Fans attending minor league baseball games this year in the South Atlantic League experienced something unique, providing they were able to notice.
One of the umpires in the full-season Class A minor league was a woman, and she happens to be a former star high school athlete from New Jersey. She’s just the eighth female to ever umpire in any league affiliated with Major League Baseball, and one of just two involved currently. But other than the pony tail slightly sticking out the back of her cap, there was nothing else that set her apart.
Jen Pawol was a two-time All-State softball player, a soccer goalie and a shot putter during her time at West Milford, where she graduated in 1995. Known for her intensity, especially on the softball diamond, she was also a gifted artist, and was recognized around town for the mural she painted on her car.
She’s still an artist, after earning a bachelors degree in painting at Pratt Insitute and masters degree in painting at Hunter College. She was also a three-time All-Conference softball player at Hofstra. She became a certified art educator, and she still maintains a studio, paints, and exhibits her work.
Throughout her life, she’s had an another passion - the game of baseball.
Her love of the sport included playing it at an early age, along with softball as she got older.
When her playing days were over, she definitely wanted to stay involved. But unlike most ex-players her age, she didn’t want to become a coach. Umpiring was going to be her thing.
“I first thought of umpiring when I was a freshman at West Milford,” she said. “Our third baseman, Lauren Rissmeyer, invited me to umpire with her at Bubbling Springs (a park in town) over the summer. She was a senior with a drivers license and a car. Lauren picked me up for the games and drove me home. I remember enjoying umpiring because the action behind the plate felt a lot like catching. The following summer she had graduated and started college. I wish I had followed up with umpiring that next summer, but I wasn’t old enough to drive. Looking back, umpiring or officiating sports would have been the ideal job for me as a student-athlete to make money and fundraise for travel ball expenses. There aren’t many other part-time jobs out there for high school students with flexible hours where they can make $25-$35 an hour.”
She always paid attention to the job of the umpire at her games, never taking their work for granted. It also helped that as a catcher, part of her own job was to maintain a dialogue with the plate ump. Eventually, she started to umpire again herself.
“Officiating was something I could do to earn extra money while putting myself through college,” she said. “The more I umpired, the further I fell in love with it as a career choice. Umpiring was more attractive to me as a career over coaching, because umpiring felt a lot like catching, but better. The umpire, like the catcher, is in the game from the first pitch to the last pitch. I missed playing the game and was looking to satisfy that missing piece. It helped a lot as a former catcher to be not afraid of getting hit by the ball. That’s vital to becoming an umpire. As a catcher, I was also used to seeing the strike zone from that end of a pitch, just like an umpire.”
“Umpires also have to train physically, just like athletes do,” she said. “Umpiring requires a tremendous amount of athleticism and I enjoy that as an athlete. Umpiring additionally presents a bigger challenge than playing. Hitters can maintain a .300 batting average and be considered good, but umpires need to bat 1.000 on their calls. They can’t miss any pitches or plays. The competitor in me really enjoys that challenge every day.”
This was Pawol’s fourth year in the minors, where she began her climb working in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2016. She was first noticed at clinic by two major league umpires, was offered a chance to try out at MLB Umpire Camps, and from that, was sent to compete with 32 others for eight scholarships to one of the two five-week professional umpire schools. That led to her being hired as the first female umpire in a decade.
Prior to that, she worked as a baseball and softball umpire at all levels, developing her skills and satisfying her love of the work at every step of the way.
When she was hired to work professionally, the National Baseball Hall of Fame took notice. Her first mask and the cap she wore during the Major League Umpire Camps program became part of the “Diamond Dreams” exhibit in Cooperstown.
During her off-season, she’s busy with her business, Evolve2Excellence, that offers training to baseball and softball catchers, hitters and umpires. Getting young people involved in officiating is very important to Pawol, which is why in addition to her instructional work, she travels as a speaker to tell her story and pass along the message to students that officiating sports can be a fun, fulfilling experience.
And as the NJSIAA celebrates its first Officials Appreciation Week from Oct. 14-20, she’s pleased that her home state is not only recognizing their work, but emphasizing that joining their ranks is encouraged. In fact, she wants to make it clear to current high school athletes that their daily work playing sports is putting them on a straight path toward becoming an official, even if they don’t realize it.
“Playing lots of sports and being under pressure during high school laid a foundation for me to continue to build on as a competitor,” she said. “I experienced true competition. Not everyone wins. Working hard to climb a ladder is a powerful mindset. These lessons have traveled with me through my life. I believe I learned how to apply drive to a disciplined work ethic and not give up on my goals. The amount of work we put in as individuals and as a team to get to those big games wasn’t easy. I learned to get better, it took extra practice on my own, outside of team practice, to improve my performance. I learned to struggle through failure or difficulty to improve and achieve goals. All of these lessons learned in high school were extremely valuable while I was competing in umpire school, then in the Gulf Coast League, and over the past four years in professional baseball.”
Are you interested in becoming a high school sports official? Click the link below for information on how to get involved: