Jen Pawol put on her umpire’s chest protector, walked onto the diamond and took the lineup cards. She would have liked it to be just another baseball game. But it wasn’t.
On June 24, Pawol, who was born in Mineola and was a standout softball player at Hofstra, was behind home plate for a Gulf Coast League matchup between the Blue Jays and Tigers. She became minor league baseball’s seventh woman umpire and the first in the GCL since 1978, according to MiLB.com, the official website of Minor League Baseball.
“I understood when I was walking out there . . . that there’s a historical element to this,” Pawol said. “But then at the same time, I just wanted to do the work, call the pitches and just sort of have a very grounded ‘strike one, ball two.’ You still got to call the game.”
Pawol called the first batter, Chad Sedio, out on strikes. She ruled on a play at the plate. There was even a grand slam — by Sedio — in the Blue Jays’ 5-4 rookie league victory in Dunedin, Florida.
It was the moment Pawol was building toward since training at the Endicott Umpires Chapter near Binghamton in 2006.
“All these people are looking at us call the game,” she said. “When you go out to umpire, you can’t relax. You can’t lose focus and daydream. You have to be present, so I think after the game is kind of when it hit me.”
Pawol, whose family moved to West Milford, New Jersey, when she was in the third grade, has loved baseball as long as she can remember. She recalls watching games in front of the television at age 2 and said her parents, James and Victoria, were afraid to move her. Pawol said she cried when former Yankees catcher Thurman Munson died in a plane crash.
She played baseball on Long Island and started softball at age 10, quickly realizing it could advance her chances of attending college. She always was an athlete — varsity soccer goalie four seasons, basketball for one, a shot putter in winter track. Pawol swam, skied, played tennis and trained Cross Fit. She even played women’s football. But baseball was always her favorite.
“I’d always spend my money, my allowance money on baseball cards,” she said. “I had a huge collection when I was very young.”
Pawol returned to Long Island on a softball scholarship to Hofstra. She hit .332 with 169 hits in 161 games between catcher and shortstop as a three-time all-conference selection from 1996-98.
Former Hofstra coach Bill Edwards, a National Softball Hall of Fame inductee, remembers Pawol’s passion. Off the field, she was an artist, and she invited Edwards and his wife to one of her exhibits at Hofstra. Edwards was moved to tears hearing Pawol talk about the emotion behind each piece. On the field, she was as tough and competitive as any player he’s coached.
“That’s the only way she does it,” Edwards said. “She does everything to achieve excellence.”
Pawol received her big umpiring break after attending a free MLB clinic in August 2015 in Cincinnati. She was invited to Vero Beach, Florida, the following December as one of only eight umpires who received a scholarship to the Minor League Baseball Umpire Training Academy in 2016.
Pam Postema umpired Gulf Coast League games in 1977 and 1978 and Major League Baseball spring training games in 1988 and 1989, but her contract was not renewed for 1990. She never umpired an official MLB game and later sued, and settled with, Major League Baseball.
The NFL hired Sarah Thomas last season as its first full-season on-field official.
Pawol hopes to make it to the major leagues but understands the odds aren’t in her favor. It’s not because of her gender; she realizes most umpires never call a major league game. But she remains focused on improvement.
“I want to work as hard as I can and develop my talent, my game, my umpiring skill every day,” she said. “Tomorrow when I go out, I got to be better than I was today.”