Jen Pawol, the first female umpire to reach Triple A in three and a half decades, is another step closer to the big leagues. Pawol will officiate major league spring training games in Florida this season, becoming just the third woman to do so and the first since 2007.
Pawol, who will also be named Triple-A crew chief, is aiming to become the first woman to referee a regular-season MLB game, which could happen as early as 2024.
“I gave it full throttle and we are giving it full throttle,” Pawol said on Monday. “I’m comfortable in my own shoes, I’ve kind of grown my wings and that’s the narrative, that’s the plot, the plot.” And people are excited and encouraging. And when it comes down to it, I just have to make my next play.”
Pawol was one of 24 umpires announced Monday for major league spring training games. She will be based in the Jupiter area and is scheduled to play her first game on Feb. 24 in West Palm Beach. Promoted to Triple A last spring, Pawol, 47, began her career in the Gulf Coast League in 2016 and has steadily worked her way up the ranks.
“I often hear, ‘You’re going to do it, you’re going to be first, keep going,'” Pawol said of the reaction she’s received from fans. “I get asked for an autograph a lot… it’s definitely been very positive.”
Pawol said that every autograph request always comes with the caveat that everyone in the crew must sign.
“You get all four of us or none of us,” she said. “(We) spread the love there.”
Baseball’s history with female umpires hasn’t always been so rosy. Pam Postema spent 13 seasons in the minor leagues and, in her final season in 1989, became the first woman to manage a major league spring game. After six years at Triple A, Postema’s contract was terminated.
Teresa Cox was another early pioneer (1989–91). She tried to change her voice and received criticism for her appearance. Both women filed lawsuits, Postema for gender discrimination and Cox (who now calls herself Fairlady) for harassment and abuse within the refereeing community; Both lawsuits were ultimately settled out of court.
Ria Cortesio became the second woman to officiate a major league spring training game. She was fired in 2007 after nine years, the last five at Double A, after a season in which she began as the league’s top-ranked umpire.
Pawol named Cortesio and Postema as mentors, who wrote a comprehensive book about their experiences. She said Monday that she had been texting with both women since it was announced she would be an umpire in big league camp. Pawol found out about her promotion in a phone call last week.
While other major professional sports like the NFL and NHL have had female officials, Pawol is baseball’s best shooter. There were five female umpires in professional baseball last year, but she was the only one above Class A.
“She’ll make it,” Jonathan Ortega, Pawol’s crew chief, said last summer, calling Pawol one of the hardest workers he’s ever seen. “I don’t know if it will be the same in a year or two, but I think she’ll get there.”
Pawol, a former catcher at Hofstra, received a master’s degree in painting from Hunter College. On the weekends, she refereed fastpitch softball to help pay her tuition. Pawol moved up the fastpitch ranks and a colleague snuck her into a few amateur baseball tournaments, but the presence of a female umpire rocked the boat and, Pawol says, was always met with resistance from tournament administrators.
In January 2015, Pawol attended the Southern Umpires Camp in Atlanta, Georgia. Baseball classes offered more practice and skills than softball, and with a dozen softball classes and nearly 2,000 amateur games under her belt, it seemed more versatile. Longtime MLB umpire Ted Barrett was among the coaches and was impressed with Pawol. He told her about the MLB’s free one-day referee camp in Cincinnati, which was open to everyone.
“You know I’m a woman, right?” Pawol joked.
Intrigued by Barrett’s offer, Pawol booked a one-way ticket to Cincinnati for August 15, 2015. She had no plans to return to her day job: She wanted to win a coveted scholarship to the league’s referee academy. And that’s exactly what she did. Pawol made her Gulf Coast League debut the following year.
In some ways, the promotion to crew chief is just as important as spring training in the big leagues. Pawol will now be responsible for the logistics of her crew’s schedule and be the leader on and off the field. As a crew chief in Triple-A, Pawol is considered part of a small group of call-ups in the event of injuries or illnesses to current big league umpires.
Every spring of her eight-year career, Pawol stood in the backfield at minor league games, hoping and praying that she would get a chance at the big league spring stadium. This year that dream came true. While it’s still a stepping stone toward her goal, “it’s a big, big deal for any referee in the pro system,” said Pawol, who estimates she probably has 1,000 pro games under her belt.
“It’s a lot of innings, a lot of work to get there, it’s very humbling because it’s need-based, there’s only so many slots… As for the other meaning it has (getting the chance to get the first one being a woman). MLB), I feel like I have to continue to get the next play right, and I try not to allow those or any other distractions.”
(Photo courtesy of Jen Pawol)