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Ruling the Diamond

Ted Barrett, a Los Altos High School graduate, is a top Major League Baseball umpire.
If you think you face a lot of scrutiny at your job, imagine what Ted Barrett goes through. His every move is analyzed not only by his boss and coworkers, but also by tens of thousands of screaming observers.

It’s all part of the life of a Major League Baseball umpire.

Barrett, a 1983 Los Altos High School graduate, is regarded as one of the best umpires in baseball. But like all umps, Barrett has been booed and berated.

When he started, Barrett didn’t respond quite so well to the criticism.

"It’s tough to turn on a TV and hear yourself get blasted or pick up a newspaper and see yourself get blasted," Barrett said. "As umpires, we’ll say it doesn’t bother us, but how can it not?"

That hasn’t deterred Barrett from doing his job — and doing it well. A recent Sports Illustrated survey reported that Major League Baseball players voted Barrett the third-best umpire in the game. His fellow umpires respect Barrett as well.

"You can see a genuine love of the game (in Barrett)," said 25-year veteran Dana DeMuth, Barrett’s crew chief. "You see it in his eyes … and the way he feels for his partners when his partners are going through situations. You feel that he is a man who has always got your back."

Early years

Barrett played football, baseball and basketball at Los Altos High — and baseball wasn’t even his best or favorite sport.

Vance Walberg, former Los Altos High and current University of Massachusetts basketball coach, is not surprised by Barrett’s success.

"Ted was the type of kid that whatever he set his mind to he was going to do," Walberg said of his former forward. "He was just the type of kid where if there was a rebound, he was going to get it; if there was a defensive stop, he was going to make it. Obviously, I totally enjoyed coaching Ted — it’s not even a question."

The 6-foot-4-inch Barrett helped lead Los Altos to the Central Coast Section playoffs in football his senior year and earned an invitation to the Santa Clara County All-Star Game.

Barrett began umpiring Little League games in New York before his family moved to Los Altos after his sophomore year of high school. And while reluctant to relocate, Barrett flourished here.

"Why didn’t we do this 10 years earlier? I just loved it," Barrett recalled thinking.

He soon discovered a passion for officiating.

"I just like baseball and I was drawn (to umpiring)," Barrett said. "I’m not even really sure why. I had a friend who was doing it and he asked me to do it, (so) I went out and liked it."

Barrett umpired games at Los Altos High and Foothill College, but his interest peaked while finishing his undergraduate degree at Cal State Hayward. Barrett joined an organization of high school baseball umpires, and a friend convinced him to attend umpire school.

Barrett married his high school sweetheart Tina in 1988 before enrolling in the Joe Brinkman Umpire School in Cocoa, Fla.

Barrett began umpiring in the Northwest League later that year. He umpired in the California, Texas and Pacific Coast leagues before reaching the majors.

Coping with criticism

Tina said the first few years with Ted in minor league baseball were the most difficult for the family.

"One of the towns that I can remember that had really bad fans was Salinas," she said. "You (try to) have thick skin, but sometimes, when it’s more personal, I kind of say stuff, but I don’t say too much. Part of (it is that the fans are) here to yell at (the umpires), and I understand that the fans don’t know what they’re talking about when they yell for a ball or a strike or whatever."

Barrett had to develop thick skin as well.

"I had kind of a bad temper early on," Barrett said. "When someone had a bad temper, I’d take it personally. I threatened a few players in A-ball. A few managers in the league said, ’Hey, you can’t do that or you could get fired.’"

After a while, "I learned to not take it personally," Barrett said.

Up to the majors

Barrett wasn’t in the minor leagues for long, however.

Umpires can spend more than 10 years toiling in the minor leagues hoping to be called up to the big show. Barrett got his first taste of Major League Baseball in his sixth season.

Barrett attributes his quick rise partially to luck — "being in the right place at the right time," he said — but also to determination.

"After playing football and after boxing, I always felt like if I had given it a better effort, I could have gone further," said Barrett, who also had an accomplished amateur boxing career. "In umpiring, I gave it everything I had, so at least I know I tried my hardest."

Barrett’s perseverance paid off during the 1994 season, when after umpiring a Triple A game in Tucson, Ariz., he got the call that all baseball players and umpires long for. Barrett was summoned to Texas to be the third-base umpire for the series opener between the Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox.

"I remember getting on the plane and flying there and I kept expecting them to say, ’We made a mistake, we really didn’t want you, we wanted somebody else,’" Barrett said. "It was kind of out of nowhere."

