Anyone who has ever been to a Williams-Amherst sporting event knows the unadulterated hatred and rage that one bad call can incite. As Chris Conroy explained to a packed crowd in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on Thursday evening, that’s nothing compared to the stakes for an umpire in Major League Baseball (MLB).
For the past 12 years, Conroy, who grew up in Williamstown, Mass., and served as the captain of the Mount Greylock High School baseball and basketball teams, has been pursuing his dream of becoming an MLB umpire. After making calls in nearly every game he could get his hands on at the Williamstown Youth Center, he decided to try his luck in the big leagues.
“I don’t have any one grand moment when I knew I wanted to be a big league umpire,” Conroy said. The decision was instead prompted by conversations with older generations who encouraged him to pursue his ambition, which conveniently played to his personality. “I always liked being at the center of the action,” he said. “I like that I have some responsibility for the enforcement of the rules and the legitimacy of the game.”
Determined to make the cut in the majors, Conroy committed to umpire school, a five-week training program through which umpires begin their careers. Out of each class of graduates, roughly only the top 10 percent break into professional baseball.
Umpire schools “have military undertones to them,” Conroy said. “There’s not much individuality. They line you up. Everyone is wearing the same thing. Instructors yell at you for a few weeks. It’s a taste of what you’ll get in the big leagues.”
Conroy initially missed the cut for the pros in 1999, but that all changed on one fateful Saturday in the summer of 2000. Conroy received a phone call telling him he was needed in New York by Monday because he was set to umpire a game on Thursday. He told Becky Logue ’99, his girlfriend at the time and eventual wife, about the opportunity. Conroy admitted that while he has to do all the travel, Logue has to raise the children: “I have the easy job,” he joked.
But being an umpire is not easy either: Conroy began working in the rookie league on July 13, 2000, and officiated his first MLB game on Sept. 29, 2010. Meanwhile he worked in each of the six rungs of minor league baseball and even spent a summer in Venezuela working winter ball in a highly contentious environment.
“Everything comes flying at you for calls that people don’t like [in Venezuela],” Conroy said. “Once we pulled a team out of the field because the outfielders were getting things thrown at them. They finished the final three innings of the game with their batting helmets on because we didn’t know what to expect.”
Despite his difficult experiences abroad – Conroy also found out his wife was pregnant two weeks prior to his departure – he can now appreciate that time: “I know that if I didn’t do winter ball, I would not be standing where I am today,” he said. “I can joke about it and being away, but I can’t badmouth it because it got me here.”
Conroy quickly rose through the ranks as an umpire. In the 2010 season, he worked five MLB games; in 2011, he worked 78. Conroy has been named to the rover list of MLB umpires, an elite list of eight umpires who are the first backups if one of the 68 full-time umpires is unable to make a game. According to official umpire ranking systems, Conroy makes accurate calls about 96 percent of the time.
As a replacement umpire, Conroy’s calls are always under the microscope. “You have to reestablish yourself at every level,” he said. While most AAA players know and respect Conroy, in each MLB game, he faces a great deal of scrutiny.
After one MLB game with some tough calls, Conroy’s supervisor joked with him: “Don’t worry. Eight more years and then they’ll start believing you.”
As a true New Englander, Conroy was a Red Sox fan growing up, but he no longer maintains that allegiance. “Certainly I will say that doing the job for the past 12 years has sucked the fan out of me,” Conroy said. “Frankly, you can’t be a fan anymore. Things happen so quickly. I don’t have time to think about who is there. I’m scared to death of being wrong.”
Conroy’s fear is justified. With today’s megatron screens frequently looping replays of difficult calls, Conroy has 50,000 critics on every decision. It’s impossible to get everything right, but Conroy has a special metric to determine if he made a good call: “If you don’t hear the crowd yelling in uproar 20 or 30 seconds later, you got it right,” he said.
While the pressure is always on, Conroy thinks it’s all worth it. “Even if I had only worked my first game in the MLB, those 11 years would have been worth it to walk on that field,” he said. “I have the best job in the world.”