April 24, 2009

Shawn Jansen: Name change a fitting tribute to former coach

The Atwater Easter baseball tournament will have a new name next year.

I have to be honest. As a reporter, I was never fond of the old name.

Who wants to type out the the Atwater High/Atwater-Winton Lions Easter Baseball Tournament every time?

I love the new name: The Fran Oneto Memorial Easter Tournament.

Tournament director Don Ballenger announced the name change during the 50th anniversary ceremony last week.

It's a fitting honor for the first baseball coach ever at Atwater and the man who started the tournament.

"It's a great tribute to him," his wife Pauline said of her late husband. "The kids he's had in the past speak so highly of him. I think that says everything about him.

"Franny never wanted any accolades. He was an unassuming type of man.

"He sure would have been pleased. He put in so many years to keep the tournament going."

One of the great things about our job is hearing all the stories about the people we write about.

There were plenty of great stories about Fran Oneto.

Many people consider Oneto the grandfather of Atwater baseball.

He started the baseball program when the school opened.

Oneto was responsible for the ivy growing at Memorial Ballpark. He wanted the park to look like Wrigley Field.

He started the Easter tournament to give area kids a place to play baseball during spring break.

Oneto also worked as a Major League scout for the New York Mets, Florida Marlins and Chicago Cubs.

The Mets even gave Oneto a World Series ring in 1986 for all of Oneto's work over the years.

Oneto was a baseball lifer.

He played on a Merced High team in 1948 that went 29-1 and went on to win a Valley Championship.

He eventually ended up at Fresno State and spent

13 years in the Detroit Tigers system.

He came back to Merced County and immediately began sharing his baseball knowledge.

"He was an old-fashioned type of coach," said Raul Gonzales, who was a sophomore on Oneto's first team in 1960.

"If you could swing the bat, he'd find a spot for you. He taught us stuff that we never learned before like leaning in on a curveball and proper alignments on relay throws from the outfield."

Ballenger didn't play for Oneto, but he still listened to him.

Oneto taught Ballenger a new grip at school that would give him more movement.

Ballenger then went out and used the pitch in the game that day.

Ballenger was hit all over the yard and quickly watched all the scouts that showed up to see him pitch that day leave.

Atwater coach Chuck Miltenburger came out and asked Ballenger what was going on.

Ballenger told him about the new pitch and Miltenburger quickly explained how he should have worked on the pitch in the bullpen before he used it in a game.

"I didn't know," Ballenger said. "I was 15 or 16 years old. When coach Oneto told you to do something you did it. He was a baseball God in Atwater."

Oneto was a stickler for discipline.

His players knew if they didn't shine their cleats, they wouldn't play.

"When you saw him turn his cap sideways, you knew you did something wrong," Gonzales said.

"We also knew if we heard him hit his spikes against the wall in the locker room something was wrong. If we heard his spikes, we hurried up and dressed and got out of there."

His family knew how Oneto's Atwater teams did by the way he mowed the lawn in the evening.

"When he won, he had a smile on his face and took his time," said his son Fran, who also became an MLB scout. "But if he lost, he would grab that mower and sprint back and forth like he was running a 50-yard dash."

Pauline also remembered her husband and the lawn mower.

"Everyone on our block used to laugh," Pauline said. "He was the fastest guy on the block until Dick Solis moved across the street."

Oneto's resume spoke for itself.

Everyone respected his baseball knowledge. If he didn't think a kid could play, other scouts didn't waste their time.

"Franny knew what he was doing," said Bob Dallas, who played with Oneto at Merced and coached American Legion teams with him.

"He was tough on the kids, but he was good with them. You had to hustle and you had to work hard.

"The kids loved him. He taught them how to play baseball."

Dallas isn't lying.

When Oneto passed away in 2005, almost the entire starting lineup from the 1960 Atwater baseball team showed up to pay their respects.

"The kids he had in the past always talk so highly of him," Pauline said. "A lot of kids go on and forget about coaches they had.

"His kids didn't. I think that says a lot about him."

It sure does.

It makes the Fran Oneto Easter Baseball Tournament sound even better.

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

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