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Josh Gilreath hands Jason Lopez a new ball as the Charleston RiverDogs play the Hickory Crawdads at Riley Park on July 16, 2018. Michael Wiser/Special to The Post and Courier

Josh Gilreath took the field at Riley Park, knowing his face and uniform would be soaked in a matter of minutes under the afternoon sun.

After the game, the minor league umpire enjoyed a meal, courtesy of the Charleston RiverDogs, and then hit the road.

The drive to Hagerstown, Md., is roughly nine hours, and Gilreath, 26, had a game the next day. He wanted to get there that night instead of waiting until morning.

Those drives are usually filled with bags of chips and energy drinks to help stay awake. But Gilreath doesn’t complain. He likes the work.

And just like the baseball players he sees every day, he has dreams of one day breaking out of the minors and becoming a Major League Baseball umpire.

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South Atlantic League umpires Josh Gilreath and Forrest Ladd walk down a hallway at Riley Park prior to a Charleston RiverDogs' game. Michael Wiser/Special to The Post and Courier

‘Stay in the game’

Like many of his colleagues, Gilreath played baseball as a kid. The University of Georgia graduate started umpiring at local parks in Buford, Ga., when he was 14, and decided after college that he wanted to do it professionally.

So he went to the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Florida, one of two that trains aspiring umpires. Each school puts 100 students through a five-week course and the best are assigned to developmental leagues, just like the players.

Gilreath is now in his first season in the South Atlantic League, a Class A league that includes the RiverDogs, Columbia Fireflies, Greenville Drive and Augusta GreenJackets.

“It’s been good so far,” he said. “I keep a schedule and usually have time to work out and go sight-seeing before games.”

Chris Silvestri, a three-year veteran, has his own tales of late-night driving, interrupted only for beef jerky and gas.

The 29-year-old Virginia resident jokingly admits that he made it as far as JV baseball before he realized it was time to change course.

“But I still wanted to stay in the game,” he said. “Being an umpire allows me to be on the field in the middle of the action.”

Money and technology

Umpiring isn't much different from any other job, except for the bright lights and thousands of people watching and waiting to pounce if a call doesn't go their way. Gilreath and Silvestri are looking for promotions and raises just like any other person in the workforce.

Umpires in the rookie and short season leagues get paid $2,000 to $2,300 per month during the season. In Class A ball, they get anywhere from $2,100 to $2,600 per month. In double-A the scale is $2,500 to $3,100, and umpires in triple-A are paid $2,900 to $3,900 per month.

The umpires also receive a per diem for meals that can range between $44.50 to $66 per day.

“(Salaries) were increased prior to the 2017 season as part of a new five-year labor deal,” said Jeff Lantz, the communications director for Minor League Baseball. “Umpires now receive medical, dental and vision insurance, they are provided vehicles for the season, and now their per diem increases each year.”

Umpires also receive a company credit card in case they need to check into a hotel for the night.

Much has changed since Tyler Funneman was calling games nearly 20 years ago. Now in his seventh season as an umpire field evaluator, Funneman is glad things have improved for the guys he now critiques. 

“Just like any other field of work, the situation has gotten better over time,” Funneman said. “But make no mistake; these guys work hard.”

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Umpire Josh Gilreath gets an earful from Hickory manager Matt Hagen after Hagen was ejected from the game at Riley Park on July 16, 2018. Michael Wiser/Special to The Post and Courier

Why fight?

Despite what fans see on television or at the ballpark, umpires aren’t looking to get into animated arguments with players or managers on the field.

Funneman knows from personal experience as an umpire and from his dealings with current umpires who are looking for promotions. An umpire who gets in heated confrontations more than others may not move up as quickly as those who are able to diffuse situations, he said. “We’re big on making sure the game goes smooth.” 

And they are tasked with knowing when to delay and resume games, and making sure the teams play a clean game.

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Funneman said. “That’s why only the best get a call up.”

Silvestri said getting called up is the ultimate goal, but he's in no hurry. He said he’s “happy with the pace” his career is moving.

As long as Riley Park becomes Yankee Stadium one day.

Reach Derrek Asberry at 843-937-5517. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry