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Puyallup native strives to be the best behind the plate

Quinn Wolcott made it to the big leagues standing behind the plate as an umpire. The Puyallup native does his best not to stand out, but he'll be the first to tell you he's made plenty of mistakes. (AP)

If you’re a baseball fan, you know our area is well represented in Major League Baseball, with players from Snohomish to Seattle dotting the rosters.

But a Puyallup native who made it to the big leagues gets little notice most of the time. And he prefers it that way.

Growing up in Pierce County, Quinn Wolcott had similar dreams as all the other children.

“I was a ball player, you know, when I was 10,” he said. “I wanted to be a major league player just like all the other kids.”

But from a fairly young age, Wolcott also needed to work. And he figured out umpiring was something he could do to make a few bucks.

He began with tee-ball when he was just 12. As he got older, he continued umpiring for little league, and then ultimately high school-aged leagues. While still harboring dreams of playing major league baseball, he realized that wasn’t likely. But somebody suggested making a career of umpiring and attending umpiring school. And a lightbulb went off.

It sounded intriguing, and for a teenager, more fun than college. So he headed off to umpire school in Florida.

“Five weeks on the field, rules, six days a week, 10 hour days,” he recalled. “It was pretty intense.”

And just like playing baseball, the competition is fierce. Wolcott says roughly 135 guys attended the school with him, but just 25 were called up to professional baseball – rookie leagues.

Umpires start at the lowest level just like the players. But unlike the players, there are no shortcuts. It’s a slow, steady climb.

He began with short-season rookie ball, then slowly progressed from single A to double and triple A. During the offseasons, he would umpire wherever he could, from the Arizona instructional league to Latin America.

All along the way, umpires are scrutinized and graded on everything from their style to their mastery of the game.

Even though he was getting promoted, Wolcott admits he had plenty of doubts he’d ever make it to the majors.

“It’s such long odds for us,” he said. “About 1 percent of the guys make it to the big leagues from when we start out. You know, my first year or two in the minor leagues I said I’ll take a shot at this a couple of years and see what happens.”

But he stuck with it, and Puyallup’s own finally got the call up in his eighth season.

Since then, Wolcott’s done his best not to stand out. But he’ll be the first to tell you he’s made plenty of mistakes, drawing the ire of players, coaches and fans alike.

“Any time you miss a play, the first thing on our mind is ‘alright, why did I miss it? Did I miss it because I was out of position, was my timing too fast, was I too far away?” Wolcott said in the umpire’s locker room beneath Safeco Field.

A video screen and computer nearby, he reviews his performance just like players do, always striving to improve. It’s surprisingly technical, a skill to be developed just like the players. And just like the best players, sometimes he simply screws up.

“You’re going to miss plays sometimes where you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “You’re just a human being and you missed it.”

So you’d think the last thing Wolcott would want is an instant replay to prove him wrong, especially given his own experience with it. He was the first in all of Major League Baseball to have a call overturned to end a game.

Rather than begrudge it, though, Wolcott welcomes the extra set of eyes.

“As an umpire, it’s absolutely terrific when you make a game ending mistake and they can fix it and I didn’t change the course of anybody’s season due to a mistake that I made,” he said.

There’s still plenty of his own discretion left, though, such as when to give a player or manager the boot. Like the time he ejected catcher AJ Pierzynski for tossing back a ball and snarkily saying “throw me one you can see.”

Wolcott says there are some magic words that will get a manager or player tossed, but he won’t disclose what they are.

And like all umps, he gets plenty of grief from the stands. But what most fans don’t realize is he hears virtually none of it.

It was actually much worse back in Puyallup when parents would berate the then-teenager at a kids game.

“The parents were probably more obnoxious back in the little league days because you could hear everything they said,” he said.

One set of parents, though, is always there to cheer him. Wolcott’s probably the only ump who has had his own cheering section at Safeco Field. His family and friends regularly come out to root him on.

“I’m sure they get laughed at up there in the stands,” he said.

And Wolcott holds out hope they’ll one day see him on the game’s biggest stage.

Everybody doesn’t necessarily get a World Series. You’ve got to earn it. That’s definitely the pinnacle. It’s something that you strive for every day. It’s a grind just like for the players. You’ve got to go out every day and do your job and show them what you can do to get an opportunity like that,” he said.

Considering he’s only 29, there’s a good chance we’ll see Quinn Wolcott get to the World Series one day. He just hopes we don’t actually notice him when he does.

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