By César Augusto Márquez
The first time Manuel Augusto “Manny” González umpired a professional baseball game, he was 16. Little did he know that his hobby would turn into a career.
The first Venezuelan to umpire in Major League Baseball, González’s journey to the Big Show is somewhat accidental. Born in Caracas and raised 100 miles west in Valencia, he grew up like many other youngsters in his country, dreaming of becoming a major leaguer — until the age of 14.
“The league I played in didn’t have enough funds to pay for umpires. They decided that the players should take turns umpiring,” Gonzalez said. “I was a catcher and first baseman, but I liked working behind the plate and began training to become an umpire.”
González took umpiring courses and was noticed by the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League. And yes, the Major League Baseball umpire media guide states that he made his professional debut at age 16, in 1996.
“I was somewhat nervous, which was to be expected, but it wasn’t much different from what I had been doing,” said González, now 37. “I normally umpired on weekends in Maracay and Valencia, which were the cities closest to me. It was just a hobby at the time.”
González’s age earned him instant notoriety. Veteran players and managers tested him, including Pompeyo “Yo-Yo” Davalillo, one of Venezuela’s pioneers, a 5-foot-3 shortstop who was the fourth player from his country to play MLB and who, after a long career as a manager, ended up in the Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fame.
“One of my favorite anecdotes was the day I worked a game with the Oriente Caribes, then managed by Pompeyo,” González said. “He challenged a call at third base and made me throw him out. Afterward, he came up to me and said, ‘All’s good. I just wanted to be able to say that the youngest umpire that I had ever met threw me out of a game.’”
González says that after that incident, it wasn’t difficult to gain acceptance from veteran pros.
“Not really,” he said. “You got it as long as you were professional and showed knowledge of the game.”
Despite his early success as an ump, González did not give up working toward a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Carabobo in Valencia. He didn’t commit full-time to baseball until forced to make sudden decision, much like calling a bang-bang play at home plate.
“I never stopped going to school,” González said. “But little by little, I gained more and more responsibilities as an umpire. In 2001, when MLB was trying to increase diversity, I earned a scholarship to the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Florida.
“At the time, I thought it would be a vacation. I finished first in my class and earned the chance to advance to the next level. I did well and earned a spot in the minor leagues. I had to make a career choice. I decided to drop out of school, and by May of 2002, I was working the Gulf Coast League, a rookie league.”
The family man
When dealing with players and managers, González doesn’t hide his personality. He’s friendly, except when he must be firm. He considers himself very much a homebody and family man, grateful for the support of his parents, Manuel and Elena, and of his wife and daughter, both named Lenna — so, for him, the hardest part of his job is the travel.
“Unlike the ballplayers, we’re constantly on the road,” González said. “We don’t get to spend half the season at home.”
By 2010, González had worked his way up to Triple-A. On May 17 of that year, he made his MLB debut, working third base as a fill-in umpire for a game in Miami between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Marlins.
“I still remember it as one of my best moments of my career,” González said. “Another one was when the legendary Joe Torre called (in 2013) to say that I was being promoted to a full-time MLB umpire. People think that there have been many umpires over time, but there have only been a little more than 500 in history.”
Torre, a Hall of Fame manager, is MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, overseeing different areas including umpiring. That night, González contained his joy while working his last game in the Venezuelan league, a classic matchup between Caracas and Magallanes, the arepa version of Yankees-Red Sox.
“Out of respect to everyone, I didn’t say anything about Torre’s call until after the game ended,” González said. “Someday, many years from now, once I’ve retired from MLB, I want to officially retire in my country.”
The number of full-time minority umps remains painfully low among the 19 four-man crews assigned for the 2017 season. There are only four black umpires, including González’s crewmate, CB Bucknor, who was born in Jamaica.
There are six full-time Latino umpires and two fill-ins. As a Venezuelan, González was joined this year by countryman Carlos Torres, who made his debut in 2015 and was promoted to full-time this spring.
The senior veteran in the group is the Cuban-born Ángel Hernández, who debuted in 1991 and was hired full-time in 1993. While he has worked three All-Star Games and two World Series, earlier this year Hernández filed suit against MLB, alleging discrimination regarding crew chief promotions and World Series assignments.
Lázaro “Laz” Díaz, a Cuban-American born in Miami, debuted in 1999. Alfonso Márquez, the first Mexican umpire, also debuted in 1999. At the other end of the spectrum is Gabe Morales, born in Santa Clara, Calif. Morales debuted in 2014, and along with Torres, was one of four umpires hired full-time this spring
The two substitutes are Ramón de Jesús, the first Dominican MLB umpire, and Roberto Ortiz, the second Puerto Rican after Delfín Colón, who worked from 2008 to 2009.
González is especially proud of Carlos Torres, the first product of MLB’s Umpire Camp — an initiative that started in 2006 — to reach MLB. Torres started out by attending González’s umpiring courses in Venezuela.
“I’m very proud to see him in the major leagues,” González said. “Before they called him, I knew that he was getting promoted. But I didn’t want to say anything, so he could fully enjoy the moment.”
In the world of umpiring, González counts as a pioneer, certainly for Venezuela. But he rejects the mantle. He doesn’t think he opened doors.
“I think more that I opened windows, allowing in some clarity and a fresh breeze,” Gonzalez said. “The ones after me opened the doors by themselves through their hard work.”
Featured Image: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images Sport