It was the middle of the night, and John Kibler was flat on his back in the emergency room of a mid-town Manhattan hospital when the thought occurred to him that he might soon be ejected from this world. Pain was shooting through his chest, and he was plugged into a battery of monitors. At the foot of the bed, looking very grim, was his fellow National League umpire, Bruce Froemming.
First, Kibler removed his wedding ring and a World Series ring and gave them to Froemming, a gesture that did not exactly brighten Froemming's mood. Then, typically, Kibler tried to cheer him up.
"Bruce," he said, "if I don't check out of here, please don't feel bad for me. Just remember all the great times we've had. Whatever happens, it's been fun."
Froemming grabbed Kibler's hand, squeezed it, and burst into tears. "Damn it," he ordered. "You'll be checking out of here."
Kibler spent a week in the hospital and another three months at home recovering before he was cleared by doctors to return to work. He had suffered a heart attack. That was six years ago. He's now 60 and nearing the end of his 25th season in the big leagues. He is baseball's oldest umpire and, by most accounts, still one of the best. But, more significant, John Kibler might be the game's happiest man, and these days that's no small thing.
When managers complain that their club might win more games if the players would "only have some fun," they're not kidding. The real shame of professional baseball is not Wade Boggs or Pete Rose, sex or scandal. It's that so many of the people involved treat the season as if it were one long audition for an antacid commercial. From part-time players to superstars pulling down robber barons' salaries, moaning and groaning is too often the order of the day in the big league clubhouse. As for the umpires, some of them give the impression that they have to be tethered to the back of a horse and dragged to the ballpark.
"A few of these guys, you can just see it on their faces," says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "They look like they wish they were someplace else."
Then there's Kibler.
On a pleasant summer evening, he's the guy you'll see standing off to the side watching batting practice, looking as if somebody sneaked him through the pass gate and he's the luckiest kid around. "When I look into the stands," says Kibler, "I think to myself, There but for the grace of God could be me—having to pay my way in instead of getting paid to be at the ball game."
It is April in Pittsburgh, and cold. It's weather fit for a Steeler game. Despite his seniority—only Doug Harvey, who's a year younger and who came up in 1962, has served more time—Kibler and his crew started the 1989 season in three cold-weather cities: Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.