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As rain fell on the turf of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium one recent evening, the umpiring firm of Kunkel, Cooney, Voltaggio & Shulock sat half-dressed, trading badinage and movie reviews, waiting patiently at 7:50 for the 7:30 game to start.
"It's out of my hands," said Bill Kunkel, 45, the firm's senior partner and crew chief. "Whether the game begins is up to the home team. It's only after the game starts that I take control."
Except for times like these, the ump is the authority, and as such, he's the object of everything from sycophancy to kicked dirt. "Even the Lord would be in trouble out there sometimes," said Kunkel in discussing the impossibility of keeping everyone happy while calling outs. "On certain decisions, heat is going to come from somewhere. You have to be of even temper and, most important, be consistent." He laughed. "Consistency. That's the big C."
It may be that, but it isn't as big as another "C" Kunkel has had to deal with. "I began to see blood in my stool during the middle of last season," he said. "He was complaining of pain in his midsection," said Terry Cooney. "We kept after him to go in and see about it."
Kunkel was examined by a doctor during a series in Minnesota last September. He was told that he had a rectal tumor. There was a 95% chance the tumor was malignant and a 25% chance it had already spread to other systems. Kunkel's season was over, and he feared he might never have another one.
"I just said, 'Thanks Doc,' and walked out," said Kunkel. "I was thinking I had two weeks to live. The one individual you turn to in that situation is the Lord. Before I left Minnesota, I had a long, quiet conversation with Him. After that, I felt the cancer would only be a temporary thing."
Even so, Kunkel prepared his family for the worst. First, he let his wife, Maxine, in on the bad news. "Then I got my kids together," he says, "and I told them that I loved them, had watched them grow up as best I could, and had played in one World Series and umpired in two. I told them I thought I had lived a tremendous life, and if the Lord took me right then, it would be like I had lived 150 years."
Kunkel's family is special. Son Kevin, 18, is a righthanded pitcher who would surely have gone in an early round of the June 7 free-agent draft had he not decided to attend Stanford this fall. Son Jeff, 20, is a shortstop at New Jersey's Rider College who is now competing in the Alaska summer league for college players. Daughter Lisa, 17, is the star pitcher and shortstop for her softball team at Middletown (N.J.) South High School.
Kunkel had given up his other career, as a basketball official, to spend more time with them. He had refereed ACC and ECAC games, among others, for more than 20 years. "I quit basketball in 1978, but I'm still gone 200 days a year with baseball," Kunkel says.
Last Sept. 22, a week after Kunkel talked to his family, he underwent the first stage of two-part surgery in which Dr. Thomas Gouge of the New York University Medical Center removed nearly all of Kunkel's colon. During his recovery Kunkel roamed around the hospital, regaling staff and visitors with 28 years' worth of umpire stories, and sorted through "thousands and thousands" of get-well wishes. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wrote; California Governor Jerry Brown sent a card. And Yankee owner George Steinbrenner offered to pick up any medical expenses Kunkel's insurance didn't cover.