Rich Hofman's road to 1,000 wins

Coach Rich Hofman had just led Westminster Christian (Palmetto Bay, Fla.) to the 1996 national championship when he got invited to throw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game.

It was July 27, the 21st birthday of his former star player, Alex Rodriguez, who was the toast of Seattle at the time.

“I spent a week out there with Alex,” Hofman said. “On game night, there were 44,000 people in the stands, and I was pumped. I hummed it (the ceremonial first pitch) pretty good to Alex. I was thrilled.”

That was just one of a lifetime of thrills for Hofman, who on Tuesday earned career win No. 1,000 as a high school coach.

Now the coach at University School (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Hofman is the first person in Florida prep history to win 1,000 games and the 13th to reach the milestone nationally.

With a 3-0 win over Pope John Paul II (Boca Raton, Fla.), Hofman now has a career record of 1,000-258 with 16 ties in his 42nd year of coaching. After Tuesday’s victory, he was presented with a plaque of a jersey that read “Hofman 1K”.

“Getting to 1,000 means a lot to me,” said Hofman, 67. “It says a lot about having a long and fairly consistent career at four different places. The idea that you’ve done something well for (parts of) six decades is gratifying.”

In addition to 1996, Hofman won a national title in 1992, when Westminster Christian had Rodriguez and three other future major-leaguers - Doug Mientkiewicz, Dan Perkins and Mickey Lopez - in its lineup.

Mientkiewicz, who hit third in that lineup – A-Rod was the leadoff guy – said Hofman had a way of instilling confidence in his players.

“That was a special group,” said Mientkiewicz, who is in his first year as a hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor-league system. “I remember games where we would get 13 runs before we made our first out.

“But Coach Hofman worked us hard to make sure we didn’t get complacent. He knew how to get the most out of each player.”

Hofman has won 10 state titles, including a Florida-record five in a row from 1996 to 2000. The last two of his championships ­—1999 and 2000 — came after he left Westminster Christian for Westminster Academy (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.).

After Westminster Academy, Hofman coached Piper (Sunrise, Fla.) and then retired after the 2008 season.

He spent two years without coaching high school — he instead organized baseball tournaments, bringing travel teams from all over the country to Florida — before agreeing to come back for the 2011 season with University School.

The main reason he returned was so that he could coach again with his son David, who is University’s pitching coach and has helped lead the Suns to a 17-6 record (through Tuesday’s game).

David, 38, who played football at Westminster Christian with Rodriguez and Mientkiewicz, said growing up a Hofman was “pretty good” because he and his father had a similar approach.

“He’s a tough, hard-nosed coach, and I was a tough, hard-nosed player,” David said. “He didn’t take it easy on me.”

His father doesn’t yell at his players like he once did, but he is just as intense and passionate about baseball as he was during the 1950s, when he was growing up a White Sox fan in Racine, Wis.

Hofman was 10 years old when he began organizing neighborhood baseball games on a spare field that was part of his grandfather’s farm. Hofman set up a fence and dugouts and rode his bike for several miles to gather up kids.

“I lived out in the country, and the only kids around were younger than me,” said Hofman, whose only sibling was an older sister. “I was tough on those kids. I guess that was the start of my coaching career.”

Hofman, who said he was “an average player who loved the game and took it seriously”, was good enough to play shortstop, second base and center field for Division III Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

During Hofman’s sophomore year, his college coach arranged for the team to travel to Miami. The team left Grand Rapids, where it was 32 degrees and snowing, and Hofman thought he had arrived in heaven with Miami’s palm trees and warm breezes.

Three years later, he landed a teaching job at Westminster Christian, also serving as the school’s only coach. He coached flag football, basketball and softball, earning a $200 stipend for each sport.

In 1969, he started the baseball program, posting a 2-13 record.

“I thought all high school games were five innings because we got beat by the mercy rule so often,” Hofman joked. “We had one extra-base hit all year — and the kid got thrown out at third trying for a triple.”

It’s almost impossible to comprehend, but from those humble beginnings, Hofman built one of the nation’s best baseball programs. In one stretch — from 1988 to 2000 — Hofman won nine state titles in 13 years.

J.D. Arteaga, who played for Hofman during Westminster Christian’s glory days, is now the University of Miami’s pitching coach and gives Hofman a lot of credit for his career.

“Fundamentally, we were way ahead of others,” Arteaga said. “We were very talented, but we also knew what we were doing. [Hofman] instilled a work ethic in all of us and taught us to do things the right way.”

Arteaga added that Hofman served as a father figure.

“I lost my dad during my sophomore year at Westminster,” Arteaga said, “and [Hofman] was there for me.”

Ultimately, Hofman said the impact he has made on the lives of his players is every bit as meaningful as any win. He’s sent 177 players to college baseball and 40 to the pro draft. And Baseball America named him its “Coach of the Decade” for the 1990s, while the Florida High School Activities Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2008.

And now that Hofman has reached the magical milestone of 1,000, the question is simple: How much longer will he coach?

“I’m enjoying myself, especially being able to coach with David,” Hofman said of his son. “I guess I’ll coach as long as I have decent talent.

“Coaching baseball is all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s been a dream, and I’ve been blessed with a lot of success.”