Journey to the WBC

Winfried Berkvens

When the World Baseball Classic (WBC) opens next week there will be five European Umpires spread across crews throughout the tournament. Michael Ulloa (ES), who umpired the 2013 Classic, and Winfried Berkvens (NL) will be in Mexico for the event. Jens Waider (DE) and Fabrizio Fabrizi (IT), who both worked the Qualifiers in 2013, will be in Japan and Frantisek Pribyl (CZ) is headed to Korea.

Collectively they have set a record for number of EU crew members at a WBC tournament. “It is a great moment for baseball umpiring Europe,” says Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) umpire director Paul Bokern. “Our European umpires now get the opportunity to work with the highest level of teams, players and umpires.” We were curious about the jump in European manpower so we spoke with one of the team to learn a bit about the selection process.

An umpire since 1990, and Confederation of European Baseball umpire since 1998, Dutch umpire Winfried Berkvens has umped three Baseball World Cups, the inaugural Premiere12, four European Cups and two European Champions leading up to this event. That’s a pretty impressive resume for a man who started out getting his license simply to learn more about the game. “I was playing for the club and wanted to learn the rules.”

Berkvens got a late start in baseball, joining his first team during university. After he received his license the club decided to utilize his skills and assigned him to two games a week on the blue crew. “From that I also learned how to do the umpiring and liked it well enough to do it more often but first I also wanted to be a player.” Now, his playing days well behind him, Berkvens has far eclipsed the successes of his playing career.

What do you think accounts for the huge jump in EU umpires this Classic?

I think now is a reflection of the elite umpiring clinics set up by the Confederation. Since 2014, the CEB has regularly invited umpire trainers from the WBSC and the MLB to come to Europe and train our elite umpires. Those people are the ones deciding who goes to world level tournaments. Because they do the training they see many more EU umpires. During the clinic, and the games they observe after the clinic, they can judge whether or not some umpires are up to the level of being invited to a world level tournament.

They know you better?

Yes. In the past they never saw the umpires. When the countries get an invitation to a tournament then they can provide one or two umpires for the World Cup and the National Federation says, ‘We think this one is our best.’ If people were lucky they were invited to the tournaments. Sometimes a Federation took a pass on the invite.

With the clinics, run twice now in 2014 and 2016, they give a 3-day clinic with 20 EU umpires. From that they can see how those umpires deal with things. How they work. What they want to learn. How they adjust. How fast they can adjust to new things. What they can show in the games after that in the EU championships. I think from that they get a better view and think we are not really worse or different than other umpires. I think that helps in getting more umpires in these kinds of tournaments.

The process, more or less, that I and at least two other European umpires went through that led to this invitation may be interesting. The first elite clinic in 2014, was organized by the CEB and conducted by the trainers from the WBSC and MLB. Held in Prague with 20 umpires, it was set up as preparation for the European Championships (EC). Most of the umpires went to the EC after this clinic. I was not one of them. I went to the clinic and went home afterwards. As I understood it later on, during that clinic was the first moment where those people started to check umpires saying, 'Hey, these are interesting umpires' or 'They still need development time', stuff like that.

In one of the breakfasts, one of the trainers came by and sat opposite me. He asked, ‘Would you be able to join a clinic in the US in November if we would invite you, maybe three or four weeks before? Could you make that happen with work? I said yes, no problem but I thought, ‘Okay? What the hell?’ He asked this but I had no clue what it would be about.

So I went home and thought that’s it. But then, in the beginning of October, I got the invitation to go to the World Baseball Cup championships U21 in Taiwan. That was November 2014. When I got the invitation, that’s when I realized, ‘Aah, they already tried to figure out whether or not we would be able to do that.’ I went there together with two of the other umpires from Europe – Fabrizio Fabrizi (IT) who will be in Japan and Frantisek Pribyl (CZ) who will be in Korea. The three of us went to Taiwan.

Frantisek Pribyl

When we went I saw that my ticket was paid for by the MLB not by the World Federation. I think we knew the day before, when we got a physical in the clinic. We were seven umpires there for a physical – eye test, blood pressure - those kinds of things. Larry Young, who was one of our trainers, told us then, ‘This is your first potential step toward a World Baseball Classic. If this goes well, and all the other things go well, it can be that we will need a certain number of European umpires. You may be one of them.’ He even took our measurements and we tried on jackets to see what would fit best. It was really like, ‘Okay!’ But at that point it’s so far away that you think so many things can happen and I still have to show during my games this week.

