It was the middle of the night, and John Kibler was flat on his back in the emergency room of a mid-town Manhattan hospital when the thought occurred to him that he might soon be ejected from this world. Pain was shooting through his chest, and he was plugged into a battery of monitors. At the foot of the bed, looking very grim, was his fellow National League umpire, Bruce Froemming.
First, Kibler removed his wedding ring and a World Series ring and gave them to Froemming, a gesture that did not exactly brighten Froemming's mood. Then, typically, Kibler tried to cheer him up.
"Bruce," he said, "if I don't check out of here, please don't feel bad for me. Just remember all the great times we've had. Whatever happens, it's been fun."
Froemming grabbed Kibler's hand, squeezed it, and burst into tears. "Damn it," he ordered. "You'll be checking out of here."
September 17, 1989
Kibler spent a week in the hospital and another three months at home recovering before he was cleared by doctors to return to work. He had suffered a heart attack. That was six years ago. He's now 60 and nearing the end of his 25th season in the big leagues. He is baseball's oldest umpire and, by most accounts, still one of the best. But, more significant, John Kibler might be the game's happiest man, and these days that's no small thing.
When managers complain that their club might win more games if the players would "only have some fun," they're not kidding. The real shame of professional baseball is not Wade Boggs or Pete Rose, sex or scandal. It's that so many of the people involved treat the season as if it were one long audition for an antacid commercial. From part-time players to superstars pulling down robber barons' salaries, moaning and groaning is too often the order of the day in the big league clubhouse. As for the umpires, some of them give the impression that they have to be tethered to the back of a horse and dragged to the ballpark.
"A few of these guys, you can just see it on their faces," says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "They look like they wish they were someplace else."
Then there's Kibler.
On a pleasant summer evening, he's the guy you'll see standing off to the side watching batting practice, looking as if somebody sneaked him through the pass gate and he's the luckiest kid around. "When I look into the stands," says Kibler, "I think to myself, There but for the grace of God could be me—having to pay my way in instead of getting paid to be at the ball game."
It is April in Pittsburgh, and cold. It's weather fit for a Steeler game. Despite his seniority—only Doug Harvey, who's a year younger and who came up in 1962, has served more time—Kibler and his crew started the 1989 season in three cold-weather cities: Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
He has spent much of the morning walking the downtown streets, shopping for a particular type of long underwear that he had seen at a store in San Diego, near his off-season home. "It has two layers, and it breathes. It's as warm as the normal thermals, but not as heavy," he explains.
The trouble is, those long Johns can't be found in Pittsburgh. Kibler has sorted through bins at two sporting goods stores and a couple of department stores and has come up empty. "Darn it," he says, "I should have bought some when I saw them out in California."
And that's about as close to a complaint as you're ever going to hear from Kibler.
"Everybody has bad moods, so I guess John has them too," says Eric Gregg, 38, who is in his second year on Kibler's crew. "But I've never seen him in one. I can honestly say that. He never has to fight to make himself want to go to the ballpark."
No matter what National League city he is in, Kibler knows where he can perform his daily workout, which includes 20 minutes on an exercise bicycle and 50 or more sit-ups. He gave up red meat and salt more than a decade ago, and at 6'1", 190 pounds, he's about 20 pounds lighter than he was when he broke into the big leagues.
On or off the field, Kibler stands ramrod straight. With his flattop haircut—which is mowed every two weeks by one of a select number of barbers—his piercing blue eyes and his square jaw, Kibler looks like a Norman Rockwell portrait come to life. Umpire. The man just looks like an ump.
Kibler exudes a certain dignity, a quiet authority. His fellow umpires know him well enough to sense when he's beginning to get angry, when a player or manager has pushed him too far. The giveaway is that he'll involuntarily hunch his shoulders up. When his crewmates see this, they'll sometimes flash the "John's angry" sign among themselves, so that around the infield you'll see umpires standing with their shoulders hunched up.
Kibler entered what he refers to as "my profession" almost by accident. He was 27 years old and a state trooper in New York when he walked into the room of a fellow trooper named Al Salerno and noticed a brochure on the table for Al Somers's umpiring school in Daytona Beach, Fla. "Where did you get that?" he asked Salerno, a future American League umpire. Within two years both men had quit their jobs with the state police and enrolled in Somers's school. Kibler, who had played baseball in high school in Fort Plain, N.Y., and also during 3½ years in the Navy, didn't think he was cut out for the state police anyway. "I couldn't shoot straight," he recalls, "so it took me forever to qualify on the pistol range."
Kibler got his first job as a professional umpire in 1958, working in the Class D Georgia-Florida League. It offered hard, lonely travel and low wages—which was the umpire's lot even at the major league level until unionization began to bring higher wages in the past decade.
