Thursday, September 29, 2005

Umpire Revels in the Calls, and in Getting Them Right

September 29, 2005
New York Times

J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times -- Bruce Froemming, 66, baseball's most senior active umpire, has seen baseball become big business and computers judge his work.

BALTIMORE, Sept. 28 - On Monday night at Camden Yards, Bruce Froemming, baseball's senior umpire, was at third base for a game that was delayed nearly two hours by rain, not to mention by Oriole pitchers who walked 10 Yankees. It plodded along and ended after midnight.

"It was like pulling teeth, but you get games like that," Froemming said the next day, before enduring a game at second base that featured another parade of walks - mostly by Yankees pitchers - and lasted more than four hours without rain.

Umpires complain about long games, partly because their feet hurt, but mostly because their most fundamental job is paying attention. Froemming compares umpiring to cardiology.

"The guy goes into surgery on a Monday, and he can't think it's just another day, because it's a lot more important than that to the guy he's operating on," said Froemming, who turned 66 on Wednesday and was scheduled to be behind the plate Thursday night for the Yankees-Orioles series finale. "That's the way I feel going to the ballpark. I've never felt, in 35 years, that I could relax and do this job."

Bruce Froemming at work seems like a character in a Hemingway novel: the Old Ump. Stout and round, with ham-hock forearms, a beefy mug and a sturdy, if tired, gait - he has caricature as well as character in him - Froemming goes about his business with a deliberate precision.

"The epitome of an umpire," said John Hirschbeck, a veteran umpire who is president of the umpires' union.

When Froemming first stepped on a major league diamond in 1971, more than 5,000 games ago, Richard Nixon was president, Barry Bonds's father, Bobby, was in his prime, and there was no such thing as a designated hitter. One of Froemming's current partners, Hunter Wendelstedt, was born that year, while his father, Harry, was on Froemming's crew.

Froemming said he intended to eclipse the record of Bill Klem, who umpired 36 years from 1905 to 1940. Why he continues to do it is a reasonable question. The traveling gets to him more now, he said, though it has always been true for him that the easiest part of the job is on the field.
"I just love walking to home plate every night," Froemming said. "We're all competitors, you know? The player wants to get a hit. The manager wants to win. I want to get it right. To tell you the truth, I just love that competition."

Baseball has changed in 35 years. Among other things it has become a much bigger business, an entity that no longer tolerates its renegades and iconoclasts as gladly. Froemming, once considered an angry autocrat on the field - his first year, he threw out four Phillies on a single play - is better known now for his canniness and patience. Once, Froemming was working at first base when a young Barry Bonds, then with the Pirates, showed up the home-plate umpire.

Between innings, Froemming warned Bonds not to do that again. "I was young and arrogant," Bonds said before a recent game in Los Angeles, "and he told me so. But you can talk to Bruce. He treats you the way you treat him. And that's what you respect."

Off the field, Froemming was a longtime ally of Richie Phillips, the union leader who helped the umpires (Froemming's salary was $10,000 in 1971; it is more than $300,000 today) but overplayed his hand during contract negotiations in 1999. Froemming supported the umpires' mass resignation that September, a Phillips tactic that ultimately destroyed the union and ushered in the stricter control of umpires by the commissioner's office.

Umpires have since had to work games at all 30 major league parks, increasing their travel and doubling the number of players and managers they need to earn credibility with. They have been encouraged to yield to group decisions when a call is uncertain. And in 10 parks, they are now evaluated on their calls of balls and strikes with a system of cameras and computers known as QuesTec.

It has been a transition period for all umpires, especially trying for outspoken veterans like Froemming, who added to his own difficulties.

Before the 2003 season, Froemming was suspended for 10 days after he argued with a female baseball administrator over travel arrangements, and a vulgar slur he made about her was caught on her voice mail. They have since made amends, each said.

Over the course of several interviews, Froemming did bear the mark of a man who was newly minding his p's and q's, treading lightly along the company line.

Asked about the directive for an umpire to seek help from a fellow crew member when another perspective may clarify a call, he said, "Personally, I don't like huddles, but I want to get the call right."

