Ria Cortesio, pro baseball’s only female umpire, was released by the minor leagues this week. Earlier this season, she became the first woman in nearly 20 years to call a major league exhibition game.
“I’ve been prepared for it, to some extent, for a long time,” she told The Associated Press on Wednesday from her home in western Illinois. “But I was surprised a little bit.”
Cortesio spent nine years in the minors, the last five in the Double-A Southern League, and hoped someday to become the first female ump in the majors. In March, she worked a spring training game between the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Her mask made it to the Hall of Fame. She handled the Futures Game and Home Run Derby at the All-Star game in Pittsburgh last year. She once was called out by George Steinbrenner for squeezing the strike zone when Roger Clemens made a rehab start.
Cortesio cut her ponytail several years ago and lowered her voice for making calls, trying to be more inconspicuous. At 5-foot-10, she was slender — Prince Fielder once gently lifted her out of the way so he could charge the mound.
She was at her offseason job, helping run the music system at the arena where the Quad City Flames of the American Hockey League play, when she got a call Tuesday from minor league baseball’s umpire organization.
“They let you know around the World Series about next year. If they want to keep you, they send a letter. If they’re going to let you go, they call,” she said. “When I saw the number on my cell phone, I thought, ’Whoa, this is it.”’
There are about 300 umpires in the majors and affiliated minors. Several minor league umps get released each offseason, with baseball trying to make a decision on their futures within a few years.
At 31, Cortesio wants to map out what’s next. Her family runs a wine business and she’s been a substitute teacher in high school. When she went to Rice University, she worked the scoreboard at the Astrodome.
“It does feel freeing, in a way,” she said. As she spoke, she said she was putting on her Joan Jett-style makeup to go to work on Halloween night.
There have been six female umpires in the affiliated minor leagues, and none have made the majors. Pam Postema spent several years in Triple-A during the 1980s; after being fired, she filed a sex discrimination suit against baseball and settled out of court 5½ years later.
Cortesio said she had not decided whether to pursue legal action.
Cortesio started this season as the top-ranked umpire in all of Double-A. If there had been an opening in Triple-A, it would’ve been hers.
There were no vacancies and when the new ratings by minor league supervisors came out in midseason, her ranking substantially dropped. So, too, did her chance of getting a promotion and possibly making it to the majors someday.
A move up would have greatly changed her status — umpires in Triple-A are under the auspices of major league supervisors.
“I don’t know if they wanted to make a call on me in the majors,” she said.
Cortesio started out in the rookie Pioneer League in 1999 and later worked in the Midwest and Florida State leagues. She was an instructor at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring.
As a crew chief in the Southern League, she made about $2,700 per month. Her three-person crew drove an average of 24,000 miles during the six-month season.
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