"Dublin, Waycross, Thomasville, Brunswick, Valdosta and Albany," Kibler recalls, ticking off the towns on the six-team circuit. The environs were decidedly unfriendly to outsiders, and league president W.T. Anderson, a legendary figure in minor league baseball, forbade his umpires to travel at night. Kibler got $250 to $285 a month and a free lunch every Tuesday at a cafe in Tifton, Ga., on Anderson. "Mr. Anderson was one of the finest league presidents in the history of minor league baseball," says Kibler. "The league could not pay us as much as any other regular job would have, so he made sure that we had at least one decent meal a week. All the umpires sat down to lunch together, and we all ordered the biggest steaks the kitchen could bring us."
Kibler had planned to return to the Georgia-Florida League the next season, but before it began Anderson died suddenly and the league folded. Kibler scrambled to find a job and ended up in the Pioneer League, a Class C league in Idaho and Montana. He and his wife, Dorothy, whom he had married the previous season, set up home in a trailer on a 250-acre ranch owned by a friend in Helmville, Mont. "I didn't see my wife that much," he says. "Maybe I'd get back to that trailer once a month during the season. But I thought it was better than not seeing her at all."
Kibler reached the big leagues briefly at the end of the 1963 season as a substitute for an umpire who was ill, and he came up to stay in 1965, at a salary of $6,500. As a 20-year man, he now makes $100,000 a year. "Even if I didn't still enjoy it so much, the money might be enough to make me want to stay on," he says. "We went so many years making nothing, and I really feel for guys like Jocko [Conlan, whose big league career went from 1941 to '64] and Augie [Donatelli, 1950-72] and all those others who worked so many years and retired before we started making decent money."
The game between the Mets and Pirates this evening is fairly uneventful for Kibler and his crew until Gerry Davis, 36, calls Pirate Andy Van Slyke out on a play at first base in the 11th inning, with the score tied 3-all. Pirate skipper Jim Leyland comes rushing out of his dugout to engage Davis, and the two men stand nose-to-nose, with Leyland gesturing wildly and bobbing his head up and down. Kibler, the crew chief, begins edging over, ever so slowly, from his post at third base.
"Gerry can handle situations," Kibler says later, employing umpire-speak for what most fans call arguments and what are referred to in the broadcast booths as rhubarbs. "That's what separates good umpires from bad ones—whether or not they can handle situations. I wanted to make sure that stayed one-on-one, that he didn't get ganged up on. If he did, then I would have gone all the way over to help."
Leyland makes his points and leaves. Davis, who has been a National League umpire for six seasons, doesn't back down, but he doesn't toss Leyland either. One of the most common complaints of players and managers these days is that umpires, particularly young ones, have too short a fuse.
"There's a marked difference in the demeanor of the younger umpires," says Philadelphia second baseman Tom Herr. "The younger guys reach their boiling point a lot quicker. I've seen some of them bait a player and then toss him out. Kibler's like most of the veterans. You can talk to him. That's all anybody asks."
To Kibler, this is mostly hogwash. "I remember my first year saying to Shag [retired National League ump Shag Crawford], 'It seems like I make the same calls as everyone else, but everybody comes down on me." And he said, 'Just remember, son. Someday your time will come.' "
An umpire spends years, maybe a decade, establishing himself, Kibler says. Only then can he afford to let a player or manager have much of a say.
That was what the experienced umps told him coming up, and that's what he passes along now. Gregg, an 11-year veteran, remembers working a game on Kibler's crew, during his rookie season. "I called a strike on Denny Walling on a ball that was so far above the strike zone it could have brought rain," Gregg says. "And the dugout started yelling and screaming. John came over to me at the half-inning and said, 'Everything O.K.?' Just like that. That's John's style. He did not point out to me that I had blown the pitch. I knew I had blown it, and he knew I knew. Then he said, 'Listen, kid, don't take any stuff from them, because if you start taking stuff now there'll be no end to it. Go after 'em, and I'll be right by your side if you need me.' Next guy who yelled, I ripped off my mask and charged the dugout, and that was the end of that."
Kibler went through his own evolution as an umpire. Longtime American League umpire Bill Haller was Kibler's partner in 1958, in the Georgia-Florida League. "John started out as a pretty passive umpire," says Haller. "He was not forceful enough. He went from that to being a very strong, take-charge type of guy."
The next day in Pittsburgh, there is no scheduled game. Kibler and his crew have an off day. Players complain that the toughest part of baseball is the travel and being away from their families. For umpires, it's even more arduous. They roam the country for six months of the year, carrying their own bags and booking their own flights and hotels.
