The umpire on the cusp of a watershed moment for baseball: ‘I think she’s going to do it’
On April 30 in Durham, N.C., St. Louis Cardinals legend Adam Wainwright made a rehab start for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. All eyes were on Wainwright, the three-time All-Star and playoff hero, who was on the verge of rejoining the big-league team.
Still, it’s doubtful many fans noticed one of the more mundane parts of every game: when the home plate umpire came out to check Wainwright’s hands for foreign substances.
For 46-year-old Jen Pawol, the first female umpire to reach Triple A in 34 years, nothing is mundane. Every play, every pitch – even a substance check – is another step closer to the big leagues. Pawol is just trying to get the next call right. But sometimes, even in her eighth year as a professional umpire, the gravity of what she is attempting breaks through.
“Jen, I have four daughters,” Wainwright said as Pawol approached the mound, “and I think what you’re doing is awesome.”
Major League Baseball has had female coaches and general managers and scouts and all-women broadcast teams. But there has never been a female umpire in the big leagues. Women have umpired major league spring training games and in the minors, but never in the show. Several have tried. They lowered their voices and cut their hair short, they tried to fit in, and still faced discrimination and hostility. Two filed lawsuits that were eventually settled.
It’s incredibly difficult to land one of the 76 big-league umpiring slots. Statistically, it is 10 times harder to reach MLB as an umpire than as a player. And an umpire’s career is typically much longer – it’s not uncommon to umpire for 20 years – meaning there is less turnover. The NBA and NFL have had female officials, but baseball still lags behind.
Pawol is the only active woman umpiring above A-ball. Her promotion to Triple-A this spring, one step below the big leagues, coupled with the industry’s changing views, have her on the precipice of a watershed moment for umpiring and baseball in general.
“She’s going to make it,” said Pawol’s current crew chief Jonathan Ortega, who called Pawol one of the hardest workers he’s ever seen. “I don’t know if it will be one year or two years from now, but I think she’s going to do it.”
Pawol wanted to play baseball more than anything else. Growing up on Long Island, it was always on the Pawols’ television. She begged her parents to let her play Little League, but girls played softball, so that’s what she did.
Pawol was 13 when her mom, Victoria, died suddenly from an aneurysm. Her dad, Jim, didn’t want them to have to move, so he worked multiple jobs. At home, Jim would cook and Jen would help with the laundry. Together the two of them found a new normal after Victoria was gone.
“We just pressed on,” Pawol said. “We got super close and still are.”
She was a good enough catcher to eventually get a scholarship to Hofstra, and then got a masters degree in painting from Hunter College. During school, she umpired fastpitch softball on the weekends to help pay her tuition.
After college, she settled into a job teaching art in upstate New York and continued to umpire, rising through the levels of fastpitch. A colleague snuck her into some amateur baseball tournaments, but the presence of a woman umpire rocked the boat and, Pawol says, was always met with resistance by tournament administrators.
In January 2015, Pawol attended Southern Umpires Camp in Atlanta, Ga. Baseball clinics offered more drills and skills than softball and she was looking to be more well-rounded after a dozen softball clinics and nearly 2,000 amateur games under her belt. Longtime MLB umpire Ted Barrett was among the instructors and was impressed by Pawol. He told her about MLB’s free one-day umpiring camp in Cincinnati, which was open to everyone.
“You know I’m a woman, right?” Pawol quipped.
Intrigued by Barrett’s offer, Pawol booked a one-way ticket to Cincinnati for Aug. 15, 2015. She wasn’t planning on returning to her day job: She wanted to win a coveted scholarship to the league’s umpire academy. And that’s exactly what she did.
About a year later, on June 24, 2016, on an absolutely sweltering day in Dunedin, Fla., Pawol made her debut in the Gulf Coast League as the first female umpire in pro baseball in nearly a decade. She has been steadily advancing ever since, moving up to Double A, which is a three-person crew, for the first time last year.
