Umpire State of Mind
- BY JEFF BLISS
- June 1, 2016
Ted Barrett (BS '88, Physical Education) was Cal State East Bay's 2015 Distinguished Alumnus for the College of Education and Allied Studies. He looks back on his university days and career as a Major League Baseball umpire.
His is a life of structure.
For as far back as he can remember, Ted Barrett (BS ’88, Physical Education) has embraced the rulebook.
Whether on the gridiron, in the boxing ring, at church or even as a kid, Barrett has studied, applied and even preached the rules.
Now, he’s stepping into his office — a Major League Baseball field, actually — where as one of the game’s most accomplished umpires and crew chiefs, his word is law. It has been that way since he was elevated to “the Bigs” in 1994.
Described by one sportswriter as “a bulk of a man, a tower of strength on a six-foot-four frame,” Barrett is a commanding presence on and off the field. Before the game and between innings, he is not averse to speaking with managers and players — even trading an occasional quip with them — but when the game is “live,” he is clearly all business.
As is expected for any MLB umpire, Barrett has had more than a few heated “discussions” over disputed calls. What he does not encounter, however, are angry managers trying to physically intimidate him. After all, his size and former career as a pugilist are legend. Miami Marlins manager and former New York Yankee great Don Mattingly was once asked if he would dispute calls with Barrett “the old-fashioned way,” (with fisticuffs) and he demurred: “Teddy’s a big boy. He used to box with Tyson. You don’t want to mess with Teddy.”
As a crew chief and a go-to guy for big games, Barrett has established himself as an “umpire’s umpire.” But he did not reach his current level by simply memorizing the MLB rulebook, carefully watching the game and its players, or hardening himself against the jeers of fans and curses of argumentative managers.
No, for Barrett the road to home plate started on the fields and courts of his boyhood, where he learned to take as good as he gave.
“Playing so many sports, I think it really helps me out on the field,” Barrett says, “because as umpires, we deal with failure a lot. So, you know, I’ve dropped a touchdown pass. I’ve missed a free throw — at the buzzer. I’ve struck out with the bases loaded.
“So it’s like they say,” he continues. “Relief pitchers have to have a short memory. They can’t let the failures eat at them. Well, umpires do, too. Because we miss calls. Sometimes we go to replay and luckily we get them right. But to stand out there in front of 50,000 people and say, ‘Hey, I just failed,’ … it’s tough. And you feel bad after the game. No one hurts more than we do (when a call is missed). But sports have helped me deal with that. You can’t let the mistakes eat at you.”
Barrett’s sports career, which began as a player rather than an official, took off while he was a teen. Born in upstate New York and raised in the Bay Area, he boxed in youth leagues and was a three-sport varsity letterman (baseball, basketball and football) at Los Altos High School.
His skills earned him the attention of coaches at Foothill College, but they informed him he would have to give up one of his three sports. In what proved to be an ironic decision, Barrett gave up baseball (though he continued to play for the local semipro East Bay Giants), choosing instead to focus on jump shots and touchdowns. As a big, dominating tight end, he was soon noticed by more programs and was offered a football scholarship at then–IAA champions Montana State.
But it was the Pioneers’ legendary football coach and athletic director Don Sawyer who won him over. Well, that and the split-back offensive scheme Sawyer employed. “It was an H-back formation,” remembers Sawyer, the iconic alumnus and former coach. “It put a blocker and a receiver in the backfield, and that was good for Ted.”
“He showed some film of the offense and it was kind of … it was really cool,” Barrett says with a smile. “The tight end would start in the back field, he’d split out, and he’d come in tight. It was just kind of a quirky offense and I really liked that. I figure I had twice as much opportunity to play.”
Playing for the growing college at then–Cal State Hayward agreed with Barrett. He excelled in his kinesiology studies (“I wanted to coach, but honestly I thought it sounded impressive,” he chuckles); he was courting his future wife, Tina; and he was captain of the gritty Pioneer football squad. “That was one of the things I’m proudest of in my athletic career — that I was voted captain by the players. That was quite an honor,” Barrett recalls.
“Ted always played by the rules,” Sawyer adds. “He embodies those positive sportive values and principles we want our student–athletes to learn and develop from participation in athletics. He had respect for his opponents — even when he knocked them down, he’d come over after the play and give them a hand up. He always had respect for the game and honored the game.”
As accomplished as he was on the field, Barrett knew his prospects lay elsewhere. Following his Cal State friend and fellow Pioneer athlete Kenny Bayless (BS ’72) to Las Vegas, he picked up where he had left off years earlier — in the ring.
