Nearly a quarter of a million people attend Chattanooga Lookouts games each spring and summer at AT&T Field.
Many come to watch tomorrow's Major League stars. Others enjoy the entertainment acts, such as the Famous Chicken or the Zooperstars, and most everybody appreciates a postgame fireworks show.
Yet nobody is there to film and grade the performance of the umpires. Nobody, that is, except Dusty Dellinger.
Dellinger is in his fourth year as the head evaluator and field instructor for the 45 umpires who work at the Double-A level, including the 15 assigned to the Southern League. He ranks the umpires from 1 to 45 at the end of each season and again in the middle of the season, and those at the top are first in line to advance to Triple-A when openings occur.
A former umpire who spent 11 years in the field, Dellinger worked in the Southern League from 2000-02 but never ejected former Lookouts manager Phillip Wellman. He advanced to work 33 big-league games from 2005-07, and he was on a crew in Atlanta that tossed former Braves manager Bobby Cox in the bottom of the first inning.
"It was a strike-him-out, throw-him-out, and he came out to argue the third strike," Dellinger said. "As soon as he came out of that dugout, you could tell he was going to be gone."
Dellinger made his only trip this year to AT&T Field last weekend and shared some not-so-common information about Double-A umpires:
1. A ticking clock
Once an umpire is promoted to Double-A, he has three full seasons to advance to Triple-A or else he is released.
There have been 15 umpires promoted from Double-A to Triple-A so far this season. The 15 openings in Triple-A were the result of nine umpires getting released, three quitting and three getting promoted to the majors.
2. Acting lessons
The Famous Chicken appeared at AT&T Field last Saturday night and incorporated the umpires throughout most of his routines. Ted Giannoulas, who performs the famous act, meets with the umpires for 10 to 15 minutes before a game to discuss all the antics that are about to transpire.
"When The Chicken is out on the field, he is still talking the umpires through things," Dellinger said. "As he's doing stuff to them, he's talking to them. He'll say, 'I just need you to stand there so I can walk up behind you and act like I'm peeing on you.' It's pretty funny."
3. Christmas gifts
Giannoulas will note the names of all three members of every crew he works with during the season so he can send them each a gift at Christmas.
"He sends a gift card for $50 to Lowe's or Sears or something like that," Dellinger said. "We always like it when The Chicken comes to town."
4. Financial disparity
Double-A umpires can earn $3,000 a month, or $15,000 over the course of the five-month season. Broken down over the 140 games, Double-A umpires earn roughly $107 a game.
The Famous Chicken earns $10,000 a game.
5. No skipping
No matter how impressive some umpires might be once they get into the minor leagues, they are not allowed to jump classifications in the same manner as players.
Current Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon played the 2009 season in the Single-A Midwest League and played last season in Chattanooga, so he never played at the high Single-A level. Umpires must work at every step of the developmental ladder.
Umpires also can't get demoted a level like players can, so it's either move up or move out.
6. Keeping tabs
Beginning last season, Dellinger started tracking the number of times each Double-A manager gets ejected. The totals are stored in the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp (PBUC) data base, but the information also is available to the leagues.
"It was mainly to see trends," Dellinger said. "We want to see what kind of ejection it is. Is it because of balls and strikes? If all of an umpire's ejections are because of balls and strikes, then there may some legitimacy to this. We are hoping to see patterns that can help the umpire."
Three Double-A managers were ejected six times last season - Carolina's David Bell, Chattanooga's Carlos Subero and Jacksonville's Tim Leiper.
7. The toughest call
Dellinger said home-run rulings in "goofy ballparks" can be challenging but that no call in baseball is tougher than the check swing. He added that it's the call most often missed.
"It's very difficult sometimes for a plate umpire to see it, because a lot of times his view gets blocked by the catcher," he said. "With three-man crews, it can be especially difficult when it's a left-handed batter and the third-base umpire is working inside. In a four-man system, you've obviously always got somebody down there, but it's still a tough call.
"The best perspective is usually from the dugout, because you can see the front edge of the plate. The base umpire doesn't have as good of a look."
8. Media friendly
In the Minor League Umpiring Manual, umpires are told to always cooperate with the media when possible. Section I of the rulebook deals with conduct and responsibilities of umpires, and rule 1.13 states:
"Umpires shall cooperate with press, radio and television personnel in explaining controversial plays which occur in the game and events happening during an on-field situation."
9. Now is the time
There are 68 umpires in the major leagues, and there have been seven promotions from Triple-A in the past two seasons. That may not sound like much, but Dellinger said there were just two promotions in the five-year stretch from 2003-07.
"In past years, it was very difficult to become a Major League umpire because of the lack of turnover," he said. "Two years ago, a new collective bargaining agreement gave Major League umpires a sweeter pension. There is more incentive for the guys who reach a certain age to retire, so now is a great time to be a minor league umpire because they are wanting to get the older guys out of the system after they've done 20 or so years."
10. Joining the ranks
Dellinger said a Minor League Baseball Umpiring School is opening in Vero Beach, Fla., and it will run from Jan. 8-Feb. 5. More information can be obtained by calling 1-877-799-UMPS.
Unfortunately, there is no such training school to become the next Famous Chicken.