Ben Desaulnier was reading an article the other night from 2003 on Bob DeMayo. The North Haven baseball coach was on the eve of his 700th career victory and fourth state title and he was talking about how he had retired from full-time teaching five years earlier, and that if he ever lost his communication skills or his passion, he’d go the shuffleboard route and give up coaching, too.
“I did the math,” Desaulnier said. “Five years from 2003, classes end in June. I realized I wasn’t even born when he retired as a full-time teacher.”
Desaulnier, born on July 7, 1998, shook his head in disbelief.
“The man,” Desaulnier said, “is a legend.”
The two sat down this week for a GameTimeCT podcast, two Connecticut high school head baseball coaches, and immediately you sensed the respect Desaulnier had for DeMayo and the affection the legend had for the kid and his vocation.
DeMayo, who is coy about his age, but let’s just say north of 85, has five state titles now, surpassed 900 wins and has every intention of driving his pickup truck to the field named in his honor next spring to coach in 2020. He’s sharp. He still has the passion. He plays golf, not shuffleboard.
DeMayo became head coach at North Haven in 1959. Forget Ben Desaulnier. The epic Ben-Hur premiered that year in theaters. Deasaulnier’s grandfather, Ed, was 9.
Desaulnier, entering his senior year at Eastern Connecticut, was named Killingly coach in late June, days before his 21st birthday. Yes, he was 20. There’s a six-and-a-half decade difference between the two, none bigger in Connecticut high school sports and few, if any, in the entire country. The bridge is baseball. And when they start talking about launch angle and pitch selection and schedules, those six-and-a-half decades disappear in a flash. It’s fairly amazing how similar many of their views are.
Desaulnier has been junior varsity basketball coach at Killingly for two years and junior varsity baseball coach this past spring. He was the 16-U coach in 2018 and 2019 for Scott Chiasson’s CT Hurricanes AAU program. Killingly athletic director Kevin Marcoux has exit interviews at the end of each season with his coaches and that essentially served as Deasaulner’s varsity job interview. Todd Meadows resigned. Matters moved fast.
“Certainly he’s young and his age concerned me, however, Ben is wise beyond his years,” Marcoux said. “He already has a couple of years of AAU head coaching experience and was highly successful. I’ve known Ben since he was a kid. I know what kind of solid person he is and what great character he has.
“Watching him on the baseball field, he’s a throwback. He’s a sponge for knowledge. He brings a lot of energy. He holds kids to high standards. All those things combined outweighed his age by far. It was a pretty easy decision.”
DeMayo hit a grand slam in his first at-bat in the Appalachian League, but it was a long climb through the Baltimore Orioles system and the pay was only $275 a month during the season. He accepted a job as a teacher and assistant coach for three sports at Notre Dame-West Haven, moved over to North Haven a few years later and the rest is Connecticut high school history. Beloved, respected and occasionally feared by generations in North Haven, he’s a man you could listen to talk all day.
“Coaching is not really too much different for me (from 1959),” DeMayo said. “I developed a specific philosophy in terms of how I coach and what I do. Since it has been fairly successful I don’t see much sense in changing. I think the kids have accepted it. It’s a little harder now … Everything is pick up the ball with one hand, take five steps and throw it away. That’s a no-no in our program. But the kids are phenomenal.”
DeMayo believes in pitching and defense to keep games close. He believes in aggressive offense. Hit and run. The bunt. Oh, yes, the bunt. That is the hallmark of North Haven baseball. Pulling back and chopping the ball, too, butcher boy. DeMayo watches South Korea and Japan play this style in the Little League World Series and nods in approval. And remember, he says, “the take has won as many games as the bunt.” North Haven teams run deep counts. North Haven teams never quit.
He has a specific way of teaching hitting. “Two hands on the bat all the way around,” DeMayo said. North Haven hits few home runs, but his players don’t hit 275-foot fly balls either.
“The ones where their grandmothers may be applauding, but are outs,” DeMayo said.
DeMayo insists he’ll stick with his philosophy no matter how tight they stitch the seams of the baseball. Desaulnier, the sponge, listens intently. He’s not a launch-angle guy for high school players either.
“I’m a big believer that you have to teach the game,” Desaulnier said. “You just can’t manage the game at the high school level.
“I want the grittiest guy. I want the team-first guy.”
“You’re right on,” DeMayo said.
When DeMayo started there were no rules about coaching kids in the offseason. He even played on the same team in the Wallingford Twilight League as his returners.
“It’s a shame high school coaches can’t do something in the offseason anymore,” DeMayo said of a rule many are trying to get the CIAC to change. “We’re letting everyone else do it, and it’s not necessarily what you’re trying to teach.”
A respectful distance must be kept between young coaches and players nearly their age, DeMayo says. Asked if his players will call him “coach,” Desaulnier answered: “Absolutely.”
“Kevin Marcoux knows what I’m all about,” said Desaulnier, whose brother Luke quarterbacked Killingly to a 2017 state football title and was an all-state kicker. “He knows my philosophy as far as wanting the kids playing hard, playing together and being disciplined. Making sure we play aggressively, especially offensively.”
Desaulnier was a four-year starter, two-year captain, All-ECC first baseman at Killingly. He set the school record for RBI and doubles. He gave up the game during his freshman year at Fitchburg State, transferring to UConn and then ECSU. He is completing his business degree and plans on getting a master’s in education. He wants to become a business teacher. In the meantime, he will drive to class in the morning and coach in the afternoon.
“I felt like I had a good shot at the job,” Desaulnier said. “My family was very happy for me. I also think they were very surprised I got the job so young. A lot of my buddies are still playing in college and they’re like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ I love coaching. For me, when I was done playing, it was a tough time, but I’ve come to realize coaching is almost more gratifying.
“If someone told me I would coach Killingly High for the next 50 years — if they were a time traveler — I would believe it. At the same time, I would love to coach in college someday. You never know.”
When Desaulnier pulls into Owen Bell Park in Killingly, he sees his name on the press box and on the scoreboard. He tells DeMayo how his uncle Ben was in his senior year at Killingly on the night of Oct. 29, 1993 when he died in a crash. He was a catcher who was going to play at Holy Cross. Killingly’s field was named after him. Ben was named after his uncle.
“To play at that field and now to coach there is very special to me and to my family,” Desaulnier said.
DeMayo says nothing, he nods his head in appreciation. He knows the pain of youth. His brother Lefty, who piloted a P-47 Thunderbolt in World War II, was shot down over Germany and killed in action.
“I’ve followed Bob DeMayo, read about him, and have seen what a generational impact he has had at North Haven,” Desaulnier said. “It’s amazing. He’s pretty much a coaching idol of mine.”
And for the hundreds who played for him.
“It makes up for not making $2 million,” DeMayo said, smiling. “And it’s something great.”