GLENDALE, Ariz. – Thousands of Perfect Game alumni have moved on to play professional baseball over the past decade, and many have climbed the minor league baseball ladder on their way to what they hope will one day be a career in Major League Baseball. Four-hundred and forty-five of those alumni have reached that ultimate level.
But this is a story of a PG alumnus who has spent the last five years working his way through the minor leagues while also pursuing his dream of one day making it to the big-leagues, albeit not as a ballplayer. Derek Mollica, a 29-year-old native New Yorker who grew up in Boca Raton, Fla., is a professional umpire.
It’s a career Mollica embarked upon in 2008 after graduating from Pope John Paul II High School in 2002 and after enjoying a five-year collegiate baseball career at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla. He attended the 2001 Perfect Game Sunshine Showcase in Fort Myers where he believes the then-new coaching staff at FGCU first got a glimpse of him.
“From there someone saw me, and 2002 was the first year Florida Gulf Coast had a baseball (program),” Mollica said. “I took that opportunity and went there and tried out, and the coach liked me; I played there for five years.”
Mollica was speaking to PG the morning of Jan. 28 while attending the 2013 PG MLK Championships at the Camelback Ranch Complex. He was enjoying a little down-time before beginning his sixth season of umpiring in the minor leagues, this year as a crew chief in the Double-A Southern League. He has progressed steadily through the minor leagues, following the same path worn by thousands of ballplayers over the past five years.
Glenn Carnes is the president of Ump Nation, a company that is the exclusive provider of umpires for all Perfect Game events from coast-to-coast. Ump Nation’s stated goal is “to supply the best showcase and tournament umpires to the best events in the country.”
Mollica began doing some umpiring work for Carnes while he was still in school at FGCU, eventually attended umpire school, and graduated having graded in the top 10-percent of his class, as certified by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. (PBUC). From there, he immediately went to work in the Rookie-level Florida Gulf Coast League; that was in 2008.
“It was especially his personality,” Carnes said of one of the attributes Mollica displayed that made it conducive to him becoming a good umpire. “He’s really easy going, and one of the other best things about him is his understanding of the game. Those are two of the biggest things, if you’ve got a good understanding of the game and a great personality.”
It was his intense understanding of the game that led Mollica to believe his transition from the playing field to the world of umpiring would be relatively seamless. But it’s wise to remember to always expect the unexpected.
“I played ball my whole life and I thought umpiring was going to be pretty easy,” he said. “I knew all the rules because I had been playing for so long, but when you’re umpiring it’s kind of a different world. You think you know all the rules but then something happens and you realize there are rules you don’t even know. It’s different and you have to work hard at it, just like when you’re playing.”
Mollica has a younger brother, Ryan, who played in the 2003 PG WWBA PG/BA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the Florida Pokers. Ryan, a 2004 graduate of Wellington (Fla.) High School, went on to play collegiately at Florida International University and was drafted by the New York Mets in the 47th round of the 2009 MLB amateur draft.
The two Mollicas, following different paths that both hoped would lead them to the big-leagues, came agonizingly close to sharing the same playing field when at one point their career paths crossed.
When Derek started umpiring in the Gulf Coast League five years ago, Ryan was still playing at Florida International. In 2009, when Ryan was drafted by the Mets, Derek had been promoted to the New York-Penn League (a short-season A-ball league).
By 2010, Derek had climbed another rung to the low-Class A South Atlantic League, where Ryan had been assigned to the Mets’ Savannah (Ga.) affiliate. One day, Derek realized that he was going to be working behind the plate during a game in Savannah, and Ryan would be in the Sand Gnats’ starting lineup.
“I got a call from the (Sally League) president … and he said ‘I don’t have a problem with it; just go work the plate,’” Derek recalled. “So my family and everyone drove up for the game, but right before the game started someone got hurt in high-A (St. Lucie) Florida and my brother got promoted – right before the game. So I never got to umpire (one of his games); I was disappointed because I was going to be sure to ring him up.”
Ryan played in the independent Canada-America Association in 2011 and ’12 and was released after the 2012 season. He is now, according to Derek, training to be a firefighter.
“It’s tough to move on as a baseball player and it’s tough to move on as an umpire,” Derek Mollica said. “I’m three years away from either being up in the major leagues or I could be released in three years and have to go find a job. It’s getting to that point where it’s kind of tough. At first it was just all fun, going out a lot and having fun with the guys, but now it’s a job and it’s a profession.”
Mollica agreed with Carnes that his relatively relaxed personality has helped to advance his umpiring career. He acknowledges that are people in his profession who are difficult to approach and have a reasonable conversation with.
“Throughout my career I’ve been that umpire who gets along (with mangers) because I’m easy to talk to,” he said. “If a manager comes out to me, I’ll talk to him and I’ll tell him what I have and he’ll tell me what he has, and we go from there. No one’s perfect.”
Players often speak of the way the game speeds up as they move from one level of play to the next. The college game is faster than the high school game, for instance, and the professional game takes it up a notch from the college game. Mollica has found the same to be true when viewed through the eyes of an umpire, and a heighted sense of anticipation becomes key.
“The game definitely speeds up,” he said, “but I think it helps that I’ve played baseball my whole life. I know when the shortstop is going to throw behind the runner or when the catcher is going to throw behind or when the pitcher is going to pick; I just know all that stuff before it happens. My baseball background helps me and I have an advantage with that.”
Mollica is looking forward to spending the 2013 season as a Double-A crew chief but also hopes to be working at the Triple-A level in 2014. After a season in Triple-A, Mollica said most umpires are then invited to work in the Arizona Fall League where they will be evaluated for any big-league job that may have opened up.
“You just have to get someone to like you. If one guys doesn’t like you, it’s tough,” Mollica said. “There are a lot of great umpires in Triple-A, and once you get to Triple-A every umpire is the same; it’s just different personalities. That’s where the personality comes in.”
The only advice Mollica would offer to any aspiring umpires would be to get involved while they’re still young and don’t hold anything back during their career pursuit.
“I just tell them if they like it, they should try to get into it early, and if they’re thinking about it, just go in and do it,” he said. “I just threw everything into it, and I love it.”