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ATLANTA — Will Little says it was just another baseball game, yet when he found himself standing behind third base at Camden Yards, he was admittedly excited.
Little, a 29-year-old Johnson City native, has been umpiring in the majors for the past couple of months. He’s one of 12 rovers, top minor-league umps called up to fill in for vacationing major-league full-timers. He has worked with five different crews.
“I’m just doing my job,” Little said before working a recent Braves game at Turner Field. “That’s kind of how you have to approach it each day. You can’t let the excitement get to you. You have to control all your feelings and emotions. I get butterflies every time I walk on the field, but as someone once put it to me, you try to get your butterflies in formation as soon as possible.”
It’s given him a taste of the big time, and it’s a taste he sure has been enjoying. With perks such as first-class flights everywhere, lobster in the locker room at Yankee Stadium and clubhouse attendants washing his uniforms and cleaning his shoes, it’s the kind of lifestyle a guy could get used to real quickly.
Little’s major-league debut came on June 24 in Baltimore. Three nights later, his first game behind the plate was a memorable one. He ejected Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado. He’s also ejected probable American League Cy Young Ward winner Max Scherzer, who wasn’t even in the game at the time.
“That’s not tough,” Little said of the ejections. “There are lines that are drawn for the most part, on the players’ side, the managers’ side. They know where the line is and the umpires know where the line is. They know when they decide to cross them it’s by choice and they know an ejection is gonna happen.”
To Little’s credit, both players he ejected ’fessed up to their crimes. Machado was asked if the ejection, his first ever, was justified.
“I think so,” Machado told the Baltimore Sun. “At least from my part.”
Scherzer, who leads the American League with a 17-1 record, was yelling at Little about a called strike three to Torii Hunter. Afterward, Scherzer admitted to barking, saying he wasn’t the only one.
“I was the one who spoke last,” he said on MLB.com.
Ejections are part of the game, Little says, but they can bring some unwanted attention to the umpires.
“We don’t want to be on ESPN,” Little said. “That’s not our goal. Our goal is to fly low the whole time. Unfortunately, when stuff is controversial, we know we’re gonna be there. Our goal is to go unnoticed.”
How tough is it to go unnoticed in front of 50,000 screaming fans?
“It’s not easy,” Little says.
Little went almost completely unnoticed during the recent game in Atlanta when he was working third base. Other than a subtle tip of the cap to a couple of friends in the stands just before the pregame meeting at home plate, Little was invisible. And that’s the way he likes it.
“Ultimately, we don’t want to be the center of attention,” he said.
There are only 68 full-time umpires in the major leagues, 17 four-man crews, so full-time jobs are tough to come by. With the reports of impending replay expansion, more umpiring jobs are expected to be added.
“I think I’m in a good position,” Little said. “You never know how close is close, though. Very few jobs open up at the major-league level. There’s only 68 of them and they all love what they do. There’s very few positions, and you never know if you’re gonna get one of them until they tell you. Up until that point, you just keep at it and go when called and do the best job you can do. And hope that it’s a good enough job.
“My ultimate goal is to make it full time.”
Toward that goal, Little has been watching every step he takes, whether it be on the field or between games. He wants to fit in and prove he belongs.
“In my position now, I don’t like to miss a call, period,” he said. “We don’t just say ‘Oh well, no big deal.’ It’s a big deal. Especially at the major league level, we do not want to miss a call. It irritates you. It bothers you. You try to deal with it the best you can. You lose some sleep over it and the next day, it stays with you. But you try to get it out of your head by the next day because you have another game coming. You’ve got to get it out of your head.”
Missed calls are part of the game. Umpires are graded on every call they make — balls and strikes as well as out-safe calls, and they know they can’t get every one right. They work in hope that they don’t change the outcome of a game with a call.
“We’re not gonna be right all the time. We know that,” Little said. “Unfortunately, when we’re wrong it gets highlighted. You have to learn to deal with that.
“We’re very honest people. That’s why we uphold the integrity of the game. We’re honest when we make calls. We’re honest off the field. We’re honest when we make mistakes.”
Little was behind the plate the night Alex Rodriguez returned to Yankees Stadium after his return from his injury. Rodriguez had been suspended for 211 games for his connection with drug lab that provided players with performance-enhancing drugs. He is eligible to play during his appeal and his home debut was a real circus.
“I’d like to think I’ve done this enough to not get caught up in any of that,” Little said. “Anything outside of our job requirements doesn’t really affect me. It’s certainly around us, but it doesn’t affect me. We see it and know it’s there. But it’s not tough to block that stuff out.”
Rodriguez struck out three times that night, once looking. A-Rod didn’t argue when Little rung him up.
Little enjoyed his experiences in New York — he worked a Mets series earlier — but, as usual, he was all business when discussing them.
“Everything is bigger up there, brighter, but the stage is the same in every city for us,” he said. “The same plays happen in New York that do in every major-league city. Me coming from a small town in Tennessee, being in New York City was cool. It’s a neat experience. But at the end of the day, it’s still a baseball field. It’s the same dimensions and it’s still a baseball game. As long as we can keep it that simple as umpires, it makes our jobs easier.”
Little got into umpiring shortly after graduating from Milligan College, where he played baseball. To make a little money, he and a friend began umpiring games for the Elizabethton Little League. He moved up to working travel team tournaments and then summer wooden-bat collegiate leagues. That’s where he really caught the bug.
“It became a competition for me then,” Little said. “It was a competition for myself to see how I could do at it.”
Then came the big decision. Professional umpires all came out of one of two — now three — schools. Little went to Jim Evans’ school.
When he came out of umpire school, he was assigned to the Gulf Coast League. While working a few games in the Can Am League, an independent circuit, he was promoted to the Appalachian League. Seven years — and many leagues — later, he’s on the verge of his dream. Along the way, he worked games in the Dominican Republic winter league and in Germany in the World Baseball Classic qualifier.
“It’s a long process, a long road,” Little said. “I always told myself ‘I’m gonna give it a shot. But I was gonna be very realistic with myself. If I thought I had a great opportunity to make it, I would stick with it. If I didn’t, I was gonna get out of it quickly.
“The first year or two, when I was graded out, I felt like I had an opportunity to learn and develop my skills. Trying to be realistic, I thought I had the mind set and ability to do it so I decided to put all my eggs in the basket.”
Little stresses that even though you can see him on TV from time to time working major-league games, he has not reached his goal yet.
“I’m very fortunate and blessed to be where I’m at,” he said. “I try not take that for granted in any way, shape or form. But I am well aware that I’m still not a full time major-league umpire by any means. I’m still a minor-league umpire that’s working to a position to become a full-time major league umpire.”