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The Road to the MLB: Umpire Mark Carlson

Shorewood resident and Will County native Mark Carlson shares what it is like to work in the bigs, only behind the plate.

It's the all American dream. Little boys toss the ball around the yard with their buddies. They hope that someday they make it to the big leagues.

Shorewood resident Mark Carlson had that same dream. He played baseball at Joliet West and at Parkland College. 

Now, he has made it to the top. He's worked in Major League Baseball for over 12 years. But he doesn't hit or catch or bunt. Sure, he steps onto the field like all the other players. But his job is behind the plate. Mark Carlson is the umpire.

Growing up, baseball wasn't his only sport, though. The all-around athlete learned how to profit from what he loved.

"I used to officiate football, baseball and basketball as ways to make money," Carlson said.

Not long after, Carlson joined the United States Marine Corps and was stationed at Camp Pendleton in infantry.

After the first year, the Corps honorably discharged him due to a minor medical condition. 

Although he's fine now, at the time, he lacked direction. He really didn't have anything going in his life, he said. He didn't have a particular path to follow.

That's when a friend, Pat McGuinness, told Carlson about umpire school. McGuinness was a minor league ump and knew Carlson had an interest.

So off he went to Brinkman-Froemming Umpire School and began his long journey to the big league.

The next step was an umpire development program. He was selected to work in professional baseball. He climbed  the ladder starting with a rookie league. Then through the ranks of low-A ball, high-A, on to double-A, then triple-A.

Umpires are not like players. They can't get called up to the show as a rookie if they are good enough. 

"As far as umpires go, we have to hit every level before we get promoted," Carlson explained.

Now, Carlson is going into his 13th year with MLB. He opened the season in St. Louis for a Cardinals series against the Padres. Last week he was back home to work in Wrigley Field as the Cubs took on the Diamondbacks.

Even after all this time in the majors, walking out onto the field isn't a walk in the park. He said that although standing behind home plate is definitely an experience, he has become accustomed to it.

"You can't get caught up in the moment," he said. "You have to realize you are doing your job, 50,000 people are here.

"Is it exciting? Does it keep your adrenaline going?," Carlson asked. "Absolutely! You have to work all that much harder to avoid the distractions."

Carlson said that one of his most memorable moments was when he was called up. His first game in a major league stadium was the interleague series between the Sox and Cubs at Wrigley Field. Having grown up in the Chicago area, he said it was exciting to have all his family and friends at his first major league game.

Who did he root for? He wouldn't say. Being good at his job means leaving favorites behind.

"As a child, I had favorite teams," Carlson explained. "Now it's just a job, and we go out there and do the best we can. You don't want to make a mistake in front of 50,000 people or the millions of people who watch the highlights."

He talked about umping the 2003 All-Star Game. He said it was different than regular games because players are a bit more relaxed. Players work to do their best just like any other game. But they don't have the pressure of playing for their own team.

As far as umpiring goes, he said, there isn't much difference for the umpire.

"We still have to go out there and make our calls and perform to certain standards," he said.

What is different about the all-star games are the events and parties that go with the game. He said these kinds of social activities for players and umpires are exciting. In Chicago, he said, they rented out the Field Museum and had a gala with bands. 

Despite the All-Star Game festivities, umpires generally do not associate much with players. They might swap an on-field greeting, or exchange pleasantries if they ran into each other somewhere like a restaurant. But otherwise, Carlson said, players and umpires do not seek each other out for socializing.

Instead, Carlson spends time with his fellow umpires. He works in a four-man crew the entire season. They travel together and hang out with each other on the road. 

The crew also has a set rotation for working positions on the field. He said they continually rotate in the same order. 

"We get the same amount at every position," he said.

It was while he was working behind the plate at Wrigley during a May 2009 game against Pittsburgh that Carlson made a lasting impression on Cubs fans. In case you missed it, you can see the recap here on MLB.com.

The game was 2-1 Cubs in the top of the seventh. The Pirates' Nyjer Morgan stole home during a Zambrano wild pitch. Carlson called Morgan safe and Zambrano emphatically disagreed.

Carlson tossed Zambrano, but the irate Pitcher wasn't going to leave gracefully. He signaled back, as if to say he was ejecting the ump. Zambrano was in a disagreeing mood. He then went to the dugout and had another disagreement with the Gatorade cooler with a bat.

Patch asked Carlson the question that every good Chicagoan wants to know the answer to: What did Carlos Zambrano say to you?

But Carlson begged off. He said he did not want to comment about specific players or calls. 

"Ejections are part of the game," Carlson said. "It's not something I look forward to, as far as ejecting players or managers." 

He went on to explain that there are two reasons why someone could get ejected.

"They have to make a personal derogatory comment to me, which is grounds for an immediate ejection from the game," he said. 

The other way is if a player continues to argue with an ump after being warned. Players know their boundaries, Carlson said. Whether or not a player or manager stays in the game is entirely up to him. 

Besides calling balls and strikes, Carlson is involved with several local and national charities. Here in Will County, he is on the board of directors for the Old Timer's Baseball Association. He has also been involved with Wish Upon a Star in Joliet.

He has also been a part of the UMPS CARE Charities. This organization is a non-profit that provides financial, in-kind and emotional support for America's youth and families in need, according to its website

"Through our youth-based programs, professional baseball umpires enrich the lives of at-risk youth and children coping with serious illness by providing memorable baseball experiences, supporting pediatric medical care, and raising awareness for foster care children waiting to be adopted," the site explained.

They also host hospital events where they visit terminal and critically ill children. Once they brought Build-a-Bears where the kids got to pick out all the different outfits.

"It's quite an experience, let me tell ya," Carlson said. 

The UMPS CARE Charities recently partnered with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption to create a scholarship. Dave Thomas was the founder of Wendy's. 
In January, the organization's golf classic raised over $85,000.

Every couple weeks or so, Carlson has agreed to keep Shorewood Patch updated. Check back regularly to hear the inside scoop, exclusively on Shorewood Patch.

Dennis Clark July 07, 2012 at 05:52 AM
One of the biggest hearted people I have ever met,, AWSOME PERSON,, PROUD TO CALL HIM MY HERO !!!!!

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