A car crash in eighth grade cost Michael Wraa his baseball career. It did not, however, take away his passion for the game.
Now at the age of 25, Wraa has used the game to travel the nation as both an umpire and a coach, and as a way to not only remain in the game, but to give back to a sport he says has given so much to him.
“Let’s put it this way. Someone once said when I die, there will be a (ball) park named after me,” Wraa said. “Or they’re going to bury me under a park.”
The crash left Wraa with significant back issues, while also exacerbating previously undiagnosed degenerative bone disease in his neck. When it was all said and done, doctors told him his playing days were done.
Instead of sulking around, he did what any normal 11-year-old who loves baseball would do: he became an umpire.
Not only did Wraa become an umpire, he started his own umpire organization at the age of 15, now known as Golden State Sports Officials Association. His organization, which includes approximately 250 officials, supplies umpires and referees for various sports across three states, most of which are on the collegiate summer baseball circuit.
“I started the company when I was 15 and our first contract was serving the local PONY league on weekdays,” said the 2013 Aragon graduate. “I saw a void in the market when it came to quality, consistent officiating that showed up. When I first got into it, that was an issue — showing up.
“I had looked at it as a way to make some money in high school that didn’t require flipping burgers. Over the years, I credit it to being in the right place at the right time and leaving a personable impression. Ten years later, did I think I’d have a business and a brand that is still around and still a respected name?”
Finding a way to work in sports
That led him to umpiring games in various leagues around the country. He has spent time behind home plate at the Cooperstown, New York “Field of Dreams” baseball complex, as well as working the “Prospect League,” a collegiate summer league in the Midwest.
In addition, he has served as an athletic director for San Mateo and Foster City middle schools, is a board member for the District 52 California Little League and became an umpire administrator for Nor Cal Travel Baseball.
His years as umpire led him into coaching — beginning at the Little League level, transitioning onto the travel ball circuit and even a two-year stint as the freshman coach at Burlingame High School.
Wraa has had “day jobs.” He spent two years working in the San Mateo Union High School District and is currently working in sales and administration for a local tile and stone company.
He does that to make ends meet, but it also allows him the flexibility to continue his work in baseball. 2020 was shaping up to be a big year for Wraa and his baseball journey. At the beginning of the year, he was weighing a couple of high school baseball coaching opportunities in San Francisco before a friend presented him with an opportunity to buy into a baseball training facility in Belmont.
The two became partners and they opened Barrel Up Baseball, with the intent of being a place players could come to just train.
“We don’t want to do teams. There are a million (club) teams out there,” said Wraa, who had spent five years working at another Belmont-based training facility previous to starting his own operations.
“We want to be that training facility to get that extra work,” Wraa continued. “We want you to go play with your travel-ball program and do all that. When that ends at 7 o’clock and you want that extra hour of grind, you come over here.”
Barrel Up opened March 1. It was shut down about two weeks later when the initial pandemic lockdown orders were issued.
Talk about bad timing. Not only did the virus close his brand-new business, it also affected a lot of his other baseball endeavors. Suddenly, there was no need for umpires or an organization to supply them.
“My income in 2020 was reduced by over 60%,” Wraa said. “I had a baseball coach, years ago, who said to me once, ‘Laugh or cry, you’ll be here all day.’ I’m going to choose to laugh.”
There was a time of reflection, however, in the early days of the pandemic. Wraa said he spent several days at a friend’s vacation home and contemplated his future.
“For about three days, I just stepped back from the world I was in. As I said, I do a lot. Now all of the sudden we’re going into a shelter-in-place order and having all this free time. I’ve been going non-stop for the last 10, 11 years. I’ve been going non-stop six, seven days a week for the better part of 10 years. Now, all of the sudden, I’m sitting at home,” Wraa said.
At one point, he had a poignant conversation with his friend.
“He basically turned around and goes, ‘Do you have any regrets about your last 10 years?’ I go, ‘No. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done.’
“‘Then why change that? If it make you happy, why would you change it?’ OK. I guess we’re going to stick through this.”
Wraa got back on his horse and over the last 10 months has traveled to six different states for private coaching opportunities.
Back on the Peninsula, Wraa spends his time between his day job and running outdoor workouts at Barrel Up. It might make life easier if Wraa found a different line of work, but sports — and specifically baseball — are in his blood. And for a kid to lose the ability to play at a young age and yet still manage to find success in the game, Wraa is not ready to give it up yet.
“I don’t live a rich life, by any means. For me, baseball has taken me to parts of this country and allowed me to see things I never would have seen otherwise,” Wraa said. “When I was in eighth grade, I came to the realization I couldn’t play sports any more. Officiating is how I got back and it embraced me in the game. Sports gave a lot to me. Sports is how I found my way back after the accident. I think it’s your duty to pay it forward … when you can. This is just how I do it.”