The southern Alberta baseball community is remembering an umpire who was larger than life, and impacted everyone he met on and off the field.
Mitch Ball passed away on Saturday — just a day before his 48th birthday — after a three-week battle with COVID-19.
In the days since, an outpouring of support has flooded social media and a GoFundMe page for the family has raised nearly $70,000.
Those who knew Ball say he was a top notch umpire and an even better person.
“You go on social media right now and you know what kind of person he was. It’s incredible, the amount of people reaching out,” said Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) head coach Todd Hubka.
The respected umpire called balls and strikes behind the plate at every level, including plenty of games for the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).
WCBL president and Lethbridge Bulls president and general manager Kevin Kvame says Ball was the best in the business, even at an early age.
“I’ve visited with him about that — even in the last few years — and that still was one of his most treasured memories, that experience of representing Canada down there.
“He was selected to do the United States championship game during that tournament, on the plate, which is a very prestigious appointment.”
Ball was also known as a treasured mentor for young umpires.
“There’s tons of kids that are passionate about baseball, but he was passionate about baseball and umpiring,” said former Bulls head coach Jesse Sawyer. “He was trying to bring young umpires into the sport, and he was a mentor for so, so many people.”
Sawyer recalled a baseball program he was running at Lethbridge’s GS Lakie Middle School a number of years ago; he asked Ball to join him and teach the kids about umpiring.
“Watching Mitch do that program with those kids, it was so amazing.
“He was great with kids, he was so well-informed, and a lot of those kids got their umpiring cards, started umpiring games, because of what Mitch taught them.”
Sawyer says he has many memories of games with Ball behind the plate, and he always knew that if he was the umpire, it would be a good game.
“Even though we did have a few blow-ups on the field, me and Mitch always could keep those relationships separate and could go have a good conversation about whatever the next day,” Sawyer said. “I always really appreciated that about Mitch.”
Kvame says Ball was always willing to have a laugh and not take anything on the field personally.
“There were some times we would tease Mitch about calls during games that, in our opinion, he botched,” Kvame laughed. “He would laugh about it, it was a good relationship.
“He did his job out there and he did it well.”
Hubka says if ever needed to give his team a shot in the arm, Ball was always the best sport.
“I remember times at the home plate meeting, if we were on a two-game skid or whatever and I thought the kids need a boost, I would talk to Mitch at home plate and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to get thrown out today, so get ready,'” Hubka said.
“He would have a chuckle and we would wait for the right time, and a lot of times it was a wink of the eye and, ‘Here I go, Mitch.'”
Ball worked for the City of Lethbridge as the field risk and safety coordinator and took special care of the ball diamonds in the area. Hubka says the loss will be felt at every level.
“It’s a big hole to fill,” he said.
“With the amount of work he put in towards the grassroots of little league, all the way up, it’s going to take two or three guys to fill the role of Mitch.”
Jana Ball remembered her husband in a statement to Global News, saying he was her favourite person, and their 25th wedding anniversary was coming up.
“We have six wonderful kids together and he was an amazing dad to all of them. He took so much joy in teaching them skills — how to fish, how to work and how to take pride in your work,” she said.
Jana says at every chance her husband got, he would take anyone and everyone out fishing, and his more than 50 fishing rods required a shed of their own.
“He was the most thoughtful husband and fun dad,” she said. “He loved Christmas and went above and beyond to make Christmas magical for our little kids.”
“Mitch was one of a kind. There will never be another Mitch Ball and anyone who knows him will tell you that.”
Nearly 500 people have donated to the GoFundMe for the Ball family.