A woman MLB umpire? Yes, and she’s a former North Jersey softball standout

A former North Jersey high school softball standout is working to become the first female umpire assigned to a regular-season Major League Baseball game.

Jen Pawol, a West Milford High School graduate, took another step toward her goal as she umpired the Detroit Tigers’ 6-1 scrimmage win over Division II college team Florida Southern last week. The game was the first involving a Major League Baseball team for Pawol, one of just two women currently umpiring in the professional ranks.

“It was like I took the car out for a test drive,” she said. “I’ve been working on this thing for a few years, so let’s see how this baby runs. So far, it handles pretty well.”

Pawol, who described the game as business as usual, received a rare compliment from Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire after his team’s win. Per a report from The Detroit News, the game went off without a hitch.

“It was nice that it was a scrimmage, but we were playing,” Pawol said. “We were definitely playing, and there were definitely like 3,000 fans there.”

Pawol had her first experience umpiring when she was a teen in West Milford.

“I liked it, I just didn’t have a car so I couldn’t get to the games,” she said.

Two decades later, in 2016, she became Minor League Baseball’s seventh-ever woman umpire.

The 41-year-old teacher worked last season in the New York-Penn Short-Class A League, but said she aspires to be the first woman ever to work a regular-season game in baseball’s top flight.

“Every minor league umpire has the one goal to be part of the 3 percent that gets hired for Major League Baseball,” Pawol said. “This is literally all every minor league umpire wants to do with the rest of their life.”

John Finke, Pawol’s high school soccer coach and assistant softball coach, said he is confident Pawol’s excellent attitude and dedicated approach will drive her up the professional ranks and into a major league gig.

“I have no doubt she is going to give it everything she has,” Finke said.

Pawol, a member of the West Milford Class of 1995, was best known during her playing days for her sure hands and ball-stopping ability.

Tim Gillen, a former athletic director at the Passaic County high school, said he never had the opportunity to coach Pawol but observed in her an intense player who was highly skilled and totally focused on the task.

A member of The Record’s All-Century softball and soccer teams, Pawol racked up 30 career shutouts as a soccer goalie. She also earned a .538 batting average and 153 runs batted in, 118 runs scored and 17 home runs during her time at West Milford.

“We were really, really good and we won a lot,” she said. “I’ve been in a lot of school districts as a substitute teacher … and I just think about how much wealth we had, not financially, but just in the people, the athletic talent, and the coaches.”

Jim Dransfield, Pawol’s softball coach, said the two-time All-State first team catcher has every right to be remembered as the high school’s most decorated and driven athlete ever.

“It’s been two to three years of hard work preparing my professional game. I’m going hard, or I’m going home.”

“I have always believed she could do anything she set her mind to,” Dransfield said.

After high school, Pawol went on to play for Hofstra University, the USA Baseball Women’s National Team and the Connecticut Brakettes of the National Pro Fastpitch League.

“I just remember looking at the umpire one day and thinking, ‘yeah, I can do that,’ ” she said. “It’s just one foot behind the catcher, and I’ve already spent years and years getting hit by the ball and seeing the strike zone.”

The move from player to part-time umpire came in 2005, when Pawol joined a group that assigned area softball and baseball games in her native state of New York.

“I was looking for something and didn’t want to go into coaching, because you’re not in the game; you’re not on the field,” she said. “It’s just not the same.”

Four years later, Pawol said she quit her teaching job to start working winters in Florida leagues. Her umpiring assignments later elevated to Division I and professional softball games. Then, during an umpires’ clinic in 2015, a major league umpire asked Pawol if she wanted to go pro.

“I was like, you know I’m a woman, right?” she said. “It was so mind-blowing. Everything I had heard in the past was not female-friendly, and I just always thought in my mind that they would never pick me.

“They just said, ‘You know, that’s not how it is. If you’re good, you’ll get a job. It’s that simple.’ ”

An invitation to an August 2015 Major League Baseball Umpire Camps clinic followed. There, in Cincinnati, Pawol said she was urged to participate in a five-day Florida tryout with 31 other aspiring umpires for an Umpire Training Academy scholarship.

“I was selected, and I did expect it,” she said. “I knew at that moment that it was game on … that I wasn’t going to have any problems — just do my game, and listen, and get better every day.”

For the last two seasons, Pawol has worked in the professional umpiring ranks of Minor League Baseball. On Thursday, she took another step toward the major leagues.

“It’s been two to three years of hard work preparing my professional game,” she said. “I’m going hard, or I’m going home.”

Pawol’s 2018 umpiring assignment remains unclear. She said she is focused on impressing her supervisor and officiating partners during spring training in Florida. She is hopeful some Grapefruit League games are in her immediate future.

“I’m not being lazy or hopeful,” she said. “I’m doing everything I can every day to make that dream come true.”

According to an article on MLB.com, Pawol is doing preseason work to get ready for the season, umpiring one to three games a day. After the season starts, she’ll probably remain in Florida for extended spring games until the New York-Penn League opens in late June.

Pam Postema, 1977-89, was the first woman to umpire in a big league Spring Training game and advanced as high as Class AAA. The other women were Bernice Gera in 1972, Christine Wren 1975-77, Theresa Cox Fairlady 1989-91, Ria Cortesio 1999-2007 and Shanna Kook 2003-04, according to MLB.