BANGOR, Maine — The deliberate pace of a baseball game puts a premium on its subtle sights and sounds to fill in the gaps between rundowns and diving catches and plays at the plate.

For Steve Hofheimer, blindness resulting from a 1984 industrial accident in his native California not only has denied him subtle sights but robbed the former baseball and softball player of even a basic visual appreciation of the sport.

Save for his mind’s eye.

That capacity is as rich as ever for the 66-year-old former Marine from Astoria, Oregon, thanks to his recent friendship with a fellow Vietnam War veteran from Brewer who not only has prompted Hofheimer to attend the Senior League World Series at Mansfield Stadium for the last two years but re-ignited his passion for the national pastime.

“It’s quintessential America,” Hofheimer said during a rain delay at the SLWS this week. “It’s a high school level of baseball, but there’s an enormous spotlight on them and it gives you several flavors of the game. You have teams from the South Pacific and Latin America, and you have a local team so the local fans have skin in the game.

“There’s great drama.”

Hofheimer can’t actually see that drama play out, but his relationship with Rollie Berube provides him a visual presence for the 15 SLWS games he will attend this year.

Hofheimer and Berube, a 66-year-old retiree from Bank of America and an Army veteran, met in 2012 through a mutual friend at a Vietnam War veterans reunion in Washington, D.C.

They struck up a friendship, and Hofheimer and his wife visited Berube in Maine for the first time in May 2013.

Then last year, Hofheimer arranged to visit his friend during Senior League World Series week, and they began attending games together with Berube providing play-by-play accounts of the action while Hofheimer listened and asked questions.

Plenty of questions.

“I’ve learned that he needs to know as much about what’s going on as possible,” Berube, an avid Boston Red Sox fan, said. “I let him know everything about the pitches, what the pitcher’s throwing on every pitch if I can. Every single pitch? Probably not, but about 95 percent of the time I’m right there. When there’s a hit, just telling him there’s a man on first is not good enough for him. He always wants to know if the first baseman’s holding him on, is he taking a lead, does he look like he’s going to run, does he have some good shoes on to run fast?

I’m beginning to understand how much information he needs and wants, and I love doing it for him.”

Bay Area baseball basics

Hofheimer grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and was introduced to baseball by his father during the mid-1950s with particular attention paid to the Milwaukee Braves and San Francisco Giants.

He went on to play shortstop and center field for local Little League and Babe Ruth baseball teams and 15 years of adult softball, until one day in 1984 his life changed dramatically in an instant.

At age 35, he was blinded by an alkaline burn while working on a construction project in Sacramento, California.

“It’s one of the worst chemical burns you can suffer,” Hofheimer, who underwent 40 subsequent surgeries in an attempt to restore his vision, said.

Among the ensuing changes in his life was the end to his relationship with competitive baseball and softball, though he did spend one summer coaching a baseball team of 13-year-olds in Placerville, California — with a nephew serving as his eyes.

“I loved playing softball, but I knew it was the end of my career — if I even had a career,” Hofheimer said. “I followed the San Francisco Giants for the next five years, but then I completely lost all interest in baseball because it bored me to tears to follow the game on radio and TV.”

Hofheimer spent nearly a quarter-century away from the sport before he started attending some spring training games in Clearwater, Florida, where he and his wife live for part of the year.

“With baseball you never lose your love of the game,” he said. “But for me, there was a void from ’89 to 2013. That’s 24 years.”

It was his newfound friendship with Berube that ultimately returned him to his preferred level of the sport.

“I came back to this age group because of Roland and coming out here to Maine,” said Hofheimer, who has flown from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, to attend the SLWS each of the last two years. “I enjoy watching the younger kids, and I have grandkids who play softball and Little League. In essence, Major League Baseball is just not part of my life; it’s going out and watching the younger kids play.”

A game, a conversation

Watching a game with Steve Hofheimer is an ongoing conversation.

“In order to make a baseball game meaningful, I have to have someone sitting next to me who’s sighted and who can tell me what’s going on while the play is in progress and Roland does that,” he said. “It’s like listening to the old play-by-play on the radio.

“I don’t know that I’ve taught Roland anything from doing this, but what he knows is that I’m going to ask him all kinds of questions that before he was unprepared for because he was a lone spectator. Now, because I managed a team of 13-year-olds, I want to know how far a kid is off first base because in my mind I’m always asking myself how to beat this team and thinking of ways to do it.”

Berube savors the opportunity to share in that conversation.

“I’d always known about baseball from being a fan of the Red Sox, but this has given me the opportunity to see this gentleman love the game even more,” he said.

Berube not only describes the basics of a play but helps Hofheimer define specific sounds.

“If there’s a ball in the dirt from the pitcher, I know it’s a low ball but I’ll ask Roland if it was a foul tip because sometimes I can’t distinguish the difference between those two sounds,” Hofheimer said. “If the ball is hit, I’ll hear a hard conk on the bat and I will state that it sounds like it was hit really hard, but that doesn’t mean a doggone thing because it could be a foul ball and Roland will tell me.”

Understanding crowd noise also can be a challenge, particularly at the Senior League World Series.

“I really don’t pay that much attention to the crowd here,” Hofheimer said, “because, for instance, fans of the team from the Marianas (Saipan) were actually cheering when their team was getting beaten.

“You just have to learn what to tune in and what to tune out.”


Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...