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."

A story for Froemming: Rogers Hornsby, who averaged .400 over five years, was facing a rookie pitcher who threw three pitches that he thought were strikes but that the umpire called balls. The rookie shouted a complaint to the umpire, who replied: "Young man, when you throw a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know."

So, a question for Froemming: Is it true, as is said, that umpires give great hitters and pitchers the benefit of the doubt on close pitches? "Not one bit," he says.

OK, then, another question: Suppose it is the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of a World Series, two outs, the potential tying run on third, two strikes on a right-handed batter. He starts to swing, tries to stop his bat and the home plate umpire calls the pitch a ball. But the catcher asks the home plate umpire to ask the first base umpire, who has a better vantage point, to say if the batter swung. The home plate umpire accedes to this request. You, Froemming, are at first. You think the batter did swing. But seriously: Are you going to end a seven-game World Series on a check swing appeal call? "Yes."

He might. Consider Sept. 2, 1972, when Froemming was behind the plate and the Cubs' Milt Pappas was one strike from doing what only 15 pitchers have done -- pitch a perfect game, 27 up, 27 down.

With two outs in the ninth, Pappas quickly got an 0-2 count on the 27th batter. Then Froemming called the next three pitches balls. An agitated Pappas started walking toward Froemming, who said to the Cubs' catcher: "Tell him if he gets here, just keep walking" -- to the showers.

Pappas' next pitch was low and outside. One kind of glory was lost. Another kind -- the integrity of rules -- was achieved.

The photographer Edward Steichen said that when God created his brother-in-law, the poet Carl Sandburg, God didn't do anything else that day. When the Intelligent Designer designed Froemming, He spent the rest of the day at a ballpark because He had done a good day's work by producing an archetype: The Umpire.


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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