Jason Fackler took his spot behind the plate Saturday morning as he did hundreds of times since he first umpired eight years ago.
As his son Christopher released the pitch at the Kino Sports Complex Field, Jason took his familiar stance, peering over the catcher’s head straight ahead, ready for the call.
“It was a cool moment,” Christopher said.
Kino Baseball League (KBL) director Bill Leith quipped that Jason being an umpire since 2012 means “he has been yelled at” for almost a decade.
His umpire journey began in the midst of a 20-year military career. After three deployments to Iraq, unruly parents were not much of a concern for Jason.
Regardless, Jason was not at first thrilled of the idea of becoming an umpire when serving on Sahuarita’s Little League Board of Governors at the outset of Christopher’s young baseball career.
“Our UIC (Umpire in Chief), he was always asking for umpires and I was like, ‘No, that’s the worst job I can do. It’s the last thing I wanted to do,'” he said, noting the adversarial relationship with umpires he experienced when he played baseball.
Jason coached Christopher in the Little League Minors division. It was at that point he became “guilted into” becoming an umpire, he said.
A requirement to be an All-Star manager is umpiring some games at that particular level. If wanting to advance to manage in the Majors, a person must umpire a few games a year.
“I thought about it for a few days and then I called the UIC and told him I would do a few games for him,” Jason said.
After studying the roles of umpires and the rules, Jason was given the responsibility of umpire.
“It took me two games … I had a blast,” he said. “It was so much more fun than I thought it would be. By my third game, he put me behind the plate for the first time, and that was it.
“I was hooked.”
Jason and his family — wife Dawn, Christopher and daughter Caitlin — were at Kino on Saturday as part of the American Heroes Veteran Tournament. The event, comprised of local high school baseball teams, included many of his umpiring friends working the game.
Jason’s background in the military fit right in with name of the tournament and the Davis-Monthan Honor Guard appearing before the game between players from Sahuarita High School and Mountain View High School.
In addition to his deployments to Iraq as part of his 20 years in his service in the United States Air Force, he was a communications navigator on rescue helicopters and worked on targeting pods on F15 and F16 fighter jets.
He was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Royal Air Force (RAF) Mildenhall in England, Korea (one-year remote without his family) and Davis-Monthan.
Since retiring from the Air Force in 2015, Jason worked briefly as an accounts receivable specialist for Standard Restaurant Supply and as a mail carrier before his postgraduate work online with Southern New Hampshire University led him to a career as a manufacturing technician at Raytheon beginning in 2018.
Only 43, Fackler has put in tireless work to improve his career path in addition to laboring to become one of the best local umpires for youth baseball games. He elevated quickly to become a West Region umpire instructor.
Jason’s umpiring contemporaries such as Robin Murray (longtime UIC in Southern Arizona who has worked Little League World Series games), Bob Craig (KBL Umpires Association president), John Mertes, Brian Kaiser and countless others can attest to how skilled of an umpire Jason became.
“He picked things up pretty quickly and became involved with regional tournaments, a very impressive umpire,” Kaiser said.
“One of the best umpires in Southern Arizona,” Craig added. “Tremendous.”
Mertes, a close family friend of Jason’s along with Murray, mentioned that other umpires became fascinated with Jason’s relatively fast rise in their craft.
“He went all the way to the west regionals and did the championship game there,” Mertes said. “In theory, he would have been in line for a shot to ump games at Williamsport, Pa. (the site of the Little League World Series).”
Mertes paused before saying, “I don’t think that is going to happen now unfortunately.”
“A little over a year ago I saw Jason and he was having trouble with his legs,” Craig recalled. “They couldn’t figure out what it was. He was having test after test after test. And then a few months ago they finally decided to tell him what it was.
“That was just horrible because they couldn’t figure out what it was.”
Jason was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the baseball legend who was diagnosed with it. ALS is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control.
“From what I hear, the doctors are happy with how slow he is progressing with the disease,” Mertes said. “They say it is a two- to five-year disease and they are not sure if it was discovered on the low side or the high side.”
Jason was in a wheelchair at Kino on Saturday with his wife and daughter assisting him to get in place behind home plate to make the call on his son’s first pitch. Dawn said her son is her “rock” and daughter is her “right hand” assisting their dad with his day-to-day needs.
