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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."