Don’t try to pull a fast one on Geoffrey Thomas.
He’s been a fastball umpire for 52 years and his eyes never fail him, even when it’s close call.
There’s no video replay this weekend at Spruce City Stadium to back up that claim, so players in the 18-team John Cho Cup men’s and women’s fastball tournament are just going to have to believe him when he calls them out or safe at the plate.
The 67-year-old former chief of the Saik'uz First Nation needs no introduction to anybody who has been on the local fastball scene the past few decades. For many years he was a key figure as a player/manager for the Stony Creek Tigers travel team in the ‘70’s and ‘80s, representing the Vanderhoof region at the Canadian and North American native fastball championships.
Thomas was just 15 when he got involved in umpiring in 1969, when the Vanderhoof-Fort St. James fastball league had 12 men’s teams and eight women’s teams.
“I just turned 67 in June and I’ve been umpiring 50-plus years,” said Thomas. “It started when I was 15 and we needed a volunteer umpire from our team and nobody else wanted to do it.
“I enjoyed playing and I enjoyed umpiring. It was good ball but what happened after a while is slo-pitch took over, so it died a little bit, and we’ve tried to keep the sport alive, right across the country.”
Thomas has traveled all over Canada umpiring big tournaments and was behind the plate for two games in the 1981 North American Native Championships while he was there playing for the Tigers.
“We were in Sioux City, Iowa and they asked for any Canadian player who had a certification as an umpire to the announcer booth and show your ticket and they would hire you for two games because the umpire was not showing up, and I did two games,” Thomas said.
“We played against the best pitcher in the world and went six innings and our pitcher, Greg Raphael, hit a home run in the last at-bat. He pitched for 45 years.”
More recently, Thomas donned the familiar blue uniform for the B.C. provincial under-21 championships in Smithers in 2015 and the Canadian U-21 Championships in 2017 in Prince George. He’s lived in Prince George the past four years and is a fixture on the field for games in the Spruce City Men’s Fastball Association.
Fundraising is Thomas’s forte and he’s always found a way to raise money through program ads or some other sponsorship arrangement to help organizers of fastball tournaments pay their costs. His ability to bring the fastball community together has helped Prince George remain at the forefront as host city of the Canadian Native Fastball Championship in 1994, 2006, 2016. The national tournament will return to Spruce City Stadium in 2022 after two years of pandemic postponement.
“it’s in my blood, it will never go away,” said Thomas. “Our intention is to have young people come back to the sport and help them stay out of drugs and help them get out of the lifestyle of living on the streets. There’s too many people doing that. We want to keep fastball alive and keep everyone out of trouble.”
Thomas grew up on the Stoney Creek reserve, six kilometres southwest of Vanderhoof, and he remembers the Tigers taking their lumps when they first started playing the game. But with his brother Laurie building up a stable of pitchers, the Tigers found their teeth.
“We were all young and the first five years we lost every game but we came through it together and after five years we started winning tournaments after tournaments, provincials and Canadians,” Thomas said. “My brother Laurie taught all the pitchers on the reserve to be the best they can be, and that’s not easy to teach somebody.”
Geoffrey played every position except pitcher and catcher, but he found his home at first base, and most games he was a tough out at the plate. Now that his playing days are behind him, umpiring keeps him involved in the game.
“I like camaraderie of the umpires, I’ve met international umpires through the years, from Taiwan and the United States,” Thomas said.
When he was 22, Geoffrey Thomas followed in the footsteps of his father Jasper, chief of the Stoney Creek Indian Band from 1959-69, and in 1976 he began a two-decade run as chief. During his tenure he traveled to Ottawa and met with Prince Minister Pierre Trudeau, which led to the Stoney Creek band (now Saik'uz First Nation) getting infrastructure funding to develop a water treatment system on the reserve.
“I was the youngest chief in Canada,” Thomas said. “I graduated (high school) in 1974 with A-plus honours in every grade and was class valedictorian at Prince George College. I was chief for 20 years.”
Being a politician for as so long has served him well as an umpire.
“It helped both ways, both positions are challenging things, it’s an education and it taught values,” he said. “You’re in the public and you meet people you ordinarily wouldn’t meet on the street downtown in Prince George or Vanderhoof. That’s how I enjoy meeting lots of people.”
Thomas had a sinus infection that kept him grounded last week but this weekend he’s part of the nine-umpire crew working the games at the John Cho Cup tournament.
“I’m going to keep doing this as long as my knees hang in there,” he said.
The women’s division final is set for 12:30 p.m. Sunday, followed by the men’s final at 3:30 at Spruce City Stadium.