Shawn Jansen: Ballenger lends voice to tourney

April 15, 2009 

ATWATER -- Luxurious isn't the first word that comes to mind when you step into the scorer's booth at Memorial Ballpark.

Instead words like cramped, dark, dingy bounce around your skull.

When you step inside there's not much to look at.

Just a couple old uncomfortable seats placed on top of a wooden pallet for the scoreboard operator and the scorekeeper.

Tight quarters indeed.

For four days every spring, this metal box becomes Don Ballenger's home.

Ballenger is one of the people behind that scenes that has helped keep the Atwater High/Atwater-Winton Lions Baseball Tournament going for 50 years.

Ballenger has been the tournament director the past 10 years and he believes he's helped out as a member of the Lions club for the past 25 years.

"Every year I keep telling myself to remember to bring a nice folding chair up here, but I forget every year," Ballenger said.

By the end of the night his back doesn't forget.

Still, the pain is worth it.

Ballenger knows just about everybody in Atwater.

During the night, people come up to the booth or peak through the window to chat.

As a former Atwater graduate, Ballenger takes pride in the tournament.

He played in the tournament and even struck out 18 hitters in a game in 1973.

He spent one year at Merced College before signing with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was released after two seasons.

Now each year he looks forward to the tournament.

Even if he doesn't get to see his wife, Chris, for four days.

He usually takes the week off from selling insurance.

The time is freed up so he can spend 10-12 hours at the ballpark.

Ballenger's voice is the one you hear overhead.

"It's all for the kids," Ballenger said. "Most high school games are played around three in the afternoon. The tournament gives parents a chance to watch four games at night.

"Most games don't have announcers. We announce all the games. I may mispronounce a half dozen names during the tournament and parents let me know about it.

"At least it tells me they're listening."

Ballenger keeps score and announces just about every game in the tournament from the first game at 10:30 a.m. to the last game at 7:30 p.m.

"It's a long day for a lot of people," Ballenger said. "I remembered when I played, I saw three guys from the Lions out here. One worked the gate, one was at the concession stand and one was up in the booth."

Things are definitely different now.

There was an army of Lions members dressed in yellow vests on Monday night.

It was a special night as they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the tournament.

It's believed to be the longest running Easter baseball tournament in the state.

The tournament was started by former Atwater coach Fran Oneto, and on Monday night, Ballenger announced that the tournament will be renamed next year the Fran Oneto Memorial Easter Baseball Tournament.

"The whole night was special," Ballenger said. "Announcing that we were renaming the tournament and seeing Mrs. Oneto's reaction made my whole night."

It's the work behind the scenes by people like Ballenger and other Lions members that's kept Oneto's creation running for 50 years.

Even with crummy chairs.

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at sjansen@mercedsun-star.com.