George Will

PHILADELPHIA -- On a recent night here, as on most summer nights for 37 years, Bruce Froemming went to work. He performed for about three hours in front of a large, attentive and opinionated audience. His job involves about 290 snap judgments, any of which might infuriate thousands of people. He has done his job well if no one notices him doing it. His goal is anonymous perfection.

At less than 5-foot-8 and more than 250 pounds, Froemming, 67, looks like he might have siblings at Stonehenge. But in this summer of dismal developments in sports -- a left fielder suspected of better hitting through chemistry; an NFL quarterback accused of dog fighting; an NBA referee guilty in a betting scandal; the Tour de France ruined by failed drug tests -- Froemming is a sight for sore eyes.

Now in his 37th and final major league season -- after 13 in the minors -- he holds the record for most consecutive seasons of big league umpiring. His 5,127 games, through Sunday, are second only to Bill Klem (5,374), who did not have in-season vacations, which umpires did not get until 1979. If Froemming had not had 28 days off each of the last 28 summers, by now he would have worked nearly 6,000 games. He has spent more than 46,000 innings and approximately one and a half years on baseball diamonds, a well-spent life.

Pitch by pitch, baseball produces a rich sediment of numbers, such as: Every fourth day, Froemming is behind the plate. Over his career, the average game has involved about 290 pitches, so he has been behind the plate for more than 370,000 pitches. Has he given strict scrutiny -- a Supreme Court concept is apposite when discussing baseball's judicial branch -- to every one of them? Yes, he says.

Really? His attention never flags during, say, a late inning in an August game in front of a small crowd in Tampa Bay? Never, he insists. "Every pitch is important to someone."

Baseball now has an electronic system for grading home plate umpires' performances. Froemming says it shows that umpires are right 94 percent of the time, but "you get a lot of crap for the other 6 percent."

Early in his career, working behind the plate in a game involving Bob Gibson, the Cardinals' regal and ferocious Hall of Fame pitcher, Froemming made some calls that displeased Gibson. At the end of an inning, he walked past Froemming and quietly said, "You're better than that." Froemming says, "I remember that like it was yesterday."

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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