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Striking out for the big leagues: Gainesville's McConnell chasing dream to be a major league umpire
McConnell
Gainesville High grad Jacob McConnell calls a strike during a game in the American Association during the 2018 season in Wichita, Kansas.

Despite any and all obstacles, Jacob McConnell has his mind set on becoming an umpire in the big leagues. 

It’s an alluring job, for sure, but one not many would have the fortitude to handle with bouncing around the country calling games in the lower rungs of the minors, having to rise the ranks just like pro baseball players. 

However, this 25-year-old Gainesville High graduate is going to do whatever it takes to make his dream a reality. 

“I’m having a blast,” said McConnell, who left an accounting job in 2018 to become an umpire. “Doing everything I can on a daily basis to get better.”

MLB umpiring is a limited fraternity, employing 68 members. New spots are hard to come by with only one or two retiring each year. It can be a rather lucrative profession for those at the top, but comes with the strain of fans hanging on their every call. 

McConnell is seeing his hard work pay off, enduring the hot summer months with only modest financial compensation — far less than he was making in accounting. Going into Year 3 of his career, McConnell will join the New-York Penn League, which is short-season Single-A ball, once were past the coronavirus pandemic and umpires can finally scream ‘play ball’ at parks across the country. This is where many of the most recent MLB draft picks start pro careers, following the June draft. The abbreviated season ends in September. 

The minor league umpire knows there’s no fast path to the majors. It’s just like any professional, in that your reputation and making good connections are the key to success. He’s done 202 professional games at multiple levels.

Just to make it to Triple-A as an umpire, McConnell has been told it’s typically 7 or 8 years of calling games in minor league ball parks across the country, then you cross your fingers hoping to get a crack at getting called up to spring training in Florida or Arizona.

McConnell considers himself fortunate to have a supportive family, who encouraged him to go after his dreams.

Getting into umpiring was not as easy as signing up for a class and getting assigned to the minor leagues. 

Not even close. 

McConnell’s first taste of umpiring came in 2013, calling junior varsity and varsity high school games in North Carolina, while he was in school at Gardner-Webb University. 

It was good coin for a college kid, pocketing $130 for a doubleheader and on a normal week going home with around $250-300.

Over the next couple years, he estimated calling around 200 prep games in North Carolina. 

It was also where he would learn about dealing with every aspect of the game: Angry coaches, irate parents and getting past being overly self critical about a missed call.

“My mentor Ron (Teague) gave me great advice that you can’t let one call effect the next pitch,” McConnell said.

McConnell knows the moment his part-time job turned into a potential career. He was working a game between two of the top high school teams six years ago in Shelby, N.C. With runners on base, the batter for the trailing home team hit a short fly ball to center field. McConnell ruled the diving attempt a catch, then the defender quickly got to his feet and doubled up the runner on second base with a quick throw.

After the play, he got an earful from the coach of the home squad. The emotion was short lived as the home squad came back to win on a base-clearing double in its final at bat in the seventh inning.

However, playing golf the next day with a friend, McConnell even was called out for missing the call by another patron. 

It didn’t deter his dreams. 

McConnell decided to go all in to be as good as possible.

One of those was dealing with rejection. It took two times through the four-week training course to finally get the green light to the next stage.

After missing the cut his first try, McConnell made it a priority while home in Gainesville to get in better physical shape. A combination of a low-carb diet and daily workouts helped him cut 45 pounds, down to about 225. 

Persistence has since paid off remarkably for McConnell, after passing the Major League Baseball Umpire Training Academy. It’s six days each week in the classroom, followed by about five hours each day on the field, applying what they’ve learned. 

His first season as an umpire in the American Association, McConnell worked all through the midwest and even Canada. He said the image of Canada being a cool climate in the summer is a myth.

“I worked a game in Canada in July where it was 95 degrees,” he said with a laugh.

That summer, he gained one of his best compliments. After working a game in front of a soldout stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota, holding nearly 10,000 fans, McConnell was approached after the game by both coaches to say he called a very good game.

Then in 2019, he got bumped up to the Gulf Coast League. There, he got used to working all over Florida, working games early in the day. 

Now, he’s thrilled for the challenge of working in the league with the same players who are cutting their teeth, also aiming for an eventual spot in the majors. 

He’s kept his nose in the rule book to be ready once baseball is back on track and he gets his first assignment up north for the 2020 season. 

When McConnell was a student in college, being a baseball umpire was not on his radar. He’s closest experience was working intramural football games. Then one fateful day, he had a conversation with a friend, Chandler Durham, who said he couldn’t do anything that night because he had to get up early the next day to work a college basketball game. 

That conversation planted the seed with McConnell to give it a try in baseball. A successful first two seasons led to where he is today, awaiting the start of his first year in Single-A.

Every experience as an umpire, according to McConnell, is a necessary stepping stone to make the big leagues. 

In a few years, he hopes to be calling balls and strikes around some of the biggest names in the game.

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