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Don Mahler: South Royalton Coach Goes the Distance for His Team

South Royalton — Mike Ballou wasn’t about to let summer baseball die in his town.

That’s why the South Royalton Post 51 American Legion coach spent two nights deep into the a.m. hours last week, working on the paperwork. And that’s why he drove all the way to Randolph the other afternoon to pick up a copy of a player’s birth certificate before turning around and driving another hour to Rutland to drop off the documents to beat the deadline.

Some might see it as a nuisance. But not Ballou. It was a labor of love. A love of the game and a love of the kids.

“That’s what you do to keep the program alive,” he said. “That’s what you do to keep the kids playing.”

Once upon a time, when the dog days of summer rolled around, baseball — Legion baseball, to be exact — was king. Especially in Vermont. Teams were stacked, the stands were filled and there was a game somewhere every night up and down the state.

Legion baseball was so strong that Vermont’s state championship game was played the same August weekend as the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl. And it was not rare to see some kids choose baseball over football for their summer athletic endeavor.

Mike Ballou was a child of those days. He grew up in a baseball household and eventually grew into a baseball icon in town. After graduating from South Royalton, Ballou pitched for the University of Maine — where he appeared in the College World Series for three straight years.

So he wasn’t about to sit idly by as a first-year Post 51 coach and watch the program wither in the summer sun. Not after watching the Woodstock-Windsor team fold in the Upper Valley for lack of numbers; not after hearing that the Chester team had to cancel just days before the season began for the same reason.

“Not on my watch,” Ballou declared.

But it wasn’t easy. First the rain came, wreaking havoc with the state high school playoff schedule. Then, Randolph — the other primary town sending players to the Legion squad, along with Rochester — went all the way to the title game, which was postponed three times before finally being played.

So Ballou had to wait. First to find out which players would be on his team, which meant late hours doing the paperwork, and then finding a way to get the group together on a dry field for practice.

But Ballou knew that the hard work would pay off.

“Having a summer program really helps the kids develop,” said Ballou. “They play against kids from bigger schools, they get more at-bats and get a chance to play against different competition.”

And the benefits are right there in the results: Both South Royalton (Division IV) and Randolph (Division III) won state championships this spring.

“There’s no question you can see the difference when kids don’t play summer ball,” Ballou said.

“But it’s also a good way for kids from other towns and other schools to learn to play together and come together as a team. They make friends for life out there. That’s the most rewarding thing.”

It’s also a community thing. The Legion post and parents get together to prepare food for the teams between games of a doubleheader, making the visiting teams feel welcome. The fields are maintained by volunteers and raffles are held in town to raise the money to keep the program healthy.

“We just want the kids to play,” Ballou said. “We want them to have fun and to enjoy the game.”

And Ballou lives what he speaks. The former Division I hurler still enjoys telling the old stories and throwing batting practice to his young players.

“My arm is still good. Sometimes I will get back on the mound and throw them some good curves ... just to show them I still can do it,” Ballou said with a laugh. “I keep away from throwing under their chins, though.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.