One thing you can say about Zdenek Zidek . . . He’s not afraid of a challenge.
Zidek is a practicing defense attorney in his hometown of Prague in the Czech Republic — That’s, you know, on another continent across a really big body of water. He has a wife and ten-month-old son there, not to mention in-laws and extended family. At the age of 27, most people would think his life pattern was set.
And yet . . . he’s a minor-league umpire in the United States and in the early stages of what will be a long hard slog to get to the big time that is Major League Baseball.
And he’s happy.
“I’m sure some people think it’s a bit crazy,” he acknowledged, “but I’ve wanted to be an umpire for a long time. It’s a passion.”
That must be. After all, the path to becoming an MLB umpire is highlighted by low pay, plenty of fast-food meals and less-than-stellar lodging. Not to mention stringent competition for a very few slots.
There are only 76 regular MLB umpires, in addition to 16 AAA-level umpires who can be called upon to serve in case of injury or illness. In a normal season – i.e., one not impacted by Covid-19 – there are only about 230 umpires in the affiliated minor leagues, and that number could possibly decrease after the number of affiliated minor leagues was recently contracted. A 2013 article reported that just 16 percent of all umpire school enrollees were selected to begin professional umpiring careers.
And while it’s difficult to get a professional umpiring career started, it’s even more so to get to the majors. The attrition rate for MLB umpires is only about one per year, according to one report, so a minor league umpire is going to have a long wait for an opportunity.
The Minor League Baseball Umpire Training Academy, from which Zidek graduated, states on its website that “Since 1998, 62 umpires evaluated and developed by Academy Instructors have been hired full time by Major League Baseball.” That’s an average of less than three per year.
“It takes at least six years, and as many as 10, before you can be considered for a job in MLB,” Zidek said.
Zidek has been umpiring for 13 years. There was no baseball where he grew up – in Pilsen, about an hour away from Prague – so he played fast-pitch softball. He began umpiring when he was 14 and eventually decided he was a better at that than playing. He was good enough to work the 2015 Junior Women’s Softball World Championship.
Then he found a television documentary titled “The Third Team”, which focused on the umpires for the 2014 World Series in the U.S. He watched the documentary numerous times, and that cemented his desire to make it to MLB.
“I still wasn’t that good an umpire, but that documentary made me realize that this was what I really wanted to do,” Zidek said, “and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to finish school first, and then I’ll go for it.'”
He started by going to umpire school in Florida in 2018, but he had a tough time finding a job in the U.S. afterward because he had no experience.
“I couldn’t get enough experience back home because games are pretty much limited to the weekends,” he said, “so I had to get a job in the U.S. I emailed a lot of people and didn’t get many responses. The few that did get back to me couldn’t help because I didn’t have a U.S. passport.”
So Zidek stayed home and umpired in the Czech league, one of the better ones in Europe. He then returned to the U.S., again went through umpire school in early 2019 and was eventually hired to work in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Then in August, he moved up to the short-season Northwest League.
Since he was only on a work visa, he returned home after the 2019 schedule ended. He was slated to umpire in the Class A Midwest League in 2020, but when the Covid-19 pandemic forced postponement – and later cancellation – of the minor league season, he again worked in the Czech league.
“Back home, the games are only on weekends,” Zidek said, “so I don’t get as many reps as I’d like. Umpires are like players in that way – to get better, they need more reps. Still, it’s better than not umpiring at all.”
The plan, of course, is to start getting more reps in the U.S. minor leagues next season. He is still employed by MiLB. Therefore, barring continuing disruption by the Covid-19 pandemic or effects of the contraction of the minor leagues, he most likely will have a job next year in the Midwest League or elsewhere.
“I feel like I’m getting better,” he continued. “I feel like my game management is good, but there are always things to work on. It’s a faster game in the U.S. Everything is faster and stronger, not just the pitching. That’s good because it forces me to adjust and keep up.”
The biggest adjustment, aside from those on the field, comes when he’s away from his family for a season. Though his wife and family are supportive, being a continent away is difficult.
“It’s a challenge,” Zidek acknowledged. “Luckily, my family has been tremendously supportive, even though they don’t really understand the game. I couldn’t do this without their support. They knew I was kind of struggling with my work . . . I always wanted to be at the fields, even when I was sitting at my regular job.
“I’m determined to make this work.”
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