I did my first game and in it I had one situation where I anticipated a certain play and I used a technique that Larry taught us in Prague. I’d never tried it before, because I hadn’t had the opportunity, and I did it. Just did it. I don’t even know how or why but it went right. It was quite a big change in normal moves that we would make. I came out of the game, went up to the locker room and there was Larry. He said, ‘I was watching you wondering, is he going to do it?’ And he said, ‘Yes! You did it.’ He was happy about that. So, for me, that was a positive thing. Positive feedback is good to hear.

I think these kinds of things, in that tournament and, of course during the clinics, led to my Premiere12 invitation in 2015. I didn’t do a bad job and that, again, led to my name still being on the list. Of course you never know for sure in the moment.

Then we had the clinic in September 2016 in Hoopdorf, before the European Championship and again the same trainers were there. Just before they left they told me and another person, Jens Waider (DE), we were on their list still. ‘Please watch your emails in the first half of December because probably you will get something.’ Then, of course in that moment you know what it is about. Now it’s getting closer and closer, and of course you don’t discuss it and show off to people. You don’t want to say anything because first you want to make sure you get the invite.

At the end of November we got that email – all of us – Fabrizio and Frantisek and Michael and Jens, we all got the invitation to come to the World Baseball Classic. So, in the end, it started in September 2014 in that elite clinic and ended in the ability to do the WBC in 2017.

Jens Weider

So patience is everything?

Yeah and maybe also luck at the right moment in time. The fact that I was at that 2014 elite clinic was really lucky. I was not invited in the beginning. Officially, there were three other Dutch umpires invited who were higher on the list than myself. They didn’t want to go. I asked, ‘Can I go then?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, you will get invited.’ If they had gone I would not be here now.

But it’s also making your own luck.

I did do some things myself but there’s also luck involved. Being lucky enough to be able to be at the right place at the right time. I think it’s also good that the CEB has these kinds of clinics. They give us the ability to be prepared for this kind of opportunity and let us show we have acquired the skills to be in this tournament.

In a world of instant everything, it’s important to see, that what looks like a quick process, isn’t. It takes years of doing the right things, putting your best foot forward and creating your own luck, to get you there.

Yeah, it’s patience and trying your best every day. I always tell people if you do your best that’s the thing you have to do and then you have a little bit of the luck that people see you doing it. If you think from the beginning, ‘Oh, I’m good enough,’ that will not work – especially with those kinds of people. Those people will see that you’re not willing to adjust, to learn new things and try them out. I don’t think they will quickly invite you.

Heading to the WBC is there anything giving you butterflies?

I think for me the beginning is always the key – The first day, the first game, to do that right. If it starts right, you’re through it and then everything goes fine. Your first moment, maybe even your first call, or first couple of innings if you’re on the field, if you come through them in a good way then the butterflies will disappear. I remember from some other tournaments that the first game, first day, you want to show your best – and you hope you do – but you’re also thinking like, ‘what if I make a mistake?’ When the game is actually progressing you forget about that and you just do what you’ve done already for years.

Anything I haven’t asked that might be interesting to the readers?

Some of the countries, the type of food they eat is completely different than you are used to. If you’re not an easy eater it could be a problematic thing for people who don’t like to eat things that they don’t know. Sometimes you have to, a little bit, adjust. Most times I’m quite okay with that but it’s something you have to think about.

Any other considerations?

Maybe one thing that doesn’t go through your head for this type of tournament is that it’s the beginning of the year, and we in Europe are not yet starting to play games outside. You haven’t had any calls to make for months. Of course I prepare at pitcher/catcher trainings indoors with teams to, at least see some balls and strikes, but you don’t have the ability here to really do games as preparation. That makes you, more or less, cold when you go there.

Can you prepare with video of past games?

The difficulty is what you watch on a video is never the position you have as an umpire. You can see what the umpire would not be able to see. I think the call is less important though. It’s more about practicing getting into the right position. It will come automatically but still, the first time you do it again the feel is a little bit different than if you practice and are adjusted to the speeds.

Do you physically condition as well?

I don’t do anything for baseball specifically but I do try to stay in shape because I think, that you need to have a certain condition to be able to be alert during a whole game and that’s not because you have to run a lot or be able to sprint a lot. The most important is that during the whole period of the game, the 3-4 hours, to be able to be alert. That only works, I think if your physical condition is okay.

