Mark Stubblefield’s morning breakfast is often accompanied by thoughts about overnight damage done across 43 states and Canada.
That is the early daily routine for the medical coordinator, umpire development for Minor League Baseball. As men and women from coast to coast and in Vancouver, British Columbia, focus on the small details of ball, strike and safe or out calls — Stubblefield is keeping both eyes on the big picture. That includes looking at 16 domestic leagues and roughly 240 umpires.
“The biggest thing for me is making sure we have umpires on the field every night,” Stubblefield said. “The biggest job responsibility for me is checking in with any umpires who report injuries from the night before.”
Those reports get to Stubblefield in three ways: Incidents such as a foul ball clanging off a home-plate umpire’s facemask are often captured on video and sent to Stubblefield’s email. Umpires also have an online database they can use to self-report injuries. Athletic trainers for individual teams can also communicate injury information from their on-field evaluations.
Stubblefield’s relationships with athletic trainers throughout Minor League Baseball have been built during his seven years on the job since minor-league executives created the medical coordinator position in 2011. Stubblefield knows the ins and outs of being an athletic trainer because he started as a student athletic trainer at the New Albany (Ind.) High School under the guidance of fellow State alumnus Russ Cook.
Any on-field training was preceded by an interest in baseball born in Kansas City, where Stubblefield and his family lived until they moved to New Albany when Stubblefield was 5. “I went to baseball games in Louisville, Ky. When I got to ISU, I was an undergrad athletic trainer for the baseball team and coach Bob Warn,” Stubblefield said. “That furthered my medical interest in baseball.”
Following his graduation in 2000, Stubblefield received a chance to work for the Cincinnati Reds before he moved in a new direction that included an emotional phone call. When the Kansas City Royals provided an opportunity to work in their minor-league system, it meant a new connection to the major league teams Stubblefield saw as a child.
“The Reds offered me a position for the 2002 season, but it would have been at the rookie (ball) level,” Stubblefield said. “I interviewed with a couple of other teams, and one of those happened to be the Royals. I still have memories and photos of going to Royals games with my family when I was 4 or 5 years old. That was a pretty proud phone call I could make to my dad.”
Stubblefield stayed with the home team until 2010 when he decided a change might be in order. “After the 2010 season, I was at baseball’s winter meetings and they announced they were hiring a medical coordinator,” Stubblefield said.
With the job being based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Stubblefield saw an avenue where he would be able to spend a lot more time at home. His wife works as an athletic trainer at Seminole High School in Florida. “The downside of pro sports is I was (previously) gone from February to October,” Stubblefield said. “There is still quite a bit of travel involved, but the longest stretch I am away from home is two weeks at a time.”
As roughly 240 umpires try to work their way up from rookie ball to Class A on the march toward the majors. Stubblefield is making sure they are being medically evaluated when needed and then cleared to return to work on a proper recovery timetable. Part of that process is a line of communication between Stubblefield and supervisors who jointly monitor issues such as mobility concerns, diet issues or weight gain. The goal is to help umpires stay a step ahead of injury.
“Just when you think you have seen any and every umpire injury, there is always something new,” Stubblefield said. “With improving technology of lighter-weight bats and increased player training, the ball is moving at a higher velocity than it ever has before. That is going to increase your risk of injuries.”
Since half of Stubblefield’s workload is administrative duty, he has a new appreciation for the general studies courses he took within the athletic training curriculum at the university. A broad knowledge is one benefit he received. “It’s great to be able to stay in touch with those familiar faces we can reach out to,” Stubblefield said. “Our grad class of athletic trainers included 12 people. It was 12 people in the same classes, which is a tight-knit group. Out of the in-state universities I looked at, ISU was the perfect size for me.”