Former Hofstra softball player Jen Pawol became the first woman in 17 years to umpire an MLB spring training game Saturday. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Jen Pawol’s historic night began just how she would have scripted it. Walking through the stadium's rightfield entrance, shoulder to shoulder with her fellow umpires, barely discernible from the rest of the crew dressed in black.

Just another umpire.

Except for the ponytail poking out from the back of her uniform cap.

Pawol’s small steps from the warning track to home plate at CACTI Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the site of Saturday night’s Grapefruit League opener between the Astros and Nationals, were not remarkable on their own.

What they represented, however, was a giant leap for smashing another gender barrier in Major League Baseball. Pawol became the first woman in 17 years to umpire a spring training game at that level. Should this audition over the next month go smoothly, based on Pawol’s sterling resume, she’ll then be poised to do something that no woman has ever done: umpire in the bigs. Get called up to The Show.

What took so long? Depends on whom you ask. Why now? Look no further for that answer than Pawol herself, a former Hofstra softball star who came to realize her future was in baseball. Or perhaps more accurately, learned through her exhaustive work, and unflagging perseverance, that she was made for this mission.

“It’s in my DNA,” Pawol said after Saturday night’s game. “Once I started umpiring, I was like, this is for me. I can’t explain it. It’s just in my DNA.”

Hofstra's Edwards has front row seat

One person behind the backstop Saturday night — section 109, row T, seat 1 — totally understood what she was talking about. That was Bill Edwards, the legendary Hofstra softball coach, who has stayed in touch with his former player and now in retirement has had the opportunity to see Pawol along some of her umpiring milestones.

Edwards, who taught at Commack High School for 33 years and still lives in Nesconset, ended his quarter-century run at Hofstra with 928 wins, 18 conference championships and 15 NCAA tournament appearances. Mention Pawol to him, and the superlatives flow, the proud coach shines through. He celebrated with her in Allentown, Pa., when the Triple-A season wrapped up at the end of last summer and Pawol earned a coveted spot umpiring in the Arizona Fall League.

It just so happened that Edwards was on a Florida trek around the state with his wife, Janie, when he heard that Pawol would be making her debut Saturday night in West Palm. No surprise that Edwards was among the 3,655 in attendance. And when Pawol arrived at home plate for the exchange of lineup cards, then posed for a photo with her crew and the two managers, Edwards began tearing up.

Jen Pawol makes a throw during her days playing softball at Hofstra. Credit: Hofstra University

“I’m getting emotional,” Edwards said, pointing to the umpires. “You coach so many athletes over the years, and then they move on and do their things. But this is so freaking special!”

Edwards nailed it. Special is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but Pawol — along with how far she’s come in the umpiring world — fits the definition perfectly. Over MLB’s 120-year history (the first World Series was played in 1903), only a handful of women have even umpired minor-league games, the more notable being Pam Postema (1977-89) and Ria Cortesio, who was the last woman to umpire a major-league spring training game, back in 2007.

Playing catch up

According to Matt McKendry, MLB’s vice president of umpire operations, there are nine women scheduled to umpire in the minors this season, an unprecedented uptick. Compared to some of the other sports, however, MLB has plenty of catching up to do. The NBA has employed women referees since 1997. The NFL had its first woman on-field official in 2015. With baseball lagging behind, Pawol is spearheading a movement that MLB has recently pushed to accelerate.

“I think there are a number of factors that have been in play in the past,” McKendry said. “Number one, it’s something that we could have done a better job of making a pathway for people of all backgrounds, just to be completely representative of our fan base and the people who are working in our industry.

“This is a possible path. This vocation is something that, if you’re interested in, there’s opportunities here. And I think what we’ve tried to do in the last several years is be more proactive in trying to get that message out.”

Where it all began

Pawol got her start umpiring NCAA softball, a natural progression after her stellar Hofstra career. During that time she found a mentor in her Big Ten conference crew chief, Christie Cornwell. She recalled Pawol learning on the job as a rookie ump, laughing about how she was “just trying to get her to stand in the right spot.” But even then, Cornwell could see Pawol’s determination to succeed, long before she made the switch to baseball.

“She was driven early on,” said Cornwell, the current coordinator of softball umpires for the SEC. “She was passionate about umpiring. If you want to be a good umpire, you have to have a fire in your belly to be a good umpire. Because it’s a hard job.

