Get to know ... Joe Dondero, Fairfield’s 90-year-old umpire
FAIRFIELD — As Joe Dondero stands behind the backstop at the Sherman School softball field, he’s greeted with shouts of “Hey blue,” one of the kinder nicknames for umpires.
At age 90, the lifelong Fairfield resident still calls balls and strikes for Parks and Recreation softball leagues. And he’s been doing it for 50 years.
“I did college ball, fast pitch, slow pitch, Sacred Heart, Fairfield U., Little League,” Dondero said as he waited for a game to get underway.
Dondero said he took a test to become an umpire years ago, and he’s a member of the Fairfield County Umpire Association. At one time, you could find him behind the plate not just in Fairfield, but Bridgeport and Milford, too.
There are softball games four nights a week, but these days, Dondero said, he usually just umpires one game.
Dondero said his wife would like him to slow down. In addition to softball umpiring, Dondero is at the Senior Center twice a week playing pinochle and on the golf course twice a week.
While he said he has mellowed over the years, Dondero said he is not afraid to toss a player from a game.
“You have to,” he said. “If they don’t respect me, I don’t respect them.”
Dondero said he will listen to their argument, “but when I tell them it’s all over, it’s all over.”
He said it was winters in Florida, watching a particular umpire down there, that helped cool him down behind the plate.
“I used to be a hothead,” Dondero said. “Then I watched him.”
Umpires get paid a small stipend per game, but Dondero said he doesn’t do it for the money.
“I just come down to argue,” he said with a laugh.
He stopped umpiring Little League games, he said, because of the parents.
“I did Little League for nothing, for years,” Dondero said. “The parents are yelling, they’re arguing, arguing, arguing. I’d had it.”
When parents asked him why, he said the kids in the outfield just want to play, they don’t want their parents to argue.
A civil engineer for the city of Bridgeport for 36 years — he decided one Friday in 1989 that he was done and quit. Dondero also used to play softball. In fact, he played ball up until age 83.
“We stopped because we couldn’t get 10 guys together,” Dondero said.
He recalled playing ball in Stratford and having an umpire who said he was 93.
“I couldn’t believe him,” Dondero said. “A lot of guys look at me and say, ‘You’re not 90.’ ”
This summer has been tough, Dondero said, with the extreme heat.
“You have no choice,” he said. “You either do, or you don’t, but I much prefer the cool weather.”
Dondero said umpiring is a profession he would recommend young people look into.
“I thought about it. The money’s great,” he said.
As for how long he’ll keep umpiring, Dondero said every spring, “I tell Jimmy maybe this is my last year, but I always come back.”