Pawol will screen record plays from the night before and send them to other umpire buddies. She talks about friends who have made it up to the big leagues as inspiration for how close she is. She hasn’t missed a pitch in her pro career, a fact she is incredibly proud of. Umpiring is physically taxing work, always one pitch away from a career-ending injury. A few weeks ago, she took a pitch — untouched by the catcher — off the foot. After that, it was the facemask.
Pawol is judicious in her training and recovery. She swears by morning yoga and pool walking and alternates lifting weights with days of cardio and core. In her little free time, she painted strike zones, sometimes from a certain game or a hitter over a few weeks. She used to dream of her paintings being in art museums. Now Pawol is in Cooperstown, where the Baseball Hall of Fame houses one of her umpiring masks.
“I remember her Low A and A year (In 2018 and ’19), the idea was, Well she’s proficient technically, she knows the rules, but the question is: Can she control the game?,” said sportswriter Paul Hagen, who has become friends with Pawol since she started in pro ball and has a few pieces of her art. “And from what I can see she controls the hell out of the game.”
In March, at around 7 a.m., Pawol was woken by a call from Tom O’Neil, her former umpiring partner in High A ball. She was in Phoenix working spring games.
“Get up! Check your email!” O’Neil said.
Pawol stumbled over to her computer, called up her email and then she saw it: the list of umpire promotions for the 2023 season.
“No one can take (getting to) Triple A away from me,” she said. “I’m three months in and no matter what happens, I can continue to make a positive impact on the game, and that’s really exciting.”
At first, Pawol didn’t want to know.
About Bernice Gera and then Christine Wren, who shortened their first names to Bernie and Chris to try to jam their way through a closed door. Gera worked only one game in 1972 after winning a court case, before resigning due to resentment from other umpires. Wren lasted three seasons (1975-77), all at Class A, before leaving.
Or Pam Postema, who spent 13 seasons in the minor leagues, becoming the first woman to umpire a big-league spring game in her final season in ’89. After six years at Triple A, Postema had her contract canceled. Teresa Cox was another early pioneer (1989-91). She tried to alter her voice and received criticism for her appearance. Both women filed lawsuits, Postema alleging sex discrimination and Cox (who now goes by Fairlady) alleging harassment and abuse within the umpiring community; both suits were eventually settled out of court.
There was Ria Cortesio, who became the second woman to umpire a major-league spring training game. She cut her ponytail and lowered her voice to try to blend in. She was released in 2007 after nine years, the last five at Double A, following a season in which she started as the top-ranked umpire in the league. Cortesio mentored Canadian Shanna Kook, who overlapped with Cortesio but only lasted one year, and was the sport’s last female umpire before Pawol arrived.
Pawol spent the first two years of her pro career purposely not reading anything about the women who came before her, determined to judge the state of baseball and umpire culture with fresh eyes.
Then in 2018, she took the blinders off and went hunting for every piece of information she could get. Pawol read Postema’s book You’ve Got to Have Balls to Make it in this League; she read every article she could. When Hagen told Pawol he had a friend, Jeff Scott, who was a young minor leaguer in the game when Gera was an umpire, Pawol jumped at the chance to talk to him. Pawol also contacted every female umpire she could. But only one got a handwritten thank-you card: Postema, the first — and only — umpire to reach Triple-A:
Thank you for going through this and being a pioneer and dealing with all the horrible things you went through. It made a difference. I’m coming through now and my name is Jen Pawol and I’m in A-Ball. If you get a chance please write me back or call me. I’d love to take you to lunch sometime.
Postema eventually called Pawol, and the two have become close. “It’s a special friendship,” Pawol says.
Cortesio has been another ally. An Arizona resident, she came to an annual bowling tournament for UmpsCare — a charity focused on helping terminally sick children — in Tempe, and spoke with Pawol and three other women umpires present. (Currently there are five women umpiring in pro ball, though Pawol is the only one above Class A.)
“The things that Pam and Ria and Chris had to deal with, they were moving the big boulders,” Pawol said.
