SBJ/August 16 - 22, 2004/This Weeks Issue

Behind the plate or approaching the bench, he’s a special case

Dan Bellino has all the credentials to look for in an up-and-coming umpire. He’s fit, hard-working and has a knack for calming tobacco-spitting, expletive-spewing minor league managers.

But unlike most men in blue, Bellino soon will be able to draft a will and possibly even get you out of a tight jam in traffic court.

No doubt, Bellino is a rarity. The 25-year-old, Chicago-area native is a minor league umpire completing his second year in the Class A New York-Penn League.

He’s also a law school graduate. Bellino completed studies at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago last year and recently took a short break from his umpiring schedule to sit for the Illinois bar exam.

Few of the New York-Penn League managers know of Bellino’s legal credentials. The ones who do sometimes can’t resist getting in a lawyerly jab.

“A few started referring to me on the field as ‘counselor.’ It’s funny and all that, but I say, ‘Do me a favor: Call me Dan,’” Bellino said. “They all want to know what I’m doing here. Wouldn’t I be making so much more money doing other things.

“The answer is always the same: ‘Yeah, probably. But I wouldn’t love it as much.’”

Bellino’s alma mater doesn’t offer a joint degree in law and dusting home plate. Bellino dreamed up the offbeat career combination all by himself.

He was a catcher on his high school baseball team. He wanted to be a part of a sports team at a Division I college program and got his chance at Northern Illinois University as manager of the Huskies’ men’s basketball squad.

Hanging around gyms, Bellino befriended basketball officials and became interested in their jobs. He started officiating local games and then made the leap to baseball, umpiring high school baseball in Illinois.

By his second year of law school, Bellino was enrolled in adjunct professor Mike Kelly’s sports law class and, after school, umpiring college games.

“My final paper I submitted for that class was a research assignment on the major league umpire union and the strike of 1999,” said Bellino. “He absolutely loved the paper and I got an A+. By the way, that was the only A+ that I got throughout law school.”

“He was an easy kid to teach: very good in class discussion, a very independent thinker,” said Kelly. “And, yes, he did get an ‘A.’”

Bellino was working a part-time job as an aide for a federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois when he learned from another law student about the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School in Florida. Bellino got so charged up about attending that he configured his school schedule to allow him to graduate with his law degree a semester early.

Bellino, who also completed his master’s in business administration while in law school, made his pro umpiring debut in the New York-Penn League on June 18, 2003. He remembers not only the date, the home team (Hudson Valley Renegades) and approximate attendance (5,000), but also the emotion coursing through his body.

“Standing on the field during the national anthem, I started to appreciate what took place for me to get to that point,” Bellino said. “It was just awesome.”

Corporate governance and estate-tax issues tend not to arise during minor league games, but Bellino said his legal training has proved to be an advantage as an umpire.

“It’s given me the confidence to sit back and think through a situation as opposed to just reacting,” Bellino said. “And when it comes to [becoming knowledgeable] about the rules, there’s no question that law school has been a major help. My baseball rule book is, geez, 80 pages. That’s one night’s reading in law school.”

When the New York-Penn League season ends in September, Bellino will return home for a wedding (he’s planning to be married in February) and a couple of offseason jobs. In addition to coaching at the Wendelstedt school, he hopes to pick up legal work for a few months.

For now, however, Bellino’s career ambitions have little to do with law books.

“My goal is to be a major league umpire,” he said. “That’s as short and sweet as I can put it. It’s my top priority, and I’m going to give it at least five more years.”

Sounds like a plan, counselor.

Mark Hyman (mhyman@sportsbusinessjournal.com) is a lawyer and writer.

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