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A different kind of dream come true
Brookwood grad working hard behind home plate

PEARL, Miss. - Like Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann, Toby Basner's baseball dreams started early on the Gwinnett County sandlots.

Basner, however, didn't envision himself someday wearing the uniform of his hometown Atlanta Braves and smashing home runs out of major league stadiums.

No, the Lawrenceville resident had a different dream, although one equally difficult to achieve.

Basner didn't want to throw or hit pitches in the big leagues, he wanted to call them.

All it took was one game as a fill-in umpire at Bethesda Park in Lawrenceville when he was 12 years old. The players were two or three years younger.

"I just felt at home and comfortable," Basner said. "I think right then I knew that it was something I wanted to do."

If Basner makes it to the majors, he won't be cheered like Braves heroes Francoeur and McCann. Umpires are booed or ignored.

But for Basner, it will be just as much of a dream come true.

"To make it, even for one game," he said, "I can't believe how great that would be and how much it would mean to me."

Don't bet against him.

Still just 22, the Brookwood High School graduate is the youngest umpire in the Class AA Southern League, two rungs below the majors.

That's the same league Francoeur and McCann - a year older than Basner - jumped to the Braves from in 2005.

Umpires require a longer apprenticeship in the minors than players, but there is no question that Basner, who turns 23 July 29, is a hot prospect in his own right.

Despite his age and limited professional experience, Basner was selected to work the Southern League All-Star Game this past Monday at Trustmark Park outside Jackson, Miss.

It's the same stadium - known as the TeePee - that Francoeur and McCann performed in for the Mississippi Braves before being called up directly to Atlanta.

Basner made it to the Southern League as quickly as Francouer and McCann, doing it in just his fourth season. But he knows this is where things likely will slow down. His next promotion, when it comes, will be to Class AAA.

"You don't see 25-year-old umpires in the majors," he said.

No, you don't.

"Once umpires make the major leagues, they can be there forever," said Southern League president Don Mincher, a former big league slugger. "Umpires in the minors have to wait in line."

Major league umpire Paul Nauert, who lives in Lawrenceville after growing up in Louisville, had to wait 11 years before he got his first shot in 1999. He was 36 by then.

Basner got a much earlier start. But that doesn't mean the wait will be shorter, and the odds are just as stacked against him.

The attrition rate for umpires in the minors is even greater than for players.

"Good, young umpires like Toby have to be patient," Mincher said. "But once he makes it, he will be in the majors for a long time."

Umpires don't lose their skills in their late 30s. Of course, they don't usually get a major league opportunity until they're in their early 30s.

"I guess I've always kind of grown up fast," Basner said.

After making the varsity team at Brookwood as a sophomore, he turned away from playing to devote his time fully to umpiring.

When he graduated from high school, Basner worked to save money and paid his way through umpiring school. Two cuts later, he was in the minor leagues at age 19.

After two seasons in rookie ball, he made it to Class A last season and made the big jump to Class AA this year.

"I don't think of myself as the youngest," Basner said. "It's how you perform, and I think I act older anyway."

Basner's two regular partners on his three-man crew are 29 and 30. Both are married. Basner is single and knows he needs to try to stay that way for a while.

Pay for an umpire in the minors is meager - $2,200 to $2,400 per month plus $27 per diem in Class AA - and the season is a five-month road trip.

"I had a girlfriend my first year, but it was hard," Basner said. "We could never see each other."

As the rookie in his crew, Basner has to drive the minivan the Southern League supplies for travel in the 10-team league, which has franchises in Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and Mississippi.

Basner works out three times a week and tries to play as much golf as he can, but it can get boring away from the ballpark. The motel rooms paid for by the league are obviously not luxurious.

"My parents and friends sometimes come to see me when I'm in Chattanooga or Birmingham," he said. "And I did get home for one day."

Basner was also away much of the winter, umpiring in the Dominican Republic. Working there is always an experience, no matter how much experience you have.

"One game, the fans tried to join a brawl and stormed the field," Basner said. "Things finally got calmed down, but it was scary for a while."

Umpiring in the minors is a little more tame but certainly not boring. At least Basner wasn't working in Chattanooga when Mississippi manager Phillip Wellman threw his highly publicized tantrum, which immediately made YouTube and then national telecasts.

Basner says he knew what he was getting into. His father, Allan, is a long-time amateur umpire and booking agent. The two have called numerous college, as well as high school, games together.

"I think he was about 15 when I knew he was really serious about umpiring," the father said. "He's really a natural at it."

Toby showed how serious he was about his chosen career path by saving to pay his own way through umpire school.

"He knew what he wanted to do, and he was determined to get there," Allan said.

If Basner can make it to the majors, there will be financial rewards to compensate the lean pay in the minors. Yearly salaries start at $90,000 and go to $350,000.

"But I'm not in it for the money," Basner said. "I don't think any umpire is."

Does he have a timetable for reaching the majors?

"Right now, not at all," he said. "But I'm not a quitter."

His father says he might have given pro ball a try if he had caught the umpiring bug earlier. His son certainly got no such late start.

"Sometimes I wonder if I could have made it as a player, at least in college," Toby said. "But I love umpiring. I don't regret a thing. This has been my dream."

SideBar: THE BASNER FILE

' Name: Toby Basner

' Age: 22

' Position: Umpire in Class AA Southern League, two rungs below the majors

' Size: 5-foot-10, 170 pounds

' Hometown: Lawrenceville

' High school: Brookwood

' Years in pro baseball: Four

' Past leagues: Rookie Gulf Coast League in 2004, rookie Appalachian League in 2005, Class A South Atlantic and Carolina Leagues in 2006

' Goal: To be a major league umpire

' Background: Began umpiring as a 12-year-old at Bethesda Park in Lawrenceville

' Family: Father, Allan; mother, Rhonda; brothers, Reed and Cory