Legendary local umpire warns baseball is facing an ‘epidemic’

Photos by Ray Hamill/ – Don Hofacker

By Ray Hamill — Now in his sixth different decade umpiring baseball games here on the North Coast, local legend Don Hofacker believes baseball and many other community sports are facing an “epidemic.”

A shortage of officials for community games, he warns, is already having an adverse effect on the scheduling, and it’s something that is affecting community sports at all levels.

“It’s an epidemic across the nation,” he said.

Hofacker, who began umpiring in 1974 in Germany while serving in the U.S. Army, believes the challenge is to get more young people involved in officiating sports.

And he believes that starts with the local high schools and educating students on what it means to be an official.

“The solution to me would be to have an opportunity to hold sports clinics at the schools, to explain the positives of the game, to explain the necessity of officiating and what officials actually do out on the field,” he said.

For Hofacker, who has umpired countless games here on the North Coast and has become an icon of the game for generations of players, it was love at first sight when he was first asked to help umpire games between different U.S. military bases back in Germany.

“I couldn’t think of anything else I’d prefer to do,” he admitted. “I’ve got a real passion for it. I got out on the field and it felt really comfortable. I didn’t know a lot, but I knew enough, and it just became a passion for me.”

Hofacker will turn 70 in November and while he no longer officiates at Humboldt Crabs games, he still takes the field regularly for high school and community games.

More recently, he has taken up umpiring slow pitch softball games, which he describes as a “real adventure” and a “unique game.”

And for him, the funnest part of officiating has always been the players and getting to know them.

“I’ll tell you what, when you get around these kids, you see how enthusiastic they are and you see how bright they are,” he said. “Around this area, we’ve got some good baseball and you get to see some good players.

“At the end of then day, you also get a satisfaction out of it. You run into these kids later in life and they recognize you.”

Hofacker, who was born in Maryland and moved to Humboldt County in 1958, remembers umpiring games that featured several local well-known coaches like Troy Ghisetti, Dustin Dutra and Matt Tomlin when they were still playing, and recalls officiating Tomlin when he was a 13-year-old playing Babe Ruth.

And, naturally, he has a lot of stories he recalls involving players and coaches he has umpired over the years and admits he remembers hundreds of players he has worked with.

His favorite story, he says, involves former McKinleyville High standout John Jaso, who went on to play 10 years in the Majors.

“My highlight was when St. Bernard’s was playing at McKinleyville and the wind was blowing out,” he said. “John Jaso hit a bomb off Alton Tomlin, Matt’s younger brother, and then he hit another home run.

“And the next time he went to bat, he misread the signal from Dutra and went to bunt. His teammates got on him for that.”

Among the benefits of officiating at community games in any sport, Hofacker believes it’s a great way for personal development, making lifelong friends, staying fit, making positive social interactions and giving something back to the community.

He also describes it as a “interesting vocation” and a good way to make some money.

“It’s a fun opportunity for people,” he said.

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