“I stayed with Kenny Bayless, who is the Cal State alumnus who is considered the premier boxing referee right now,” Barrett notes. “It was a great time to be on the boxing scene.”
It is easy to see why Barrett recalls such a violent time in his life so fondly. Squaring off in the top prizefighting class, heavyweight, the kinesiology grad out of Hayward won an impressive 36 bouts during his short-lived boxing career. Even more impressive (or scary, depending on whose side of the punches you were on): 20 of those wins were by knockout.
“My family says that I was the greatest heavyweight champion there never was,” Barrett jokes.
And it bears noting that some of his sparring partners were among the greatest, most formidable boxers in history — including former World Heavyweight Champions George Foreman, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson.
“I remember getting hit by George Foreman’s right hand,” Barrett says. “You felt it. Your brain gets foggy for a second, but you ride it out and then you’re good to go — ready for another one.”
While Barrett recalls his sparring sessions with Foreman happily and says he was influenced by their conversations and Foreman’s faith, his mood changes when Tyson gets brought up.
“A dirty fighter,” he says. “Low blows, again and again. My manager told them I wouldn’t spar with Tyson anymore. But he was, you know, the baddest man on the planet, so that’s just kind of a … battle scar that I have.”
LIFE BY THE RULES
Despite attaining an enviable record, Barrett wondered if the sport’s accompanying damage was worth it. Family and friends were cautioning him, and his former mentor caught his ear.
“Coach Sawyer preached to me,” Barrett remembers. “He said, ‘You’re going to end up with your brains scrambled.’ You know, he just impressed on me — he said, ‘Hey, you’re a bright young man. You’ve got a great future. You shouldn’t go that route.’”
“The fear is that in boxing, you come out worse than when you go in,” Sawyer says. “For someone with the capabilities he had — he was smart and hardworking — he needed to do something where he could develop. Not where he would be damaged.”
So Barrett headed back to the game he chose to give up when he began playing college sports — baseball. Only this time, it was as an official. He followed the usual route: enrolling in and attending umpire school, and then embarking on a series of road-worn seasons, working his way up the system. He began by calling games in small backwater town after small backwater town, typical for umpires and players alike. And then the call-up came.
“I first went to the big leagues in ’94,” Barrett says. “I filled in for vacations and injuries (for a few seasons). There were three guys retiring at the end of the year, and three of us were informed that we would be hired to replace them.”
That was 1999, and in the 17 seasons since, his career trajectory has skyrocketed. He has been tapped to umpire playoff, All-Star and World Series games. Three seasons ago, Barrett was selected as one of about a dozen crew chiefs: the leader of a squad of four umpires on an MLB field who travel and work together throughout a season. Along the way, he’s established a number of marks for umpires, including being the only home plate umpire to ever call two perfect games.
“When you see what Ted has done with these values and principles he lives by, you see how it all lines up and why he’s so good at what he does,” Sawyer notes. “He’s always in control of who he is as a person and in his profession. He’s focused and he has that unique capacity to be in the moment … in the time. And he does that on a regular basis. That’s why he’s acknowledged as the best. And those were the same qualities — the same character traits — that led us to recruit him to play here.”
“It is amazing if you think about the history of baseball,” Barrett adds. “Umpires have umpired thousands of games. And there I was right in the middle of it. And you think about the hundred-plus years of pro ball, and how many games are played each year, and there have only been about 20 perfect games. And to be behind the plate for two of them, you know, it’s … it’s pretty amazing.”
“I wanted to make sure the game was played right. And you know, I guess that’s kind of spilled over into my life off the field, too.”
For Barrett, though, friends, family and faith matter more than all the sports accomplishments he has racked up.
Married for 28 years, he and Tina have three children. Their eldest, Andrew, is “following in the family business,” Barrett says with a touch of pride. “He finished his first season in professional baseball as an umpire (last year).”
Barrett’s faith, which he reconnected to during his Cal State years through a university ministry organization called Campus Crusade for Christ, blossomed into a second career as a minister, primarily in the Phoenix area. He is also a founder of a Christian prayer/study/support group for MLB umpires, Calling for Christ. In addition, his renewed faith led him to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in theology — successes he attributes, as he does his umpiring accomplishments, to structure and discipline.
“I was always that way, I think beginning as a kid — even when it came to playing pickup ball in the backyard with my brother and friends,” he says. “I wanted to … I wanted to make sure we were following the rules. ButI liked sports so much that I wanted to learn the rules, and I looked up to the officials who worked my games.
“I wanted to make sure the game was played right,” Barrett emphasizes. “And you know, I guess that’s kind of spilled over into my life off the field, too. I want to make sure we’re … we’re doing the right thing. And, that’s what I try to preach and how I try to help people live their lives.”