He will not complain about QuesTec, as some umpires have. He will not talk about the malleability of the strike zone except to say that the ball has to be over the plate to be a strike.
"When you see a team more often, and the players see you more often, you build up credibility," he said, explaining why he preferred working only in the National League. "But the boss is the boss, and you have to do what they want. You adjust."

Froemming and his wife, Rose Marie, have been married for 46 years and have two sons and two grandsons. They live in Vero Beach, Fla., over the winter, and near Milwaukee, where he grew up, during the season. Froemming began umpiring straight out of high school - he was a professional at age 18 - spending his early years in the low minors and encountering future stars like Juan Marichal and Lou Brock in places like Kokomo, Ind., and Paris, Ill. Joe Torre, now the Yankees' manager, met Froemming in the late 1950's in the Class C Northern League.
"We were both brats," Torre recalled. "He must have thrown me out six or seven times."

In the off-season, Froemming also refereed basketball, and the National Basketball Association offered him a contract in 1971. He turned it down. After all, he had just arrived in the National League, where his crew chief, Al Barlick, became the mentor whose memory he still reveres.
"I wouldn't be here without Al," Froemming said.

Barlick, he said, helped him grow into his authority, teaching him the value of loyalty to his crew and of recognizing that his antagonists were not all the same.

Froemming recalled, for example, that Sparky Anderson, then the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, always picked on the unproven umps.

Meanwhile, Walter Alston of the Dodgers taught Froemming an early lesson in respect that changed his style. Froemming recalled ruling that the Dodgers catcher had not caught a pop-up, but had trapped the ball against the screen. Alston came out of the dugout and asked, "What's the story?"

Froemming responded sarcastically, "and it came back to bite me," he said. "He said, 'That's how you want to talk to me?' I didn't have anywhere to go. I was wrong. I couldn't say anything. But you learn." Froemming paused. "The best way I can say it, this is a game of personalities and it's a game of selling. You make the call and you have to sell it."

Froemming's personality is notable: proud, brusque and sensitive - crusty with a soft center. Over the years, he has earned affection.

"As much as you didn't like him," Torre said, "you knew there was something about him you could like, personality-wise. He's a hearty soul."

People like to joke with and about him. Duane Kuiper, a Giants broadcaster, recalled that when he was a Giants infielder, he once came to bat with Froemming behind the plate and said to the catcher: "I completely disagree, Alan. I don't think Bruce has put on any weight at all."
The catcher was left sputtering. "And in the meantime," Kuiper said, "I had a really nice strike zone."

And Froemming seems to understand that people find him both formidable and amusing. He and outfielder Jim Edmonds had a dispute a couple of years ago and did not speak until Edmonds recently approached him.

"He said, 'You never smile,' " Froemming said. "So the next day, I'm working first base, and about the fourth or fifth inning, he comes in from the outfield, I went like this to him" - he gave an exaggerated grin - "and he stopped and laughed, and he said, 'O.K., that's funny.' "

Umpiring may be baseball's most difficult skill to measure. In 1986, The Sporting News named Froemming the best umpire in the National League, and he holds the record for games umpired in the postseason, 107. But he has not been chosen to work a World Series since 1995, which may represent baseball's official view that he is no longer among the elite. He has a reputation
for calling more high strikes than low strikes, and for having sympathy for pitchers, both of which he will deny.

He is also known for having the intangible qualities that allow an umpire to wield his authority fairly and to control a game without influencing it. Joe Morgan, a broadcaster and a Hall of Fame second baseman, said that Barlick was the best umpire he had ever seen, but that Froemming was on the second rung.

"He's always been a good umpire," Morgan said. "Age doesn't matter in an umpire; complacency does."

That is essentially what Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez told Froemming on Monday night, when he thanked him for being such a pro. Recalling the conversation, Froemming blushed.

"He's like a four-star general out there," Rodriguez said Tuesday. "He's got great passion and great respect for the game, and he's been around for 35 years and still goes about his business like he was a rookie."

Courtesy of the New York Times


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