"No paycheck makes it worthwhile. So you have to just love it, and it’s something that it’s great if you get paid to do something that you love. It’s hard. It’s hard mentally, but it’s also hard because it’s a pretty hostile environment sometimes.”

In conversations about Pawol’s journey to the brink of the big leagues, two themes keep coming up: the Herculean challenges of being an umpire, and the degree of devotion necessary to stick with it. Pawol’s quest for the majors officially began in 2015, when she was recruited to attend an MLB umpiring tryout camp. She made the switch to baseball when she was hired by the Gulf Coast League a year later.

Umpire Jen Pawol runs to make a call during a spring...

Umpire Jen Pawol runs to make a call during a spring training baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Pawol has been steadily working her way up the ladder ever since, and just like any baseball prospect, the closer she gets to the majors, the steeper the climb. For Saturday’s debut, Pawol started at third base, then moved around the diamond in three-inning increments, next to second and then to first — a rotation used so the umpires can get in their spring-training reps, too.

While Pawol, 47, had a fairly routine night overall, with a few close plays at first base, she did have to signal time out in the bottom of the fourth inning after noticing that the Astros were about to throw a pitch without a centerfielder. Her crew chief on Saturday was 20-year veteran Lance Barksdale, who reminded her that even on a relatively quiet night game in February, the MLB evaluators would make note of an umpire’s field presence, and these next five weeks are serving as an audition, just as spring training once did for him and now the other candidates vying for a chance at the majors this season.

“A lot of the older umpires, when I was coming up, the big joke with us is we got a job where you have to be perfect and get better every day,” Barksdale said. “No matter if you’re male or female, tomorrow if she misses pitches, they’re going to say something to her. She’ll just have to deal with it.

"But I think she’s everything that I’ve heard. She’s an outstanding umpire, an outstanding person, and she’s getting this opportunity because she’s earned it. But she has to compete against all the other people that are given this opportunity also.”

Pawol is among 24 minor-league umpires that were assigned to fill in for MLB spring training, but other than being slotted as a Triple-A crew chief for the coming season, nothing else has been determined yet. Last year, MLB used 26 umps from the minors for spring training and 21 of those saw time in the majors as call-ups, due to injuries or vacation (MLB has a standard roster of 76 umpires for the regular season).

Up for the challenge

McKendry said there are another 200 umpires in the minor leagues, so the competition to get where Pawol is — potentially a few weeks away from a dream shot — can be fierce. But as Barksdale said, people have noticed that Pawol is well-equipped for the role.

“She loves umpiring,” McKendry said. “She loves the profession. She understands the role that she’s in as a trailblazer. She accepts it. But that’s not what drives her. What drives her is to be the best umpire that she can be.”

Umpire Jen Pawol stands with fellow umpires at the start...

Umpire Jen Pawol stands with fellow umpires at the start of a spring training baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Or as Pawol said recently, “I’ve put the gas to full throttle and we are going for it. Full speed — full speed ahead.”

While her crowd of admirers continues to grow, two of Pawol’s biggest fans were riding shotgun from the stands Saturday night in Edwards and Cornwell. The Hofstra coach knew his big-hitting catcher with the high softball IQ would always stand out, whether it was performing on the field or walking him through her art exhibit at the Hempstead campus. He just didn’t realize the magnitude of the stage until seeing Pawol living out her dream.

“It’s been a difficult road,” Edwards said. “It takes a lot of sacrifice, a lot of dedication, and really to be in the game for the love of the game. It’s a profession that she’s found, it’s a profession that she loves, it’s a profession that she really is naturally gifted to do because of her background and everything that has transpired throughout her career ... I’m happy for her because Jen Pawol found Jen Pawol.”

Pawol described this as the “culmination” of a lifelong journey that began as a three-time all-conference catcher at Hofstra and continued through the NCAA and minor-league umpiring ranks. When asked after Saturday’s game what she would tell people about her climb, and those who would someday want to make that purposeful walk in from the rightfield grass, Pawol again helped clear the path. She’d love to have some company.

“This is a viable career becoming a professional umpire, for men and women, girls and boys,” Pawol said. “A true viable career, and I didn’t know that.”

Now, when they see that ponytail, hopefully soon at a major-league ballpark, they’ll know. Thanks to Pawol.

More MLB news

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months