A few days later, Barrett umpired behind a major league home plate for the first time — at legendary Yankee Stadium.

"I thought, ’This is really cool, just walking in to this ballpark here,’" Barrett said. "Babe Ruth played here, Jack Dempsey fought here."

Barrett remained at the major league level until the players went on strike Aug. 11.

After the strike, Barrett finished the year at Triple A.

"I went back down to Triple A and remember thinking, ’Man, that’s where I want to be — I want to be in the big leagues,’" he said.

For the next five seasons, he split time between Triple A and as a fill-in at the major league level before becoming a full-time MLB umpire in 1999.

Major league highlights

July 18, 1999, was one of the more memorable moments of his first full year. Barrett was behind the plate for Yankee pitcher David Cone’s perfect game. While it would have been easy to get caught up in the moment, Barrett called the game pitch by pitch.

"To be honest with you, throughout the game you try not to think about those things," Barrett said. "You try to take it one pitch at a time. I remember when it got into the late innings at one point I looked up and saw he had a no-hitter, but I honestly didn’t know he had a perfect game."

The next year, Barrett was in San Francisco for the opening of the Giants’ new stadium, Pacific Bell Park.

"It was really cool because when I was in high school and college I’d go to games at Candlestick (Park)," Barrett said.

But in a career full of memorable umpiring moments — including the 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco, numerous playoffs and a trip to Japan — one tops them all. Barrett was behind home plate for Game 3 of the 2007 World Series between the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox.

"Just to be on the field for that — it was an electric atmosphere," Barrett said.

It’s moments like that when Barrett realizes how lucky he is to be an umpire.

"It’s so hard to make it through the minor leagues that I just feel really fortunate that I was one of the guys who made it," Barrett said. "There’re 68 major league umpires. I went to umpire school with a couple hundred guys and there’re two of us who made it to the big leagues. … A lot of times you’re standing out on the field in the Midwest somewhere and it’s a beautiful summer night and you think. ’Man, I’m so lucky to be out here doing this.’"

But there is a downside, too.

Off the field

Barrett is away from home a lot. He umpires 135-140 games a year, receiving four one-week breaks during the season. Missing your family, flying from one city to another and staying in hotel after hotel — it’s all part of life as an umpire.

Barrett does his best not to let those off-field challenges interfere with his performance on it. In a sport in which officials have been known to eject a player at the drop of a bat, Barrett’s strength is his ability to listen to players express their opinions without always reacting in anger.

"Ted has good listening skills, he listens to people and can talk to people very well," Tina said.

There have been times when a manager has actually asked Barrett to eject him as motivation for his team.

In a game a few years ago, Barrett made two close calls at home plate and was on the receiving end of some harsh words from Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca. After the second call, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy had a few words for Barrett.

"Ted, I’ve got a good angle from the dugout," Tracy said. "I saw you got both of those (calls) right, but I’ve got to get thrown out here. My pitcher can’t pitch, my fielders can’t field and everything is going wrong."

When Barrett isn’t dealing with managers, he’s at home in Gilbert, Ariz., where he lives with Tina and their three school-age children, Andrew, Amanda and Adam.

While being away so much is not easy on the family, Barrett does as much as he can with them in the off-season.

"I’m a dad first," Barrett said. "I’ve coached the kids’ teams, coached basketball and baseball."

And if there are any parents or coaches harassing the umpire at one of his children’s games, Barrett takes exception.

"The parents who sit around me, they know not to say anything to the umpire," Barrett said. "They’ll ask me a lot of times, ’Hey, did he get that play right?’ And I say, ’Absolutely,’ whether (the umpire) missed it or got it right, because I’m probably the only guy at the park who knows exactly what this guy’s going through."

Barrett is involved in several umpire-affiliated charities — BLUE for Kids (major league umpires make hospital visits to ill children), UmpsCare (which raises money for older umpires and their spouses) and Calling For Christ (a Christian support group Barrett co-founded to help younger umpires struggling with the challenges that being an umpire can present).

Barrett has a master’s degree in Biblical studies from Trinity University and plans on working in church ministry after he retires.

As Barrett nears a landmark 20 years of service, when an umpire maxes out his pension plan, he said his faith would help dictate when it is time to leave the game.

"With me, I never know what God has for me," Barrett said. "He might call me out of baseball into full-time ministry any day."

When the day does come that Barrett goes from the plate to the pulpit, the crowd should go a little easier on him.

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