Jason’s fellow umpires organized the event to honor their friend “who is a good guy, one of the most respected people I know,” Mertes said.
“We offered to let him umpire a play at first base, but he didn’t want to because of the wheelchair, so we decided to let him call the first pitch,” Craig said.
Jason’s wife and son had to do some convincing to have him be part of the ceremony at Kino because he is not one who likes to draw attention to himself.
“The family was confident they could convince him to come out and do it,” Kaiser said. “We wanted to do it to bring awareness to Jason’s situation and help him and his family the best we can.”
Dawn said Jason’s appearance at Kino was his first on the dirt at a baseball field in about a year.
Christopher’s pitch was right down the middle.
Jason made his familiar “strike” gesture with a pump of his right fist.
The group of about 10 umpires on hand as well players and coaches from both teams applauded in what will be a lifetime memory for all involved.
“It was emotional,” Dawn said. “Seeing him back on the field one way or another and having our son throw out the first pitch was pretty amazing.
“We take it day by day. Every day is a new challenge. We’ve got an amazing support system through our family, through the kids and their friends and families, the umpire crews. The support is amazing. We’re very grateful for the umpires who put this together for him.”
Jason got a boost out of the experience.
While settling behind the backstop before he departed, he playfully kept his wife and daughter from being able sit by bumping their folding chairs with his wheelchair.
Jason mentioned the occasion “was a little overwhelming,” as he paused to catch his breath while also trying to hold back his emotions. His voice was faint as he tried to talk because of his reduced lung capacity.
“The umpires wanting to show respect for the time I put in out here, it means the world to us,” Jason said. “My son throwing the pitch, that was icing on the cake.”
Jason is such an obvious inspiration for his children that Christopher has already become an umpire for youth baseball games although he is a senior at Sahuarita High School.
Christopher embraced his dad after his pitch. That was the most emotional sight of the occasion, which was full of heartfelt moments.
“I didn’t actually have any interest in umpiring, so I made jokes with my dad saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll go do a game,” Christopher said. “I made a bet with my dad that if a Majors championship game went into an ‘if necessary’ game, I would go in and umpire it.
“The underdog team came up and won. I ended up umpiring that championship game and have fallen in love with it ever since.”
The family and umpires on hand wore light blue “#FACKLERSTRONG” wristbands that are available to purchase online to financially help the family.
Arizona District 12 Little League organized a fundraiser by selling military-themed hats in Jason’s honor.
Mertes has also organized a “Fackler ALS Poker Party” online to raise funds for the family. The participants access links on the Poker Party’s Facebook page to play during a ZOOM meeting.
“Jason is one of those guys who wouldn’t ever ask for anything,” Mertes said. “He didn’t want to do a GoFundMe page. I started thinking of other ideas to raise funds for the family.
“We’ve raised at least $2,000 easy through the poker parties. It’s all umpires and friends of their family and friends of umpires. It’s open to anybody who wants to play. Sometimes there is 30 of us.”
The experience is uplifting and fun — “We talk crap to each other while we’re playing poker,” he said with a laugh — with Jason the motivational piece.
Dawn mentioned that #FACKLERSTRONG is a movement that has benefited the famly beyond the money raised.
“You take that hashtag for what it is,” she said. “There’s no getting mad or upset at the situation because that is not going to change anything. It will only make things worse.
“You take everything good that you have, keep moving forward and don’t give up.”
In addition to his difficulty talking because of his lungs, Jason tried to speak through his facemask that featured the Little League logo. Due to COVID-19 health safety reasons, Jason had to depart along with Dawn and Caitlin before the game started because no family members are allowed at games at the Kino facility.
A towering home run was hit by one of the Sahuarita players as Jason was seen in the distance leaving the park.
Christopher walked toward home plate and was the first to congratulate his teammate.
This day was one of celebration for the Fackler family, including his umpire brethren.
“The message I can bring is to just keep working hard at getting better,” Jason said. “That’s my big thing. Always try to learn something. No matter what game you’re working, you’re always trying to get better.
“Remember, this is about the kids, just be there for them.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.