Opportunities to make it as a Major League Baseball umpire are even less frequent than getting a call to the show as a player.
For 2007 Carson High grad and Reno resident Clint Vondrak, the waiting game has finally paid off.
Last week, Vondrak made his MLB debut as an umpire at second base in Houston as the Astros hosted the San Francisco Giants.
Friday afternoon Vondrak said he was back in Arlington at the alternate site waiting for another call up to the Big Leagues.
His wait lasted all of a few days as Monday he was back in Houston – and at second base – for the first of three games as part of an umpiring crew for the Astros and Angels series.
Getting his first experience as an MLB umpire in an empty stadium in Houston made the ordeal extraordinary.
“It was definitely a unique experience to work my first big league game in an empty ballpark,” said Vondrak. “However, the enormity of working a Major League Baseball game...in a beautiful ballpark...on ESPN, is still very real! What an amazing experience. The atmosphere would have been very different with 40,000 fans in the stands, but still one of the coolest experiences of my life.”
Betting on himself
The route through the minor leagues as an umpire can be just as strenuous as an up-and-coming player.
Chris Healy, commissioner of the Northern Nevada Baseball Umpire Association, has seen several umpires in the area reach the minor leagues and not be able to get a chance at an MLB game.
“It’s hard to get there. I mean, really hard,” said Healy. “Clint worked his butt off.”
New MLB umpires can earn a spot – or “get a number” as it’s known in the industry – only by replacing another umpire.
With the ongoing pandemic, several umpires opted out of the current season to try to avoid the risks, leaving Vondrak with the opportunity of a lifetime.
“You put your life on hold,” said Healy, “… and of course you put your personal life on hold a lot because you’re gone. You’re not making money to speak of, but you’re advancing. In essence, he bet on himself.”
It’s an investment that is still paying out dividends this week after he earned another call up.
Vondrak isn’t the only Carson City native to be on the verge of breaking into a major league umpiring crew.
Fellow Carson City native Nate White also spent time at Triple-A in previous seasons before was released, according to Healy.
Taking it all in
Vondrak admits there were nerves leading up the opening pitch, especially when he put into perspective just how long it had taken him to set foot on a major league field.
“Thinking about all of the years and sacrifice leading up to that moment, not only by myself, but by my family, makes you want to make everyone proud,” Vondrak said.
Growing up, Vondrak said he would watch any baseball games that were on, including the Giants, which are broadcast locally.
Longtime Giants television broadcasters Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow even went as far as to give Vondrak a couple of different shout-outs over the course of his first series.
“It was very cool to have the broadcasters acknowledge me on the field and give some shout-outs,” said Vondrak. “But I know it was even more of a proud moment for my girlfriend, parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends who were able to watch all three of the games.”
Even for Healy, the talent that the University of Nevada, Reno grad showed was evident early.
“He’s just got a special ‘it’ factor to him. He really maintains his composure well. The best thing we did for him is recognize his talent and get out of the way,” said Healy.
It isn’t just Vondrak’s family cheering on the rookie MLB umpire, but plenty of others who have watched his path take shape over the years. “He could be in the right place at the right time and if they’re impressed with him … then he will have his chance,” said Healy. “We are all pretty damn excited about it.”