Sports

Jen Pawol on verge of becoming first MLB woman umpire, gets full-time spring training assignment

NEW YORK — (AP) — After nearly a decade climbing through the minor leagues, Jen Pawol is poised to break the umpiring gender barrier.

“I’ve put the gas to full throttle and we are going for it. Full speed — full speed ahead,” she said Monday after she was among 24 minor league umpires assigned full-time as fill-ins at big league spring training.

A 47-year-old from New Jersey, Pawol is set to work her first major league exhibition game on Feb. 24 when Houston plays Washington at West Palm Beach, Florida. She also was promoted to a minor league crew chief and is on the verge of a regular season big league debut.

“As a hitter, a longtime athlete, it was a big deal to hit over .300,” the former college softball player said. “But as an umpire, we have to hit 1.000 every night, and the challenge of that is absolutely riveting.”

Twenty-six umpires were assigned full spring training schedules last year, and 21 of those were assigned to the in-season call-up list. Pawol was informed of her bump up in a phone call on Feb. 5 from director of umpire development Rich Rieker and supervisor Cris Jones.

“I was like: Yessssss!” Pawol recalled.

MLB's move comes 27 years after the gender barrier for game officials was broken in the NBA, nine years after it ended the NFL and two years after soccer's World Cup employed a female referee.

Ted Barrett, a big league umpire from 1994-2022, first encountered Pawol at an umpire camp in Binghamton, New York, in early 2015 and encouraged her to pursue the career. Barrett doesn’t think Pawol will be made to feel uncomfortable by players or managers.

“Right now, it’s at the point in the major leagues, people don’t care race, creed, color, religion, belief,” he said. “If you can umpire, you can umpire, and if you can’t, you can’t. The concern of the guys coming up is, ‘Can she umpire?’ If she can, she’ll be accepted and bought in. If she can’t, you got to get her out of there and get somebody else who can.”

Pawol has been a minor league ump since 2016 and worked her way up to the highest minor level last year, when she was behind the plate for the Triple-A Championship game.

MLB has 76 full-time staff umpires and uses fill-ins on crews for openings created by injuries and vacations.

Pawol is among a small group of women who have umpired minor league games, among them Bernice Gera (1972), Christine Wren (1975-77), Pam Postema (1977-89) and Ria Cortesio (1999-2007). Nine women are scheduled to work in the minor leagues this season.

Cortesio was the last woman to work a big league spring training game, in 2007. Pawol has been texting with Postema and Cortesio.

“They are pretty fired up,” Pawol said.

Pawol became an all-state softball and soccer player in New Jersey for three seasons in each sport at West Milford High School, where she was a 1995 graduate and was inducted into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 2022. Pawol went to Hofstra on a softball scholarship and became a three-time all-conference pick, hitting .332 with 15 homers, 102 RBIs and 22 stolen bases in 161 games from 1996-98. She was on the USA Baseball women’s national baseball team in 2001.

Pawol got a master's degree and was living in the Binghamton area of New York and taking teacher certification classes at Elmira College while still playing on the side.

“I wasn’t really satisfied,” she said. “Coming off of a huge competitive career, just playing locally, I wasn’t getting my fix. And I remember looking at the umpire and being like, I think that’s it. I got to go for that.”

After umpiring NCAA softball from 2010-16, she was approached by Barrett and fellow big league umps Paul Nauert and Marvin Hudson at a clinic in Atlanta in early 2015 and went to an MLB tryout camp at Cincinnati that August. She was among 38 hopefuls invited to the Umpire Training Academy at Vero Beach, Florida, and was offered a job in the Gulf Coast League in 2016.

Pawol moved up to the New York/Penn League in 2017, then was promoted to the Midwest League after the first two weeks of the 2018 season. She worked the South Atlantic League in 2019, the High-A Midwest League in 2021, the Double-A Eastern League and the Triple-A International and Pacific Coast Leagues last year.

Violet Palmer became the NBA's first woman referee when she worked Dallas' opener at Vancouver on Oct. 31, 1997, and Sarah Thomas was the NFL's first woman on-field official when she served as line judge for Kansas City's game at Houston on Sept. 13, 2015. The NHL has not yet had women as on-ice officials but changed the job title from "lineman" to "linesperson" this season.

Stéphanie Frappart of France became the first woman to referee a men's World Cup game when she worked Germany's 4-2 group stage win over Costa Rica on Dec. 1, 2022, and Rebecca Walsh became the first to referee in England's Premier League when she officiated Burnley's 2-0 win at Fulham this past Dec. 23.

Pawol hopes to make the next breakthrough. She's been getting asked for autographs in the minors.

“The fans are very energetic, and they’ve been so supportive,” she said. “I hear a lot of ‘You’re going to do it. You’re going to be the first one. Keep going.’”

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