Over the past three years, our roles have changed”, explains Jim Reynolds ’91 (CLAS). “The control with the height track system, the box, added a lot of pressure. When Danny and I started, each referee had their strike zone, and as long as they were consistent, everyone was happy.
Reynolds has been a major league umpire for 22 years and Danny, aka Dan Iassogna ’91 (CLAS), for 21 years. Each has two World Series under his belt. Lately, the game is different.
“I got a guy over there throwing 97 miles an hour, trying to outmaneuver a batter. He deceives the batter. I have a catcher trying to catch it, trying to pull me to where it actually crosses the plate, while going through a box – and I’m the only guy who can’t see it,” Reynolds explains. It’s overwhelming at times, but “our guys are really, really good at what they do. The capacity of the referees at the moment is the best it has ever been.
Another recent challenge is Major League Baseball’s crackdown on illegal substances — tasking umpires with inspecting banned substances, making some encounters tricky. Last season, Oakland A’s Sergio Romo pulled his pants down when Iassogna walked to the mound to inspect the baseball. Substance checks, turnover rates, electronic strike zones and instant replays are now the status quo at major and minor league levels.
“When Jimmy and I arrived,” Iassogna says, “if you had a game you wanted to see after the game, you asked the club to get the VCR tape and hopefully they recorded the game, and you’d put that tape in, and you rewind it and it’s standard quality. You’d say, looks like I got it right or it looks like I got it wrong. Now everyone in the stands has a TV HD in hand, and they watch everything, and in real time.
It was the first week of classes in September 1987, and a fire drill began at Tolland Hall on North Campus. Two freshmen from Connecticut noticed each other wearing high school football jackets and realized they had been playing against each other.
Iassogna had been to St. Joseph High in Trumbull, and Reynolds went to South Catholic High in Hartford. They discovered that they had both played baseball at different levels, and Iassogna, the son of a high school football umpire, said he thought it would be cool to be an umpire. Reynolds agreed.
Their first gigs were given to longtime UConn baseball coach Andy Baylock, who had them practice the mechanics of safe and outgoing calls and taught them how to position themselves to make the right call (be perpendicular to the game to get the best view for a base call, he says). Eventually, they earned class credit and moved from JV to college games.
“Coach Baylock viewed his umpires as part of the baseball program, and we were treated that way. Although the players weren’t always happy with our performance, they never got past the ball field “Reynolds recalled. “Actually, the best player at UConn at the time was Pete Walker, now the pitching coach of the Toronto Blue Jays, and I remember several times where if the guys were getting out of control with the student-referees, he was shutting it down.”
“I never had any negative interactions with any of the baseball players,” Iassogna acknowledged, adding, “I remember officiating intramural basketball games that were a little risky!”
Baylock has his referee jerseys framed on a wall in his house. “They were reliable as undergraduates, and they still are. They are very good at what they do,” he says. “I’m very proud of what they’ve done.”