photos by Laci Meals Sox '06
During an extensive interview Jerry Meals '79 looked back on his career as a professional umpire and offered an insider's view of MLB's Replay Operations Center.
When asked if working a World Series was always part of his dream career, the low-key Meals said not in the beginning.
"In 1983, when I started, I wasn't thinking about anything. I was just thinking about maybe working some high school games cause all I was doing was little league up 'til then, then maybe some college at least," he said. His initial focus was learning exactly how to umpire. Then the goal became working in professional baseball. He started that long career path, as every other professional umpire does, in the minor leagues, where the pay is low and the travel especially arduous.
"You make no money in the minor leagues; it is not a glory job," Meals said. It takes a supportive family to put up with the low wages, long time away from home and no guarantee of moving up from the minors to the big league. "I am so fortunate to have the family I have," he said.
After Meals became a full-time major league umpire in 1998, the World Series became a goal. "You hope to be able to work a World Series, that's for sure," he said.
The umpires for the World Series—there were seven for the first time in 2014—are chosen from the 24 umpires who are selected by supervisors to officiate at the first round of the divisional series games. Umpires have no guarantee of getting into the playoffs. "It's one of those things you never know. You have to have a pretty clean year—nothing crazy happen, just everything go your way," Meals said.
In 2014, he a member of the umpire crew that worked the National League play-off series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. "That was an exciting series," he said.
He was pleased to be chosen for the World Series crew and happy that for Game One in Kansas City he was behind home plate.
"That's the thing you want to do when you are working a special event like that ... that's just where the game is, the responsible part of the field for the day," he said. For Game Two he worked along the right field line and then he went to New York City where he served as the Replay Official for the last five games of the championship series.
Inside the Replay Operation Center
Major League Baseball's Replay Operation Center is actually an extremely large windowless room in a huge building filled with "baseball geeks" in the Chelsea section of New York City. The specially built center with about forty 46-inch flat screen televisions went into operation at the start of the 2014 season. It's "a very, very sophisticated room, down to the lighting," Meals said, adding, "When you are there working it's not easy, but you are able to relax and do your job."
Two new four-man umpire crews were added for the 2014 season to bring the total to 19 crews of four professional umpires. Each week during the regular season fifteen crews work in various stadiums throughout the country, while two rotate off, and two crews (for a total of eight guys) work in the Replay Operation Center.
In the Replay Operation Center, the umpires sit at work stations where they have four screens and a technician beside them at all times. During the regular season, each umpire is responsible for monitoring two games simultaneously during their daily shift. The technicians' screens are divided into 12 squares so they can watch all the angles and are ready to replay any videos of anything the umpire wants to see close up.
Meals said the umpires and technicians try to be proactive in preparing video replays of anything that seems like it might be challenged. That way they have as much time as possible to check from multiple angles if a team's manager challenges a call.
During the first seven innings of a game each manager has just one challenge. If a challenge results in the Replay Official overturning the ruling on the field the team retains its challenge. But if the Replay Official upholds the field umpire's decision, then the team's manager cannot challenge another call. Managers who have exhausted their challenges may ask the Umpire Crew Chief to exercise his option to request a video review. The intricacies of these rules mean that each team has its own person reviewing videos and communicating with personnel in the dugout about when the manager will challenge a call.
Meals was the Replay Official for the last five games of the 2014 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals. His backup at the center was Umpire Brian O'Nora, who resides in Austintown.
"They didn't want to leave one guy in there with a pivotal game," Meals explained. He said it was nice to have an experienced colleague with whom he could talk things over if he felt the need, but the decisions were his alone as the Replay Official. "You are the one responsible for the decision," Meals said of the Replay Official's role.
When he is on the field as a Crew Chief and there is a call under review, Meals said he has the #2 umpire listen on the headset with him. Once the Replay Official in New York issues his ruling, they confirm it and any instructions that involve moving players, and then execute the ruling. This whole process takes time, but Meals pointed out that arguments on the field take a lot of time too.
Now, he said, 98% of the time there is no issue. "The arguments have gone away," he said.
Fans don't always like what the Replay Official does, but there is nothing the umpires at the game can do to change a ruling that has been reviewed. So far, Meals has found the replay review process diffuses even the most vociferous objectors. "I think it has completely calmed it down," he said.