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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."