Lakeland, Fla. — Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire did something after the game Thursday that he would very rarely do in the regular season. He made a point of personally complimenting the home-plate umpire.
“Helluva job, very nice,” he said to Jen Pawol, one of two women umpiring in professional baseball.
Pawol worked the plate in the Tigers’ 6-1 win over Division II Florida Southern with minimal conflict or verbal abuse from either team.
“Not that I could hear,” she said, laughing.
Pawol is 41 and last season worked in the New York-Penn Short-Class A League. This was the first time she worked a game involving a major league team.
“Unbelievable,” she said. “Just really excited now that I got through it. It took like three-years’ worth of professional work to get here. I went out there pretty confident and I feel pretty good how the day went.”
Her nerves, she said, were steady.
“I wasn’t nervous, man,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get out here. All those years putting in the time, I felt prepared and just really excited. I just told the guys (her umpire crew) to go have fun today and we will be there for each other, and that’s what happened.”
It’s been a long, hard journey for Pawol, a native of New York state. She spent more than a decade umpiring Division I baseball and softball before being “discovered” at a clinic in 2015.
“There were major league umpires there, and they were watching me for five days,” she said. “It was a college baseball clinic and I was just going through the drills. The fifth day, one of the MLB guys pulled me over, sat me down with another umpire and said, ‘Would you be interested in going into professional baseball?’
“I said, ‘Do you know I am a woman?’ ”
It was big-league umps Ted Barrett and Paul Nauert who made the offer. They were far more interested in Pawol’s umpiring proficiency than her gender. But they just cracked the door for her, she was the one who kicked it open.
She was offered a free shot to try out at an MLB umpire camp in Cincinnati, attended by every MLB umpire supervisor. She made the cut there and was sent, all expenses paid, with 30 other prospective umpires to Fort Myers, Fla., to compete for eight scholarships to umpiring school at the Umpire Training Academy.
“I earned a spot at umpire school and gutted it out for five weeks and earned a spot in the advanced course,” she said. “Then I got a job in the Gulf Coast League (in 2016). It’s a process, man. It was two years, all year around, working games out of season.”
She said she’s gotten very little pushback or negativity from anybody in the game. As for the fans heckling, she’s deaf to that.
“My supervisor gives me a lot of feedback and that’s the only voice I care about,” she said. “I just want to make my supervisor happy and obviously my partners. We’re living together for three months and I want to make sure they know I am there for them.
“As for the players and coaches and managers, they’ve been awesome, they are gentlemen. There is this professional etiquette that if you are not in professional baseball, you don’t know. These are good guys.”
Pawol doesn’t know yet where she will be assigned this season, but presumably, she will work some Grapefruit League games.
“I’m the luckiest woman in the world,” she said. “I get to take the field every day with the best men the world. I am so thankful for the opportunity.”