By Dale Woodard on May 18, 2021.
Mitch Ball was remembered from coast-to-coast last weekend.
On Saturday, an online memorial was held for the local umpire who passed away May 1, one day shy of his 48th birthday.
In a two-hour Zoom session emceed by John Oko, Ball’s family, friends and colleagues from Kelowna to Halifax gathered to share memories and stories about the longtime Western Canadian Baseball League umpire who also represented Canada at International events.
That included recollections from Kevin Kvame, president and CEO of Little League Alberta, President of the Western Canadian Baseball League and president and general manager of the Lethbridge Bulls and Brandon Oberg, a national level umpire who was mentored by Ball.
“In the past two weeks there has been a huge outpouring over social media, in the newspapers and on TV regarding Mitch and his passing,” said Oko, on location from Edmonton and right across the street from ReMax field, where he umpired his last game with Ball at a Western Major Baseball League game in 2016. “The world lost a kind and gentle soul that Saturday morning and for that, we are all worse off. But today, we are here to celebrate Mitch and share stories and memories as we relate to one of the many things Mitch loved and was passionate about, and that is baseball.”
Virtual stops on the tour included Calgary, St. Paul, Minnedosa, Man., Carstairs and Sherwood Park.
As well, those logged into the Zoom session left comments and stories, all of which will be logged and form a virtual memory book to be compiled and made available after the memorial.
At the conclusion, attendees were encouraged to have an A&W root beer – Ball’s preferred beverage – to hoist aloft.
Lethbridge was the first stop on the virtual tour as Kvame and Oberg weighed in with their memories of road trips, sound advice, international events, the Mickey Glove and clashes with coaches and ejections that are part of the umpire landscape.
Kvame recalled showing his 1985 umpire card to Ball.
“He kind of laughed at it when he saw it,” said Kvame. “I’m not sure if that was just because of the age of the umpire card. I hope it wasn’t because he thought I could never become an umpire. All I know is that Mitch was a great friend of baseball and he would do anything to help out.”
Kvame first met Ball back in the late-1990s.
“At that time, he became the passionate person that would do anything and was enthusiastic about the game. Once you have those types of people, you reel them in and never let them go,” he said. “He helped with the tournaments and he helped get things ready for the umpires. He would pitch in when it was meal time for the players. He would help be there to get the facilities ready. He was just an all-around guy who wanted to help the sport.”
By 2002, Ball had grown into one of Lethbridge’s best umpires and was the local selection to represent the Canadian region at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“He umpired at the Canadian Championship in Lethbridge that summer and then made the trek down to Williamsport and, as expected, he did Canada proud,” said Kvame. “He was selected to umpire the USA championship game on the plate on national TV during that tournament and we were so happy and proud of him. He was only 29 years old at the time and he was one of the youngest umpires that did a Little League World Series. Often, selections are made because of longevity in the umpire world rather than skill. I know we made the right decision by sending Mitch based on his skill.”
Ball took that experience back home and gave back as a mentor.
“He never forgot his roots,” said Kvame. “He always chose to give back. I know when I speak on behalf of the hundreds of umpires in southern Alberta that they all became better umpires because of Mitch Ball.”
As is part of the umpire’s job, Kvame recalled some encounters Ball had with some cranky coaches.
“Believe it or not, coaches do not always agree with the umpires,” said Kvame with a grin. “Also, coaches rarely think that they deserve to be thrown out of a game. Anytime an incident happened I got to hear the coach’s side of the story within minutes. Mitch’s side of the story usually happened the next day or the next time he came to the park. In the end, he was pretty much always right.”
Kvame spoke of an instance where Ball ejected a coach after the game had ended, only to have the coach argue Ball couldn’t do that.
“But over the next few hours (the coach) learned that, yes, you can do that,” said Kvame. “He ended up getting suspended because that was his third ejection of the year.”
With Ball’s passing, Kvame said baseball has a big hole to fill in the circles the umpire worked in.
“Whether it be the WCBL, the Canadian Colleges Baseball Conference, Baseball Canada, Little League, American Legion or any other group that he touched, because of Mitch Ball those circles are all bigger than they were before he came along. If we all remember why we smiled when we saw Mitch coming and emulate his friendly, genuine and helpful demeanour, those circles will grow even bigger in the coming years.”
Oberg first met Ball in 1997 at Oberg’s second Little League Umpire Clinic.
Oberg admitted to being a bit of a know-it-all and Ball quickly set him straight with the Mickey Glove.
“The Mickey glove was an oven mitt soaked in water, but they made you wear it for the simple fact that you messed up. To this day, it’s still made you a better person.”
Oberg recalled many hours spent on the road with Ball, including a road trip to Edmonton for an international program clinic.
“He didn’t know how to navigate Edmonton so well, but he did a great job of getting us there and we made it home safely,” said Oberg. “That road trip was the one to start many. Through the years I wasn’t always an easy person to deal with. I thought I knew it all. Mitch took that challenge and he made me who I am today. He helped me to get where I am in the national program and where I am as an umpire to this day and it keeps pushing forward.
“Through the 25 years of umpiring and the friendship Mitch and I had, he always took my call, whether I needed rule assistance or positioning assistance, he was always there to answer that phone.”
Oberg said the first piece of advice he got from Ball was that if he wanted to understand the rules of baseball, he had to learn to teach the rules.
“He taught the rules, so he understood the rules and he encouraged me to move into the same aspect of teaching as he did,” said Oberg. “I never got to be as good as he was, but he was a great teacher. He touched the lives of many and taught many to be wonderful officials.
The mentorship that Mitch had over the years isn’t just today or tomorrow, it will be there forever. He’s put in a big impact on my life and moving forward he has put a big impact on lots of people’s lives.”
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