Jen Pawol, the first female umpire to reach Triple A in three and a half decades, is another step closer to the big leagues. Pawol will umpire major-league spring training games in Florida this season, becoming just the third woman to do so, and the first since 2007.
Pawol, who will also be elevated to the role of Triple-A crew chief, is aiming to become the first woman to umpire a regular-season MLB game, which could come as early as 2024.
“I’ve put the gas to full throttle and we are going for it full speed,” Pawol said on Monday. “I’m comfortable in my own shoes, I’ve grown into my wings so to speak and this is the narrative, this is the storyline, the plot. And people are excited and encouraging. And when it comes down to it I just have to get my next play right.”
Pawol was one of 24 umpires announced Monday to do big-league spring training games. She will be based in the Jupiter area and is tentatively scheduled for her first game in West Palm Beach on Feb. 24. The 47-year-old Pawol, who was promoted to Triple A last spring, started her career in the Gulf Coast League in 2016 and has been steadily working her way up.
“I hear a lot of, ‘You’re going to do it, you’re going to be the first one, keep going,” Pawol said of the reaction she’s gotten from fans. “I get asked a lot for my autograph…it’s been very positive for sure.”
Pawol said any autograph requests always come with the caveat that everyone on the crew has to sign.
“You’re getting all four of us or none of us,” she said. “(We) spread the love around there.”
Baseball’s history with female umpires hasn’t always been so rosy. Pam Postema spent 13 seasons in the minor leagues, becoming the first woman to umpire a big-league spring game in her final season in 1989. 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.
Ria Cortesio was the second woman to umpire a major-league spring training game. 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.
Pawol has cited Cortesio and Postema, who wrote a tell-all book on her experiences, as mentors. She said Monday she’s been texting with both women since the news that she’d be umpiring in big-league camp. Pawol got a word of her promotion in a phone call last week.
While other major professional sports, like the NFL and NHL have had female officials, Pawol is baseball’s best shot. There were five female umpires in professional baseball last year, but she was the only one above Class A.
“She’s going to make it,” said Pawol’s crew chief Jonathan Ortega last summer, 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, a former catcher at Hofstra, got a masters degree in painting from Hunter College. She umpired fastpitch softball on the weekends to help pay her tuition. Pawol rose through the levels of fastpitch, and 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. Pawol made her debut in the Gulf Coast League the following year.
In some ways, the crew chief promotion is just as important as big-league spring training. Pawol will now be responsible for the logistics of her crew’s schedule, as well as be the leader on and off the field. As a Triple-A crew chief, Pawol is considered to be in a small group of call-ups should there be any injury or illness to current big-league umpires.
Every spring in her eight-year career, Pawol would be on the backfields at the minor league games, hoping, praying she’d get a chance at the big-league spring stadium. This year, that dream has come true. While it’s still a stepping stone to where she wants to go, “for any umpire in the pro system this is a big, big deal,” said Pawol, who estimated she probably has 1,000 pro games under her belt.
“It’s a lot of innings, a lot of work to get there, it’s very humbling because it’s need-based, there’s only so many slots…As far as the other meaning that it has (getting the chance to be the the first woman in MLB), I feel like I need to keep getting the next play right and I try not to let that or other distractions get in.”
(Photo courtesy of Jen Pawol)