Most of it is the mental endurance. I don’t think about, if you’re behind the plate the amount of times you have to go down to make a call, that’s not the problem. I think it’s more the endurance and the time it takes and you have to constantly be alert. The step back, relax and go back for the next pitch. The relaxing piece in between is quite important to be able to focus for the whole game.

Michael Ulloa

What at the WBC are you most/least looking forward to?

Of course at the tournament you look most forward to that you don’t make mistakes. I think a lot of people say that you have so much experience it will go alright but still you can make a mistake and, of course, now all is live on television and it’s not very nice if you make a mistake. Here they usually don’t have enough cameras to view a perfect look at what you did. Over there they will.

What would be very nice, and I have no clue whether or not we will get it, is to get a game behind the plate. In this kind of tournament, with these big players, that would be nice.

What’s the difference in calling it behind the plate?

To be honest, for myself, there isn’t a big difference. If I don’t get it, I have no problem with it. It’s so good to be there and nice that you are invited but a lot of people say if you are behind the plate you are 'the one'. It’s the most difficult job in the game, I think, because you have so many decisions to make in one game. You’re busier as well and if you do that one good then you showed that you can really do this.

If you do a game in the field then it depends on what kind of game you have, whether you even get a lot of close calls. I think in this kind of tournament we will have them, because of the level of baseball. The higher the level of baseball the closer the calls are, so that’s good. For me it’s just luck, partly, that I’m there. It’s more important than whatever position you will get in such a tournament.

What is your favorite call to make on the field?

My most favorite call is a very close out call at first base.

You’ve been at this a while now. Is there a pinnacle, your World Series of Umpiring?

When the WBC started then of course, you start to think, ‘Oh, this would be nice at some point.’ At that time, it was far away for me because, in 2005, I did my first World Cup and I was #11 in the Netherlands but you thought, oh, this would be nice. I thought, in the last few editions of the WBC, not that many EU umpires, ‘Yeah, the chance is very small that I ever can go there.’

I think really the nicest thing I had was really the Premiere12. That was really a big event because you had a lot of professional players which was, I think, quite different from the normal World Cups.

Of course there is one thing now you could say after the WBC could be the Olympics. It could be interesting. However I’m not so sure whether, at that time, that’s 2020, I would still be the best candidate. I could imagine that we’ll have younger umpires that come up and have sufficient experience to do such a tournament as well.

Do you feel like you’ll be too old do to the job well?

I don’t think it necessarily has to be out of reach but I’m wondering whether or not I could imagine that others can step up and that they could have a shot at it as well. 49 is maybe, I think, quite old to be going to an Olympics. I think for me, I tell everybody at this moment, this tournament, the WBC, is the top of the top that you can reach.

It’s a last hooray of sorts?

Yeah, especially for amateurs. You’re not in the MLB. You don’t do professional baseball for a living so this is the top because you will have all those professional players there.

Fabrizio Fabrizi

What is the experience like walking in when you know, by comparison, you are an amateur to not only the players but your colleagues?

When you go there, you know you are between a lot of professional umpires. You think you go there as an amateur so you are the one that is ‘lesser than’ the others, because they do many more games than we do in Europe in a year. The nice thing was, when we had our prior meeting in the Premiere12 where something like 21 or 22 of 27 umpires were full-time professional, the umpire director, directly at the beginning of the meeting said, ‘You are all professionals.’ If they did not think you would be professional enough then you would not be at that tournament. So that felt good and then you see that they don’t try to make a difference between the umpires.

You see that those professional umpires, most of them that were at that tournament, were younger, let’s say 27-35. Because they’re younger they may, in the end, have called the same amount of games over their whole life as I did.

Even if you thought you were the lesser one before, during the preparations for the game, and during the time there, people worked together. We were in crews and in those crews we worked really together as a team.

Favorite tournament off-field experience?

At the Premiere 12, which is easier to remember because it’s more recent, a lot of the umpires from varying crews and one of the evaluators, we went out a couple of times to drink a beer and discuss baseball. You can learn from each other. You learn from their knowledge, their experience. That’s very nice. Some of those people you still have contact with once in a while.

Every journey has a beginning and each will come to an end. For this European crew, they lie somewhere in the middle heading into the weeks to come. They’ve got years of experience behind them and a lifetime of memories to capture while calling the games. There is also a firm understanding that this could be a small step toward another moment they have yet to imagine is possible. One thing is clear, so long as they continue to put in the work, remain willing to learn and open to opportunity, their luck will be never-ending.

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