The managers for the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays and Gulf Coast League Tigers trotted out one by one to greet the umpires standing to either side of the plate. The opening day pleasantries between manager and umpire lasted a bit longer Friday at the Englebert Complex, as the Blue Jays’ Cesar Martin and the Tigers’ Basilo Cabrera took an extra moment to acknowledge the day’s plate umpire, who had a ponytail poking out beneath her cap.
After the managers returned to their dugouts and the national anthems played, Jen Pawol slid her umpire mask over her face and settled into a crouch as GCL Tigers shortstop Chad Sedio stepped into the batter’s box. Pawol had to take a moment, though, to appreciate the history she was about to make.
“I was excited,” Pawol said. “But I honestly just wanted to get the first few pitches in, and once those pitches started coming in and plays started coming at first and stuff like that I felt like a little bit more relaxed. And I was like, ‘Alright. Let’s enjoy this now. Let’s do this.’”
With her season debut at the Rookie-level league in Dunedin, Pawol became the first female umpire in minor league baseball since 2007 and the first in the GCL since 1978. She is the seventh woman to umpire a minor league game. None reached the majors.
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Her first nine innings unfolded smoothly behind the plate. She got to punch out five batters, watch an obvious grand slam sail over the right-field fence and make a straightforward call on a play at the plate as the Blue Jays won 5-4.
“Pretty easygoing game. Not much happened,” Pawol said. “They scored their runs on their own and it was kind of like we weren’t there, so that’s good. That’s the kind of game we want to have.”
After the managers dispersed before the game and Pawol’s umpiring partner Scott Molloy set up near first base, Pawol began the nine innings she has spent a serious chunk of her life preparing for. Martin, the manager for Toronto’s GCL team, told his players to behave and watch their mouths. Cabrera, the manager for Detroit’s GCL team, sent Sedio to bat first.
The third strike to Sedio zipped by him at the top of the strike zone without a swing. Pawol turned to her left and punched her left hand forward while cocking her right arm back. She grunted a standard strike-three call and sent Sedio back to the dugout.
Two innings later came Pawol’s most thrilling moment. Norberto Obeso singled to right field for the Blue Jays. Sterling Guzman tried to race home from second base, only be tagged out as he tried to slide around the catcher and reach for the plate.
“One play at the plate,” Pawol said, mimicking her punchout and making a small explosion noise. “Did anybody get a picture of that?”
Pawol, who is 40, is older than the typical GCL umpire. The Binghamton, N.Y., resident was a star softball catcher at Hofstra from 1996-1998 and posted a .332 batting average with 109 runs, 102 RBIs, 22 steals and 15 home runs. Pawol spent a decade playing in the Amateur Softball Association before retiring six years ago to focus on umpiring full time.
She spent three seasons, ending in 2015, calling softball games in the Big 10. She then attended the MLB Umpire Training Academy in Vero Beach, which led her to earning an assignment to the GCL. It was also where she met Molloy, who will be partnered with her throughout the season.
Both umpires were permitted to speak to the media on Friday and Saturday (in Lakeland) given the significance of Pawol’s debut.
“She’s a sweetheart. She’s one of the nicest people ever and rightfully deserves to have the position she has,” Molloy said. “I’m honored to be able to work with her. I’m following her up the gravy train.”
He also admitted to being a bit taken by the moment when he first stepped out on to the field with Pawol. Reflecting on his initial meeting with Pawol, Molloy said he’s not surprised she received the opportunity. Pawol’s experience made her one of the more impressive students at the Umpire Training Academy.
The day before Molloy and Pawol took to the diamond as a team, Pawol expressed interest in standing behind the plate for her first game. Molloy was happy to oblige and watch history from the side.
“She asked for it,” Molloy said. “Ladies first.”
Jen Pawol is the seventh female to umpire in a major league affiliated pro league.
1972: Bernice Gera
1975-77: Christine Wren
1977-89: Pam Postema
1989-91: Theresa Cox Fairlady
1999-2007: Ria Cortesio
2003-04: Shanna Kook
Source: Minor League Baseball