Under the best of circumstances an umpire's crew is his family away from home. His real family he sees rarely. Kibler gets home to Ocean-side, Calif., to see Dorothy only four or five times over the course of the season, during his crew's scheduled swings to the West Coast. On the road he calls Dorothy every night after the ball game and talks for a half hour or more. The Kiblers have two grown sons, Jeff, 24, production assistant at ABC Sports, and John Jr., 29, who is in the computer business with Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif. "I love my boys," Kibler says. "My biggest regret is that I was away from them so much while they were growing up. My wife did a terrific job of raising them, but that was a lot to ask."
In 1986, Jeff was involved in a serious auto accident. Doctors at first thought he would not live and then feared he would never again walk. Kibler took three months of the season off and returned home to become, in effect, his son's physical therapist. When Jeff began walking normally, his son's doctor asked Kibler, half-seriously, if he would like to leave baseball and become a therapist.
"The biggest thing about having my dad there was how much it helped me emotionally," Jeff says. "Yeah, he was away a lot when we were growing up. But he was always a presence in the house, even when he was on the road. We knew where his priorities were."
Over the years, what has helped Kibler and other umpires survive on the road are the souls who have befriended major league umpires. There is a network of such people, who drive umpires to and from airports, feed them home-cooked meals, find them affordable places to play golf. They're a kind of permanent welcome wagon for the arbiters of our national pastime.
Kibler is spending his off day in Pittsburgh with Davis and one of the welcome wagoneers, a hulking man named Joey Diven, who has been Libler's friend for more than two decades. In the morning they attend a funeral for Joey Petraglia, a member of the umpires' welcome wagon.
After the funeral they drive out to visit the rightfield wall of old Forbes Field, which has been left standing on land that is now part of the University of Pittsburgh campus. The wall has special meaning for Kibler: Roberto Clemente, the late Pirate rightfielder, is one of his alltime favorite players. Kibler loved the joy with which Clemente played. He admired Willie Mays for the same reason, and Rose. What's more, all three superstars were willing to chat with an umpire while batting or on base. Henry Aaron was another player Kibler greatly admired, but he found the great slugger very quiet and shy. "He never spoke to any of us," says Kibler. "He just went out there and did his job."
Now it is late afternoon, and Kibler, Davis and Diven have repaired to a tavern in downtown Pittsburgh, the sort of drinking establishment that has become a rarity in America's cities. It is basically an upgraded shot-and-beer joint, but it attracts a diverse group of people: young and old, black and white, yuppies and blue-collar types. In the evenings, former light heavyweight champion Billy Conn is frequently around. He and Diven, who years ago was Conn's bodyguard, are close friends.
This is Kibler's kind of place. Much of the allure of umpiring for him is the traveling and the going out, meeting and talking to people. "One of the things John always tells us is that nobody has more fun than umpires," says Gregg. "If he sees you getting mopey, he says, 'Hey, you only work three hours a day, and the other 21 are yours.' "
Says Kibler: "I tried for a while when I was on the road to stay in the room when I was off. I would read and watch TV. But it just wasn't me."
Kibler, Davis and Diven are joined at their table by an off-duty narcotics cop and a personal-injury lawyer. Kibler tells the lawyer about life on the road and about the importance of having friends like Diven.
"You don't survive without them," he says. "Not that long ago we didn't even have the money for cab fare to the airport. We didn't have money to play golf. We were lucky if we could find a couple of dollars to go to the movies. Guys like Joey and Bob Svoboda, in Chicago, who would drive us to the airport and bring us home for meals, made the difference."
Years ago in Philadelphia, when Kibler was just starting out, he mentioned to a man he met in a hotel bar that he and the other umpires were looking for a cheap place to play golf the following day. There's something inherently trustworthy about Kibler: The man in the hotel bar, Al Franchi, who owned a South Jersey trucking firm, ended up lending Kibler three sets of clubs as well as his Cadillac. Two decades later, Kibler was the master of ceremonies at a huge 60th birthday party for Franchi. "These people," Kibler says, "you just can't forget them because you don't need them as much over the years. I feel so fortunate that I'm in a position to thank them and give something back for all they've done."
Afternoon has become evening. The narcotics cop, a bearded man wearing a baseball cap, gets up from the table to meet his partners. They're going on a raid in a couple of hours. Kibler shakes his hand and slaps him on the back. "Go get 'em." he says. "I have the utmost respect for what you do."
It's time to drive across town to pay respects to Petraglia's family. Kibler has wanted to leave for about 30 minutes, but Diven has been stalling. Now he's trying to order another round for the table.
Kibler rises from his chair and says to Diven, "We're leaving, Joey." Diven starts to balk again. Kibler extends his arm and points at him. "Joey," he says, "we're leaving. Now let's go."
They grab their coats. The umpire has ruled.
Michael Sokolove is a Philadelphia-based writer working on a book about Pete Rose.