By Richard Polen
Globe Sports Writer
Grant Conrad will be on the field when the New York Mets’ affiliate in the Gulf Coast League plays the Washington Nationals’ rookie league team in the season opener Friday at Viera, Fla.
Conrad, who was a relief pitcher for Missouri Southern in 2011 and 2012, was selected by the Professional Baseball Umpires Corp. for the first assignment in his professional baseball career.
“This has been my dream since I was 11 years old, and it’s on the doorstep,” Conrad said. “I’m so excited about it.”
Each year in March, PBUC evaluates prospective rookie umpires. The students who rank the highest at the evaluation course are recommended for openings in the rookie leagues and short-season Class A leagues.
“Pretty much what happens is you go through four weeks of vigorous training,” Conrad said. “You’re in the classroom from 8 a.m. to about noon going over rules, situations and little interpretations.
“At about 1 p.m., you’re on the field and you do drill work, and this goes on for four weeks,” he said. “They take a select group of guys. They took 26 from our school and 26 from the Harry Wendelstadt school and we went through an evaluation course.
“From there, I think there were 65 guys at the evaluation course and 29 of us got jobs in professional baseball.”
One of the highlights of Conrad’s college career came on March 25, 2011, when he started for the Lions in the first game of a doubleheader against No. 4-ranked Central Missouri at Joe Becker Stadium.
Conrad allowed three runs — two earned — on seven hits in six innings. He walked two, struck out one and was not the pitcher of record in a 5-4 seven-inning loss.
Central Missouri went on to win 19 consecutive games as the Mules advanced to the NCAA Division II Championships in Cary, N.C.
Conrad’s catcher that day against the Mules was Dallas Burke, who as a fifth-year senior helped lead the Lions to the MIAA Tournament championship last month at Kansas City, Kan.
“He’s very detail-oriented and baseball-savvy,” Burke said. When they spoke during a game, “most of it was just to remind each other to be confident because we’ve already put the work in to be successful.”
Conrad, who is from Lafayette, La., played two seasons at Labette Community College before he transferred to Missouri Southern. He is a December 2012 graduate who majored in general studies with a minor in management.
“Whenever I played at Southern and also in junior college, I love the game of baseball, but first and foremost I always watched the umpires, especially when I was out on the mound,” Conrad said.
“Being a relief pitcher, I spent a lot of time in the dugout and tried to develop relationships with umpires,” he said. “Whenever coach (Bryce) Darnell would get upset at an umpire, I always watched the umpire and how he would react in those situations. We joke about those from time to time.”
As a senior, Conrad appeared in 14 games for the Lions, all in relief, and was 1-3 with one save and a 4.62 ERA. He appeared in 17 games as a junior, including two starts, had no record with a 3.82 ERA. He pitched 58 1/3 innings in his two-year career at MSSU.
“Missouri Southern really did shape me into the person I am today,” Conrad said. “That close-knit community, I owe them so much.”
Burke said he knew from the beginning that umpiring was Conrad’s passion.
“I remember the first time I met Grant,” he said. “We were at Joe Becker Stadium and he said, ‘I just can’t wait to get back there to umpire, maybe for an intersquad.’ I said, ‘Aren’t you a pitcher?’
“We would sit around at night and watch MLB and he would call balls and strikes and work on his technique. He worked on it that much,” Burke said. “I watched this guy for three years work on being a professional umpire. He was just something.
“He’s going to be a major league umpire,” he said. “Just watching the work ethic and seeing him in action, he has something special. No one likes a guy who’s not having fun, and he has fun. He’s very smart with the game of baseball.”