'Just another day' for female umpire
Cortesio is flawless as she works Cubs-D-backs game
MESA, Ariz. -- For Ria Cortesio, Thursday was just another day on the job, and hopefully another step toward becoming a Major League umpire.
Cortesio, 30, worked the bases as part of the umpire crew for the Chicago Cubs-Arizona Diamondbacks game at HoHoKam Park, the first female umpire to work a Major League exhibition game in nearly 20 years.
"When I found out I had this game, my plan was to sneak in, work the game, and sneak out and go unnoticed," Cortesio said. "That didn't happen."
Nothing happened in the game to draw attention to Cortesio until afterward when she was surrounded by the media. The reason? A female umpire has never worked in the Major Leagues during the regular season. Pam Postema was the last woman to call big-league exhibition games, doing so in 1989.
"I think it's good, I really do," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I think there's a place for women in the umpiring ranks. They're certainly as qualified as anybody else. I'm sure if they get the same opportunities, and the same schooling that the male counterparts get, they'll do a really nice job.
"I'm not going to go visit her today," Piniella said. "I'll stay right in the dugout."
And he did just that. Cortesio started at first base, and switched places with Major League umpire Mike Winters every two innings. She said it was normal procedure in Spring Training games for base umpires to switch sides. Minor League umpire Jason Kiser worked the plate.
She was clear signaling her calls and quick on her feet. In the Cubs' sixth, Tyler Colvin bounced a grounder toward Arizona first baseman Jesus Cota, who flipped to pitcher Brandon Lyon, who was covering the bag. Cortesio called the ball fair, and got in position to call Colvin out on the bang-bang play.
"That happens," she said about getting out of the way. "I'm glad Cota came up with the ball. It was just another day on the job."
The Rock Island, Ill., native is the only female umpire in professional baseball, and has been assigned to Double-A this year. This will be her ninth season overall and fifth in Double-A. Triple-A and Double-A umpires routinely work Spring Training games. She knew quite a few of the Cubs players because she had worked the Southern League. The Cubs' Double-A team was based in West Tenn.
"I got a lot of, 'Hey, Ria, where are you going to be this year?'" she said of her conversations with the players.
"She's been through a lot," Cubs second baseman Ryan Theriot said. "It's a rough road. It's kind of different to see a woman out there. Where I would think the challenging part would be is a close call. She always seemed to get them right call.
"When I stole second today [in the third], I was visibly out," Theriot said, "but she was on top of it and saw that he missed the tag and I came back around and grabbed the base and was safe. She's good. She makes all the right calls, and that's what she's supposed to do. I just couldn't imagine being in her shoes."
She has been working Minor League exhibition games this month in Arizona. Last July, Cortesio called the Futures Game for Minor League prospects, then worked the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.
She's been an instructor for several years at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring, and is in line for a promotion to Triple-A when the next vacancy occurs. Thursday marked the first time she worked a game with a Major League umpire, joining Winters' crew.
"This means nothing for me to work this game," Cortesio said. "Someone like Micah Hoffpauir can hit a three-run homer and he might get called up later in the season. For an umpire, it means nothing. There's no way on the face of the earth that I can get called up."
Hoffpauir did hit a three-run homer to give the Cubs a 7-4 win over the Diamondbacks in front of a HoHoKam Park record crowd of 12,917. A few of them knew a woman umpire was on the field.
"You always knew," Theriot said. "But, for me, it was never an issue, and not for our team. All we want as players is somebody to make the right call."
There is no set timetable as to when Cortesio could get to the Major Leagues. She will have to be both patient and persistent.
"It's not up to me," she said.
First, she has to be promoted to Triple-A. Then, she'll be evaluated by a Major League umpire supervisor. If they like the way she does her job in Triple-A, she could be assigned to the Arizona Fall League. If, after two seasons in the AFL, they still like her, she could get a Major League Spring Training schedule. Then, she could be in line to fill in during the big-league season.
"Absolute, absolute best-case scenario, we're looking at 2009 to get a couple games," she said. "That's the absolute best-case scenario."
So, why do it?
"The challenge," Cortesio said. "It's fun for one thing. A game like today, when I didn't really have anything, it's fun. During the season when you're working a game every single night, night after night after night, week after week, month after month after month after month, it's a lot more of a challenge than people realize."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.