In 2020, Pawol — who is as passionate about teaching umpiring as being on the field — wrote a workbook for aspiring umpires. She provides a curriculum for baseball and softball umpires for high school kids, as well as a junior umpire certification course through the charity UmpsCare. Dan LaCorbiniere, the YWCA Foul Ball Program Director, also uses Pawol’s workbook in Rhode Island and said it fills a huge hole in umpire training, which typically doesn’t start until the higher levels.
“She’s always trying to normalize what she does and not make it exceptional. I think being a teacher is still innately in her,” said UmpsCare senior director Jennifer Jopling.
Pawol is proud of the workbook, which covers everything from fair-foul to catch-no-catch to where umpires should park in the parking lot. It’s constantly being updated, with a revised version coming out later this year. She believes part of her mission now is letting people know that umpiring can be a viable career path no matter your gender, race or income. Gone are the days of expensive privately-run umpire academies – MLB now runs them in-house, recruiting with free camps and providing scholarships to diversify the pool.
“The other women (in the game), there’s no 10-year gap anymore,” Pawol said. “You just go to the Facebook page and find a camp. You don’t have to change your name or pretend to be a boy. You just show up.”
Can she take the final step?
Pawol isn’t the one to ask.
While players can skip a level and go straight to the big leagues from Double A, umpires have to put the work in at every stop, adjusting to larger crews, crowds and more. When they get to Triple-A they are evaluated by MLB umpire supervisors. One of those is Ed Rapuano, who spent a year on the same crew as Pam Postema. Rapuano filled out reports on Pawol — along with crewmates Austin Jones and Ortega — in Columbus a few weeks ago.
“If (Pawol) makes it up to the big leagues, it’s because of her ability,” Rapuano said. “It wouldn’t be fair to anyone if anyone thought she was fast-tracked. It wouldn’t be fair to our profession or to her. She gets treated, talked about and evaluated the same as everyone else.”
The culture of baseball, in the four decades since Postema was at Triple-A, has changed significantly. Pawol didn’t have to cut her hair or lower her voice. She felt comfortable from the first day in Cincinnati, when she marched up to a table of fellow umpires and gave a few firm handshakes. She gets equal pay, equal hours and the same vote in the union as any other umpire. Her crewmates aren’t her enemies — they’re like extended family.
“These guys just accept her, that’s the biggest thing. She’s part of it,” said Jopling, who has known Pawol since 2016.
Pawol lifts with Ortega on occasion, an important part of her recovery and rebuilding regimen. The crew will do lunch a few days a week or play golf. They’ll rehash the night before, dissect important plays and come up with other scenarios to challenge their knowledge of the rules.
“Jen learns real quick,” said Ortega, who has been an umpire in the minors for nearly 10 years, longer including his years umpiring in Venezuela. “Everything you say to her, the next time in a situation you can see her try to improve or make a better call or move. The difference from when she started in Triple A to now, it’s a completely different umpire. She works really, really hard.”
Added Hagen: “Honestly, I’ve never seen anybody who has been so dedicated to reaching a goal. I’ve gone out with her after games with her crew. She’s all bubbly about what happened in the game that night, even if it’s a routine game. She just loves it.”
The women that came before her had obstacles thrown in their way. They were scorned, blackballed and run out of the job. But so many people Pawol encounters in baseball are rooting for or inspired by her. The first baseman who said how cool it was to have a woman umpire. The GCL pitching coach who told her his daughter wants to be an athletic director and to not “let these guys scare you.” Just last week, a security guard ran over to tell her that his daughter was involved in volleyball and basketball officiating.
“However far (Pawol) gets, whatever this job brings her, I think it will be cool to let my daughter know, there isn’t a cap for a female,” said Jones.
Pawol is hesitant to do this article. She’s uncomfortable in the spotlight and wants the respect of her peers. As she thinks back to Wainwright, to that moment in North Carolina in April, she makes an important point while telling the story about the smile and encouragement from one of the game’s most respected players. The only way she is going to get where she wants to go is by doing the job, and doing it well.
“I said to him: ‘I still got to check your hands,” Pawol said, laughing. “Just so you know.”
(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Sam Mallon / The Washington Post via Getty Images)