Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips
Toby Basner, a Brookwood High School graduate, umpires along the third base line during a Gwinnett Braves game against the Norfolk Tides recently.
For seven years, Toby Basner really hasn’t had a home. He says he lives in Snellville, but it’s a house shared with his brother and two friends. He really lives on the roads and skies between the small cities that dot the United States.
He started in Florida, was promoted to towns like Danville, Va., and Greenville, S.C. Then it was trips between Rome and Lexington, Ky. Another job advancement returned him to the Carolinas and he then spent two years canvassing Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama. He spent a few winters in the Dominican Republic and last year traveled the West coast from Memphis to Portland to Colorado and New Mexico.
The Brookwood graduate now traipses up and down the East Coast from Buffalo to Durham, N.C., Louisville, Norfolk, Va., and near his home in Lawrenceville.
He spends his days traveling or killing time and his nights dressed in blue, focused on baseball.
“We are constantly on the road,” said the seven-year umpiring veteran, who is calling Gwinnett Braves games this weekend at Coolray Field. “We never really have a home.
“I can step back and look that I am making a living being on a baseball field every day. I am completely satisfied with that. I have always enjoyed doing what I am doing. That is the main thing in life: Be happy with who you are and what you are doing.”
A blue from the start
Basner started umpiring long before he considered any career.
His father, Alan, booked umpires at Bethesda Park and started sending his son out to call games at age 12.
“I just did it for extra money at the time,” Toby Basner said. “My dad was always umpiring. That would be my greatest influence.”
Alan Basner began umpiring 25 years ago and continues to call games as high as the college level. He’s umpired enough games that he doesn’t even watch the players when he sits in the stands, especially when his son is on the field.
“As an umpire you stop watching the players,” Alan Basner said. “You just watch the umpires. It is such an integral part of the game. The umpires are such a part of keeping it a gentlemen’s game. And I love watching (Toby).”
As a father, mentor and booking agent for a time, Alan Basner was on the field as his son grew from a 12-year-old with knowledge and “good judgment” into a high school and college umpire. And now Alan can only watch as Toby makes a career out of a pre-teen’s first job.
“I did his first high school game with him,” Alan Basner remembers. “Quite a few college games with him, too. I love every minute of it.
“I don’t get to get out there with him any more. They don’t let me.”
Young Toby Basner also played a little baseball. The lefty dabbled in pitching when he wasn’t in center field. At Brookwood he was “very active,” playing football, basketball and baseball. He briefly hoped to pursue baseball beyond high school.
“I didn’t really have everything in order in my life,” he said of his high school years. “I have definitely straightened up a lot since then. I have always known I wanted to be involved in baseball.”
Just like the players
Toby Basner quickly points out the differences (no signing bonuses, home parks or rookie call-ups), but an umpire’s path to the big leagues closely mirrors the players they monitor.
The good ones are plucked out of school and sent to rookie leagues. From there they make the climb through the minor leagues. There are short season leagues, Class A, AA then AAA. In AAA, a select few get a “number.” It’s like a player making the 40-man roster. If a big-league ump can’t call a game, one of the minor-league guys gets a call-up for a spot start. And then it’s on to the show.
Every step, guys are weeded out. Every level sees its own attrition.
Basner enrolled in the six-week Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires in Ormond Beach, Fla., when he was 19. He made the cut and attended the evaluation course hosted by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp.
But he only made the reserve list after the first round of jobs were dealt. People always fall out and the Gulf Coast League quickly plucked Basner from the reserves. Six years later, he was in Class AAA.
The next step is getting a number. They are assigned each year during spring training, just like roster spots.
After a year in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, Basner moved over to the International League. He attempts an ambivalent tone when discussing his move to the East Coast centered league, but he recognizes opportunities when he sees them.
“I am kind of indifferent to the IL decision,” the 25-year-old said. “There are more major league teams on the East Coast than the West Coast. Hopefully in a year or two down the road I can start working up and down in the big leagues.”
Just like the players, the only goal is the big leagues. It’s where the best players, and umpires, work.
Knowledge vs. perception
There is a reason umpires use the word “work” to describe their craft.
For the guys with bats and gloves, baseball is a job they play. Umpiring is work beginning long before anyone shouts “play ball.” Learning to understand the intricate baseball rulebook is a job never finished. Rules change. In 100-plus nine-inning games each season, unimaginable situations arise. The rulebook has notes and subsections and comments.
“I am in the rulebook almost every day during the season,” Basner said. “Even if there are plays that don’t develop, I am in the field thinking, ‘If this would happen, what’s the ruling on it?’ I always try to keep it as fresh as I can. In umpire school you go through the whole rulebook and I thought I knew the whole rulebook and I didn’t.”
Basner considers ruling and situations during his free time before games and he reviews other supplemental manuals as well. Not knowing a rule is an embarrassment he won’t suffer.
“That is one thing we should be 100 percent on,” he said of the rulebook. “We can miss a call, but if you miss a rule, that is something you can definitely prevent.”
Bad calls happen.
“I am far from perfect and I am far from perfect on a baseball field,” Basner said.
Watch enough baseball and a missed call pops up. With slow motion and high definition, catching an umpire’s error made with one look, at full speed, is easy. For umpires, calls are as much a matter of perception and an appearance of conviction as they are right and wrong.
“I am going to be confident with my call all of the time,” Basner said. “I am always going to act like I am confident. A manager with a lot of experience will come out there and if he knows you are not 100 percent on the call he is going to take that and run with it. If I miss a call, I will know I missed it. I am not going to tell a manager I missed it.”
There is a reason we attach words like respected, experienced and grizzled to major league umpires. They fit.
Umpires in the big leagues worked their way there. It’s their career and they are at the top of the profession. The best, as Basner has done, rise quickly. But at each level they learn by doing. Getting to the big leagues for umpires mirrors the path laid for players, but there are no shortcuts. No umpire breaks spring training in the big leagues in his first or second year. No No. 1 draft picks immediately make their mark in the show.
“There is only so much they can really teach us and we have to go out there and get thrown in the fire,” Basner said. “They do drills in umpire school, but that’s about it. They teach us small things.”
There is no class for what a 21-year-old Basner saw in the Dominican Republic.
He had just finished his first season in A-ball and was a surprise selection to work in the winter leagues. It was a big career opportunity, calling games with older crews and dealing with major league players. He was learning Spanish on the fly and living in a foreign country for the first time.
One game, with a crowd of about 25,000, Basner remembers, the benches cleared.
“People were throwing rocks and pipes and bottles,” Basner said. “It was a riot, an absolute riot. It was completely insane the way it blew up like that.”
Fights were popping up in different parts of the field, according to Basner, and he just did his best to stay safe.
“I am not going to get in between two 6-4 guys going at it,” he said. “You guys can settle your problems. I was just bouncing around. My mouth must have been dragging on the field.”
Living those moments makes umpires immune to surprise. Every game teaches them how to act when tempers rise. Every discussion at the plate or disagreement in the field gives the umpires practice in ending confrontations and earning managers’ and players’ respect.
Respect is all Basner wants.
“If they don’t want to treat me with respect then I won’t deal with them that way,” he said. “You are going to get your confrontations and you are going to deal with them. If (anyone) is going to sit there and yell at you, I am not going to argue. I’ll just throw you out of the game.”