SPRING HILL — Willie Zayas peers from behind the plate through his mask at Spring Hill Havoc pitcher Joey DelGatto.
After making what has become his patented quick strike call, Zayas, 50, crouches back down to evaluate the next pitch. He is calling both ends of a doubleheader this particular Sunday because there is little else he'd rather be doing.
It has been almost 20 years since Zayas started umpiring Little League games in Long Island, N.Y. It was a natural progression for a guy who loved the sport of baseball so much but couldn't play competitively anymore.
He moved to Florida in 1996 and began to volunteer as an umpire in the Spring Hill Dixie League soon after. When his son, William "Ryno" Zayas, now 12, started playing ball, Willie started taking his hobby a little more seriously.
A few years ago, he was asked to start calling Amateur Athletic Union games at Anderson Snow Park in Spring Hill, then learned about the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Daytona Beach, started by former Major League Baseball umpire Harry Wendelstedt.
With a family to support and so much going on, Zayas passed on the opportunity the first couple years. But this past January, he finally jumped at the opportunity.
A number of students at the school have gone on to get jobs in the professional ranks, but at his age Zayas just wanted to study his craft with the best. Most of his class was far younger than him.
He was surprised by what was expected from Day 1 of the one-month program. Former and current major league umpires — including Hunter Wendelstedt, Ed Hickox, Bruce Froemming and Joe West — worked the class of 106 amateurs mentally and physically.
"We were up at 6 a.m. and running," Zayas said. "There was a lot of cardiovascular. These were big guys, but they have to be in pretty good shape."
On top of that, the studying was intense. The rules of baseball are always changing and can be complicated. Umpires need to know all of them.
"The amount of book work was a lot, too," Zayas said. "The rule book is written like a law journal, with a lot of amendments."
Zayas found his niche among the group as the older adviser. He had a lot of fun hanging out and learning, but he was also able to make sure the other students — most of them in their 20s — didn't do too much partying and stayed focused on the task at hand.
"Most of the guys there are 21, 22 or even 19, but I was still able to finish around the top of the class," he said. "I was able meet people from all over the United States and mentor. It was very rewarding."
At the end of the month, families were invited to join the school's graduates for a banquet. Zayas was shocked to find that he was presented with the Golden Mask Award by Hunter Wendelstedt for his positive influence on his peers throughout the course.
After nearly two decades of being behind the plate calling games, Zayas said his perspective on umpiring has changed, thanks to the Wendelstedt school and follow-up e-mail exchanges he's had with some of the instructors.
Prior to this experience, Zayas said, he worried about his emotions getting the best of him. He called a perfect game thrown by former Dixie and current Springstead pitcher Bobby Pasarela a couple years ago and couldn't help but root for the effort, as anyone would. He learned from the professional umpires that he wasn't alone.
Hickox, who was behind the plate earlier this year for Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Garza's no-hitter, told Zayas in an e-mail conversation that as the game went on, he was rooting more and more for Garza. He isn't a Rays fan, but it's only human nature to want an accomplishment like that to take place.
"He mentioned that (Detroit Tigers catcher Gerald) Laird checked his swing and he called him out," Zayas said. "Laird argued, and Ed told him to go back to the dugout. He said if the pitch was borderline, he was getting called out."
Zayas also got a meaningful bit of advice from the legendary founder of the school.
Harry Wendelstedt, a 34-year Major League veteran with five World Series and five All-Star Games on his resume, said: "When you're an umpire, you have no friends."
When Zayas came back home, he was a little more at ease as an umpire, he said. He credits that to the example that he saw in the older Wendelstedt. It's something he will never forget.
"The man is a great inspiration," Zayas said. "If he was able to do it all that time with major leaguers, then doing an AAU game is nothing."