The spotlight is rarely desirable for a Major League Baseball umpire.
Scrutiny comes only in moments of failure or conflict. A lapse in judgment might trigger hostile confrontations with athletes and managers, not to mention the ire of thousands of fans both in the stands and online.
When doing their jobs effectively, though, umpires become invisible, guiding the game from out to out and inning to inning seamlessly without drawing attention away from the players on the field.
Umpires’ work outside of a baseball diamond tends to go similarly unnoticed, but the lack of public recognition has not stopped professional umpire and Fairfax Station resident Brennan Miller from taking every chance he gets to contribute to the community through UMPS CARE Charities, a nonprofit philanthropic organization founded by MLB umpires.
“Everyone knows players. No one knows umpires, but I definitely think, with our job title, we have an opportunity to help out more,” Miller said. “So, I think we’re just trying to take advantage of that and give back to the kids in the community as much as we can.”
While he has been involved with UMPS CARE in a variety of capacities over the past three to four years, Miller’s latest endeavor might be the most daunting yet, as he prepares to run in the Fourth Annual Holly Springs Half Marathon in North Carolina on Nov. 23.
Miller admits that he is usually not a runner, opting instead for the gym to exercise, but when his friends and fellow professional umpires Erich Bacchus and Nic Lentz suggested participating in the half-marathon to raise money for UMPS CARE, he quickly agreed to join them.
With a target of $4,500, the trio has raised more than $3,500 so far that will all go to support UMPS CARE programs, which focus on supporting children through hospital visits, college scholarships, and VIP experiences at major and minor league ballparks.
According to Miller, UMPS CARE’s biggest initiative is its Blue for Kids program, where MLB umpire crews and team mascots deliver Build-A-Bear Workshop materials for making and outfitting stuffed animals to children with critical illnesses in hospitals.
The organization has distributed more than 15,000 bears to hospitals since it started the Blue for Kids program with between 1,500 and 1,700 animals going to children in MLB markets in the U.S. and Canada annually, according to UMPS CARE Charities.
During the 2019 MLB regular season, umpires visited 16 different hospitals between May and September, including a stop at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., on July 23.
UMPS CARE also operates a Blue Crew Ticket program that lets at-risk youth, children with chronic illnesses, children in foster care, and military families attend a baseball game with the opportunity to step onto the field and get souvenirs.
Since its creation in 2006, the program has brought more than 7,000 visitors to baseball games and encompasses all 30 MLB teams.
UMPS CARE’s third major initiative is the All-Star College Scholarship, which gives funding for tuition, books, and other related expenses to incoming college freshmen who were adopted when they were 13 or older and have financial need.
“They do all these good things,” Miller said. “…Every time I have an opportunity to help with the UMPS CARE thing, I want to do it.”
A lifelong Fairfax Station resident, Miller started officiating baseball games almost as soon as he could play them, first appearing as an umpire while in West Springfield Little League, the league noted in a Facebook post congratulating its former player on his MLB call-up in April.
He continued playing baseball for South County High School until he graduated in 2009.
After playing baseball and basketball at Chesapeake College in Maryland, Miller decided to enroll in the Minor League Baseball Umpire Training Academy, which opened in Vero Beach, Fla., in 2012 to provide training and development for aspiring professional umpires.
Miller took the academy’s four-week course in January 2013 when he was 21 and spent the next seven years grinding his way through the minor leagues in the hopes of getting to work an MLB game, a process that he says generally takes seven to 10 years.
His third year at the Triple-A level, Miller spent most of 2019 in the International League, which serves teams in the eastern part of the U.S., but he also got his first taste of the majors, making his MLB debut on Apr. 20 at Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles hosted a doubleheader with the Minnesota Twins.
As a call-up umpire, Miller fills in for major league umpires when they are injured, on vacation, or otherwise leave a roster vacancy. He now has about 38 MLB games under his belt, including a contest between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays on July 18 where he ejected Yankees manager Aaron Boone for a memorably expletive-heavy rant.
Boone, who had taken issue with Miller’s strike zone behind home plate, received a one-game suspension from MLB for the incident.
Even with the sometimes tense environment, Miller feels lucky to have this unusual career.
“The experience is great. You get to meet a lot of people,” Miller said. “…Even though I’ve been doing it now for seven years, every game, I’m learning something new, whether it’s the way I umpire or the way I handle someone. So, it’s just a constant learning cycle.”
As exciting as it can be to work alongside professional athletes, one of the most rewarding parts of the job for Miller has been getting involved with UMPS CARES Charities.
UMPS CARE involved only major league umpires until 2018, when the organization formed a partnership with the Association of Minor League Umpires after more call-up umpires learned about the charitable programs that it runs and expressed a desire to participate.
According to a July 2 story on the expansion by MiLB.com reporter Josh Jackson, UMPS CARE spent 2018 testing its Blue Crew Ticket program in eight minor league markets, including seven Triple-A teams and one Double-A team, before adding all 30 Triple-A markets for the 2019 season.
In addition to doing the Blue Crew Ticket program, some of the minor league umpires who got involved with UMPS CARE in 2018 volunteered to crew games for the Miracle League, which lets children with serious mental and physical disabilities play baseball on fields designed to be accessible to wheelchairs and other assistive equipment.
Miller says that seeing the smiles on kids’ faces when he helped at Miracle League games was the highlight of his year.
Since its initiatives mostly take place during the baseball season, UMPS CARE focuses more in the offseason on raising money to support those programs. Most recently, the nonprofit raised more than $67,000 on Nov. 10 with its annual 100-hole golf marathon at the Augusta Ranch Golf Club in Mesa, Ariz.
While their goal is modest in comparison, Miller, Bacchus, and Lentz are eager to contribute by running the Holly Springs Half Marathon next week.
Bacchus and Lentz are both Triple-A umpires, though like Miller, Lentz is a call-up umpire and has accrued some 400 games of experience at the major league level.
If the trio reaches its fundraising goal of $4,500, that would be enough to support an entire Blue for Kids hospital trip with a $25 donation covering a stuffed animal for one patient.
Interested community members can contribute by going to give.umpscare.com/campaign/run-for-bears/c253001.
In the meantime, Miller is concentrating on staying in shape for the half-marathon, stating that his primary goal while training is to simply complete the 13.1-mile race.
“The other guys, Erich and Nic, they run, and they can run far,” Miller said. “I know Eric ran cross-country in high school, and Nic currently runs without even blinking an eye, like, 15 miles…So, I think I’m going to be the one that’s going to be in last place, but that’s okay.”