When John Tomasi first donned an umpire’s mask he was 14 years old, and a tough old cuss named Harry Truman was in the White House.
Ten presidents and several masks later, Tomasi remains a fixture behind the plate, meting out ballpark justice to yet another generation of players and coaches.
This year Tomasi, 72, of Mill Creek, celebrated his 58th consecutive season as an umpire by being inducted into the American Softball Association Region 15 Hall of Fame in February.
Tomasi got his start as a teenager in the summer of 1946, working for two dollars a game in the old Cub Scout youth softball league in Tacoma. Take inflation into consideration and the pay’s not a whole lot better in the 21st century. “If you’re in this business for the money,” Tomasi said with a laugh. “you’re in it for the wrong reason.”
Tomasi served in the army during the Korean War. He moved to Snohomish County when he married in 1966.
He worked high school and recreational baseball league games, as well as fastpitch and slowpitch softball, for more than 30 years before settling into softball exclusively in the late ’70s.
Through the years, Tomasi has trained and mentored many of his fellow umpires.
“I was a cocky young kid that he put up with,” said Bill Silves of Mount Vernon, the Umpire in Chief for ASA Region 15, an area that includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. “He’s helped a lot of people in their climb to become better umpires without asking anything in return for himself.”
Silves is in charge of the ASA umpires in King County, where Tomasi continues to work high school fastpitch games, recreation league games and tournaments.
“You can always count on John Tomasi to be there,” Silves said. “You need loyalty, commitment, passion and integrity — and he has all four.”
But, after nearly six decades on the job— including a 20-year stint as ASA Umpire in Chief in Snohomish County — how does Tomasi keep the passion?
“I just really enjoy going out there, calling my game and having fun,” Tomasi said. “It’s not life and death.”
Said Silves: “The game is really secondary to him now. I think he just loves the people that are at the park.”
Lasting as long as he has requires a hide as thick as a chest protector, but these are salad days for Tomasi.
“The high school coaches and players are all complimentary and well-behaved,” Tomasi said. “They always say ‘thanks ump.’ It’s really nice.”
Tomasi occasionally encounters a disgruntled player, coach or fan, usually in the recreational leagues, but he’s always ready with a comeback. “I tell them ‘I make 281 calls a game. I got 280 right,” he said. “That’s a pretty good percentage, beat it.’ “
But, Tomasi says learning to admit when he made a bad call was a major milestone in his umpiring career.
“You make a mistake, but you live with it,” he said.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult these days to find umpires willing to log the kind of mileage Tomasi has put in.
“We don’t retain young kids anymore,” Tomasi said. “Some of them can’t take the heat. They get crabbed at and they just don’t want to put up with it. I was taught that the first guy that barks at you, you throw them out. That was the old timer’s way.”
In the ’70s, Tomasi fell in love with men’s slowpitch softball and spent better than 20 years working games between rough-and-tumble Snohomish County teams such as the Everett Oly’s, North County Merchants, Electrical Installations, Larry’s Cabinets, the White Elephant Tavern, Coors and others.
“There were some tough teams around here,” Tomasi said.
“Guys tested him early on,” said Kim Hammons, who was one of the area’s top slowpitch players for nearly 25 years, was a member of the Electrical Installations team that won an ASA national title in ‘94 and is the longtime Snohomish High School baseball coach.
“You had pretty tough guys who pretty much speak how they feel. You usually get harassed if you’re an umpire … guys were baiting him,” Hammons said. “They could say things and John would react, he was kicking guys out of games left and right.”
Tomasi made it through the rough patches, made a lot of friends along the way and went on to be selected time and again for ASA national tournaments at sites throughout the United States.
“He never held a grudge. He’d throw ‘em out and then let ‘em play the next game. Even if they hated him, John liked everybody,” Silves said. “He did all the slowpitch teams, because he could handle all those prima donna’s. They were a tough bunch to crack. To survive you’ve got to have the right temperament and he always came back for more.”
Added Hammons: “Not everyone’s gonna be happy with your calls, that’s just the life of an umpire. As the years progressed he could control the game and have fun. Players respected John for that.”
One player he won over was Andy Bottin. A retired Seattle Police Officer, Bottin is regarded by many to be the best softball player ever produced in the state of Washington.
“I was working a tournament at Forest Park, well here comes this Seattle team,” recalled Tomasi who weighed about 145 pounds at the time. “Andy came up to the plate, he was 6-foot-3 and solid. He looked at me with a big smile and asked ‘How are you, ump?’ I said ‘I’m fine.’ Then he hit a pitch over the hedge in left field. I think he hit three out that day.”
A couple years later Tomasi was assigned to a tournament at Fort Dent in Seattle. After a game, a player still seething over a call approached Tomasi near the concession stand. “This guy wanted to punch me out, but Andy stepped up and said ‘You’ll have to go through me.’ “
“He was quite a ballplayer,” Tomasi recalled. “This guy could do everything and he was a gentleman, too.”
In 1979, Tomasi was invited to York, Penn., to work his first ASA slowpitch national championship tournament.
“I was so nervous I was shaking,” Tomasi said of his first game of the tourney. “Those guys were all over 6 feet and weighed 220 or 230 pounds. They were gorillas, but I had a lot of fun.”
Tomasi, who retired from a career in Washington State government, credited his wife, Bobbie, for much of the success he has enjoyed as an umpire.
“You have to have someone behind you, supporting what you do and my wife has done that,” Tomasi said.
Bobbie Tomasi said retiring from umpiring is not an option for her husband because he is under medical orders to continue.
“Our doctor says don’t give it up under any circumstances,” she said. “All the exercise, it keeps him young.”
Tomasi has plenty of advice for up-and-coming umpires.
“Go to the training schools, go watch a veteran, ask questions,” Tomasi said. “If you make a mistake, so what?”
But how do players, coaches and fans recognize when you’ve truly arrived as an umpire?
“Well, the good umpires aren’t really noticed,” Tomasi said. “You call your game, walk off the field, get in your car and leave.” Bob Mortenson writes for The Herald in Everett.