umpiring class, so I took that too and have been at it ever since.
“In 2010, I couldn’t get it out of my head that maybe I could be a major league umpire. I didn’t want to be 60 years old and watching a baseball game and saying I could have been a major league umpire if I hadn’t given up on myself.”
So Miller went off to the Jim Evans Academy for Professional Umpiring and spent five years in the minor leagues.
“I voluntarily retired from that,” Miller said. “I made it to Double-A but realized how hard it was to make it to the majors because there are so few jobs opening up.”
Nearly one third of the players who make it to Double-A eventually play in the majors. However, over the last 20 years, only eight percent of all minor-league umpires made it to the big leagues, with fewer than half of those getting full-time jobs.
“Being an umpire in the minor leagues is like being a player,” Miller said. “If you’re a third baseman in an organization with four good third basemen, then there’s not much chance for advancement. It’s that way for umpires.”
And when they quit or get forced out, the Frontier League becomes a viable option.
“I work 20 to 25 games a year,” said Miller, who joined the Frontier League in 2015. “It’s great that it’s not a full-time job so I can do all the things with my family that I missed out on while in affiliated ball.”
Though it’s not a full-time gig, the hours can be long and the rewards might be only a tip of the cap from a manager for a job well done, umpiring in the Frontier League has its allure.
“It beats any other day’s work,” Caldwell says. “Umpires have it pretty good. The best part is being on the field and the worst part is the travel and being away from your family. You do meet people and develop relationships that might last you outside of baseball.”