Few can spin a yarn like ex-ump Froemming
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- I was behind the plate. Where else in a baseball stadium could I be if I were speaking with Bruce Froemming. Writers aren't allowed anywhere near the field during the game, even in Spring Training. Once I was allowed to sit in a bullpen and kibitz, but no more. In the pressbox, however, Bruce Froemming and I qualify as "authorized personnel." Each of us watched the Mets and Nationals play from that vantage point on Monday night. There you can kibitz.
Froemming is five years removed from his last day wearing the garb of a big league umpire. His body language suggests he wouldn't mind another day in that attire. His words don't contradict that. He is five years removed from his 72nd birthday. His vision's good. He identified Mets center fielder Collin Cowgill by uniform number from 500 feet. "On a clear day," he said, "I can see the sun, and it's 93 million miles away."
I'm certain he'd used that line previously.
Froemming monitors and evaluates umpires these days, working under his friend and baseball's sheriff, Joe Torre. He is an assistant to the vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. With that title, his business card would be the size of a pizza box. But you can call him Bruce.
He remains close to the game and clearly enjoys what he's doing. He is a fount of anecdotes collected over 53 summers. He tells a good story.
I introduced myself to Froemming in Montreal in 1977. It was June 1; Torre was in his second day as a big league manager, having replaced Joe Frazier. Froemming had worked third base that afternoon. It was his call that denied Dave Kingman a home run on fly ball that might have traveled 500 feet if the concrete rim of Stade Olympique hadn't interrupted its flight.
The ball was flattened in two places, Mets catcher John Stearns noted, on one side by Kingman's bat, on another by the rim.
"It looked like a puck when it came down," Stearns said.
But Kingman's at-bat produced only a fully pedestrian single a few pitches after Froemming had ruled the missile foul.
Torre left the dugout for the first time in his career, not to dispute the call, but rather to investigate.
"I already knew Joe," Froemming said. "We'd both been in the Northern League in '59. He got called up the next year. I got the call in '71. ... Anyway, he comes out, and he's typical Joe, just calm. No anger. And all he says is, 'I just want to ask what you went by to call it foul.'
"We didn't have any ground rules for that. Kingman hit the damn thing so high. It was still going up. I just told Joe, 'From what I saw, it was foul. I called it foul.' What could I say? I knew he had me in a box. There was no mark. But as soon as the Expos went on the road, they had someone go up there and paint lines so it couldn't happen again."
The line painted on the rim down the right field line became necessary 11 years later when Darryl Strawberry hit the rim on Opening Day. The pitcher was Randy St. Claire, who is now the Mets' Triple-A pitching coach.
"And now I work with Joe," Froemming said. "It's great. It's a long relationship. He's the perfect guy for what he's doing. He and Frank Robinson [Torre's predecessor as sheriff] have given this program a lot of credibility. They're quality men who know everything about the game. They were players, coaches, managers. Joe did radio for a while. Nothing in the game is new to them. And that makes it work.
"Plus, you know Joe's strong suit is dealing with people. He didn't raise his voice in Montreal that night. He knew he had me in a box."
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Froemming's primary responsibility at this time of year is to watch the apprentice umpires and teach them. Three of the four working the game Monday were deployed as vacation fill-ins last summer. He has a place in his heart for them.
"We didn't get vacations until 1979," he said. "Best thing that ever happened."
He watches for "positioning and timing." He takes notes. He'll work 20-some-odd games in Florida, then return home to Milwaukee and work 15-20 regular-season games per month there, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis and Cincinnati. "My wife says I work too much," he said, "But the flights are short now. No more five-hour trips.
Then he recalled a San Francisco-to-Atlanta red-eye on a Labor Day weekend.
"You get to the hotel at 7:15 in the morning and you're at the park 11:30-noon for a day game," he said. "It wasn't as easy job sometimes."
But Froemming didn't work 5,163 games -- only Bill Klem (5,370 from 1905-1941) worked more -- because the job was taxing. He found it rewarding. He enjoyed the game.
"You meet a lot of great people," he said.
High on his list are Torre and former Mets owner Nelson Doubleday.
"I used to love to work games in New York," Froemming said.
The Yankees presented him the Yankee Stadium plate in 2007 when he worked the plate for the final time in the Bronx. It's displayed at his home.
Froemming worked Game 3 of the 1973 National League Championship Series and was assigned to second base, which became the equivalent of a ringside seat when the Rose-Bud Brawl (Pete and Harrelson) occurred. What he took from that experience was this: The cheap shot Reds pitcher Pedro Borbon put on Mets pitcher Buzz Capra trumped the news that Spiro Agnew resigned the same day.
I remembered Borbon repeatedly saying, "Me no hit no Capra," after the game.
Doubleday loved the umpires. He was a frequent visitor to their dressing room at Shea Stadium. He was particularly fond of Froemming, and the feeling was mutual. Indeed, Bruce called the former owner Monday night after I provided the number.
"He treated us great, and he was a real regular guy," Froemming said. "He came into our room one night and I got on him. I said, 'Boy this is big league, huh? We've got car wash towels in here. Look at these.' Before Froemming's crew left town, Doubleday had 20 long, lush red towels -- each embroidered with the words "Froemming's crew" -- delivered. "Classy," Froemming said.
And he recalled receiving a huge flower arrangement in his hospital room after he had undergone bypass surgery. It was from Doubleday: "There's a note from D. I called him D. It said: 'I checked upstairs and they're not ready for you yet.' The next day there's another huge arrangement. And another note: 'I checked downstairs, too, and they're not ready for you either.'
"Great people in the game, ya know."