Sam Holbrook is enjoying his break.
Holbrook is making the most of his time at home “knocking off all of the chores that built up over the summer” in Lexington before beginning another tour of duty as a Major League Baseball umpire this spring. Holbrook, a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, spends the winter months filling his time with speaking engagements across the region and recently visited Bob Howard’s class at George Rogers Clark High School.
Holbrook is one of the veteran umpires in the majors¿and was part of the crew that called the shots in the 2010 World Series. He also has worked three league championship series. Holbrook also called the 75th All-Star game at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Holbrook liked calling the World Series between the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants.
“That was incredible,” he said. “It was a great honor to be able to do it and it was a whole lot of fun. I was glad when it was over, because that’s a big stage, the only game in town and the pinnacle of the sport.”
While in college, Holbrook got his start in the Pony League program following an overture from a friend in Morehead. Despite “not having any idea” what he was doing and “being around baseball” all of his life, Holbrook fell in love with calling the shots on the field.
“The more I learned, the more I became interested in it,” he said. “I wound up doing American Legion baseball, high school baseball and college baseball. Once it got in my blood, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Holbrook went to umpiring school in 1990 and worked his way up before receiving his big break eight years later when he joined the professional ranks. Holbrook termed the jump from the minor leagues to the major as a “whole different ballgame.”
“In the minor leagues, you’re working with professional teams and professional athletes,” he said. “It’s a job, but when you make that big step to the big leagues, where every game is on television, it really is what they call ‘The Show.’ That’s really what it is. Even as an umpire, you’re on stage every night, you’ve got to go out there, perform, handle the pressure and do the best job that you can.”
Holbrook said the sport has undergone several changes in his 13 years as an umpire, adding that technical advances have made a stressful job even more pressure-packed.
“We have always went out there and did our best to get every pitch and every play absolutely correct,” he said. “Today, with the HD television, the lasers, the computers, the pitch counts and things like that, there is just a lot more pressure to be as perfect as you can be. Technology is the biggest thing that’s changed (the game). It has helped, because it’s made us work harder to be better. There are only 68 umpires in the big leagues, but anybody who has ever stepped out on the field and umpired a ball game is proud of the job they do and they want to be right 100 percent. With the added technology, we can go back and look at the things that we have missed and figure out the reason why. That’s one of the big things.”
Despite advances in technology, Holbrook still expects criticism from fans and others and added that it “goes along with the territory.”
“That’s just the nature of the beast, but if you ask me, I think we do a pretty decent job,” he said. “The funny thing is, you get people who have no idea what they’re talking about, just jumping on the bandwagon and filling their two cents worth in. You get used to it, because it’s part of the business and part of the job. You still don’t like it, but you learn to deal with it.”
Holbrook proudly calls himself a Kentucky Wildcat fan, but doesn’t have a favorite team in the majors and is “insulated from being a fan.”
“You’re out there doing a job just like (the players) are,” he said. “I tell everyone that my favorite team is the one that doesn’t yell at me and plays the fastest. As an umpire you really can’t (have a favorite) team and you don’t. You just go out there and do the job every night. It’s kind like the cookie-cutter thing. It doesn’t matter who’s playing or who’s out there. You have to go out there, do the job and do it right.”
Although he doesn’t carry pom poms when visiting one state to another, Holbrook does have a favorite venue and “loves” going to Chicago.
“I like going to Wrigley Field,” he said. “The Cubs fans are great. They like to see them win, but they really don’t care whether they win or lose. They’ve got a great fan base and a lot of energy around the ball park. The city of Chicago is just great, with all of the restaurants and they have day games. We can actually work like human beings and go out to dinner at a decent hour of the night.”
During his visits to schools around the region, Holbrook stresses the importance of hard work to reach the pinnacle.
“(To be a major league umpire), there is a long process that you have to go through,” he said. “I just tell them about that and what the odds are of ever actually making it (to the big leagues).”
Holbrook overcame the odds and is living the dream.
“I’ve been very blessed,” he said. “When I was hired in 1998, the union was in dispute with management and I lost my job for two years, and then got it back through the court system. I’m thankful for it every day. I’ve got another 12 years before retirement, but I love it. It’s a great job and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”