Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
At the beginning of 2020, British expatriate Jonathan Stone had only a raw knowledge of American baseball.
Now, he calls balls and strikes for the professional Pecos League, umpiring games in Santa Fe and Roswell, as well as in far-flung cities in Colorado and Kansas. The league has 17 teams in two divisions reaching from the plains of Kansas to the mountains of the Southwest to the Pacific Coast.
After attending a five-week course at an umpire school in Florida, where he lives, Stone, 40, now knows the finer points of the infield fly and dropped third strike rules. It’s his first year umpiring professional baseball.
“It’s rare for a foreign guy to take to baseball,” Santa Fe Fuego manager Bill Rogan said of Stone, who umpires some Fuego games. “To know the rules forwards and backwards, it’s hard to know the rules if you didn’t grow up with it.”
When Stone moved to the U.S. from the United Kingdom in 2012, he already had sports officiating in his DNA. He officiated English soccer, tennis at the 2010 Wimbledon Women’s Final with Serena Williams, and tennis at the 2012 Olympics.
“Not a clue,” he said, when asked if he knew much about baseball when he arrived in this country. “The first time I ever walked onto a baseball field was Jan. 2, 2020.”
Now, he is part of two full-time traveling umpire teams for the Pecos League, calling balls and strikes in games for the Santa Fe Fuego, Roswell Invaders, and teams in Colorado and Kansas, all cities without local umpires.
“I kind of fell into baseball,” Stone said in a phone interview last week. Before umpire school, he had been to some minor league games and “obviously people throw out a ball and people hit a ball,” but, at umpire school, “I was learning everything about the game, not just the rules,” he said.
“I was learning what players do, and things like that, and that’s been the hardest thing, not just learning the rules, it’s learning actually what’s going on around you when you haven’t been brought up with the sport.”
But baseball wouldn’t be baseball without the occasional ump-manager dust-up. “He threw me out of a game I wasn’t sure I should have been thrown out of,” said first-year Fuego manager Rogan, adding, “He’s a very good umpire.
“At first, it sounds different when he makes a call with an English accent,” said Rogan. “It gets your attention right away.”
When Stone shows up behind the plate, “the catcher’s like, what, wait, where are you from?” is the reaction Stone said he gets. “If I mess a call up, I will own it.”
Pecos League Director Andrew Dunn said hiring an umpire from England is unique, but it’s worked well.
“It’s very unusual,” said Dunn. “I think if you get a guy from Europe, they are going to be really good because, if they are doing it, they are going to be really serious about it, or they wouldn’t be doing it,” said Dunn.
“He’s one of the better crews we have ever had from the league (non-local) umpires,” said Dunn. Teams “want him to call their game,” said Dunn, noting that assigning umpire teams is the biggest issue the league has.
“It’s obvious to me that he’s put in a lot of work,” said manager Rogan, “so credit to him.”
After a lifetime of officiating different sports at a high level, with the associated traveling involved, after Stone arrived in Florida, he thought of refereeing American football before he found the umpire school.
“There was a void in my life, there was something missing … I needed something else to do,” said Stone, plus umpiring “gave me the opportunity to travel again,” he said.
Going from game to game in the Southwest and through the Kansas prairies has given Stone experiences in his adopted land that many Americans may not have had.
“I’m loving it,” he said of the travel. Some travel days aren’t very interesting, but “we’ll have other days where we’ll go to Colorado Springs, where we’ll take the morning off and we’ll go up Pikes Peak or, a couple of weeks ago in Trinidad (Colorado), we went and visited some ghost towns. We will actively try and find things to do.”
Stone cites Ludlow, Colorado, as one of the “amazing places” he has visited. Just over the border from New Mexico, Ludlow is the site of the Ludlow Massacre from the 1913-14 Colorado Coalfield War mining strike that Woody Guthrie sang about. “You find things on these journeys that you wouldn’t necessarily find sitting at home using Google.”
Stone and crew have bonded with the people and their pets in towns where they umpire. “Actually, it’s the people that make these cities amazing,” he said. In Trinidad, where the Trinidad Triggers play, Stone has a faithful group of ladies that attend every game with their dog, Edison.
What’s next in the Brit’s baseball journey? “Everyone’s goal is to go as high as possible,” he said. “I’d love to umpire some Division One college one day and perhaps the American Association (of Professional Baseball).”