The five rules of Little League Baseball are have fun, have fun, have fun, have fun and get a treat.
All of my coaches understood that, but nobody did more so than my dad. He was my coach the season I turned 10 years old.
One game late in the season, I saw him tell one of the league big shots to take a hike when he suggested my dad put one of the younger players back on the bench before he got his mandatory two innings in because “this is a big game.”
My dad didn’t care. That boy was going to get his playing time.
I believe that boy went on to play American Legion baseball, and that was at least partly because he was not told by his Little League coach that he was not good enough.
I only got to play for my dad one year because he had to work out of town the next two seasons.
The next two years I played for Mike Venner and Ed Martin, and they were great. Every game and every practice was a blast.
The one coach I always wanted to play for, though, was Mike Parent.
Coach Mike coached the Elks. He coached with Ed “Crunch” Crnich for many years before taking over the team as the manager.
Over that time, the Elks became the Elks/Photo Stars and then just Photo Stars. Besides coaching the team, Coach Mike, a photographer, is also its sponsor.
This season will mark the 50th season the Coach Mike is coaching the same team in the same league, the Northwest Little League of Butte.
Since the spring of 1969, Coach Mike has been a fixture of the league.
Doing anything for 50 years is incredible. Doing it the way Coach Mike does, is simply off the charts.
In my book, Coach Mike is hands down the greatest Little League coach of all time.
He can make a bad team good and a good team great. He could turn Scotty Smalls into an All-Star.
Coach Mike knows all the players in the league. He starts scouting them when they are playing in the 7-8 league, and he keeps track of them all the way up until the day he drafts them for the 11-12 league.
When I played, every kid in the league was jealous of the kids on the Elks. My last two years, my team was like the Bad News Bears. We were a collection of misfits, and we reveled in it.
Coach Mike’s team was like the big leagues. Each player had an Elks coat to wear to school. They were like the players on bikes in the movie “The Sandlot,” except they were not a bunch of spoiled brats.
The Elks were often full of the kind of kids whose parents did not even go to the games.
You can’t even begin to guess how many mitts Coach Mike must have bought for kids over the years. You can’t even begin to guess how many of those Elks jackets he paid for, either.
Whether it was basketball season, when he coached at Kennedy Elementary, or baseball season, Coach Mike always looked out for the underprivileged kid.
He still does that. You will see Coach Mike at almost every Butte High, Butte Central or Montana Tech game, and quite often he brings along a couple of boys whose parents would never even consider taking them to the game.
You can’t even begin to guess how many troubled kids Coach Mike set on the right path to a happy and successful life.
On and off the field during the season, they also looked like ball players.
Back then, Coach Mike was the only coach to use signals to tell base runners to steal.
Sure, it didn’t take a New England Patriot spy to crack the code. He’d usually yell to the player to get his attention and then rub his chest or forearm. But having signals was pretty cool.
The players on the Elks always seemed to have fun, and that was not just because they were always winning. They enjoyed the games and they enjoyed the practices. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy being a part of Coach Mike’s team.
At recess, they reveled in wearing their awesome Elks jackets.
Coach Mike always kept Little League in perspective while building great teams, too.
The most impressive thing about Coach Mike is he has done that for all these years without the ability to hear. He reads lips.
There were times when I have coached that I figured Coach Mike had an advantage because of that. He can’t hear the dugout fights, and he can’t hear the dads yelling at the players.
I figured that also helped him ignore the league big shots who might tell him that winning is more important than having fun.
However, I also wondered if Coach Mike might miss out on those great little moments of Little League that come because you get to know all the kids so well.
Apparently, I was wrong. Not only does Coach Mike know his players, he knows all the players in the league. He seems to know every player who ever played in the league during his 50 years.
In June of 2010, I wrote a story about Coach Mike for the daily newspaper. The interview was done by email, a great invention that, along with Facebook, really helped me get to know the man I have admired since I was a young boy.
I asked him why he coaches. Here is how he answered:
“Seeing their eyes light up when they try something you have taught or told them and it works. Getting to know everyone who likes baseball and basketball — even when they aren’t on your team.
“I’d say my main goal in coaching is to make the players feel proud to have been on my teams and to turn them on to baseball and basketball.”
It is safe to say that Coach Mike has mastered that for the past 50 years.
This year will be my last as the manager of a Little League baseball team, at least for a while.
I coached a 7-8 team for two seasons, and this is my second year in the 9-10. My son is 10, and next year he’ll graduate to the 11-12 league.
Since other coaches in the league were told I wasn’t coming back this year because I didn’t win enough — or at all — last year, it would probably be my last anyway.
Next year, I can only hope that my son gets to have the opportunity that I never had. I hope he will play for Coach Mike’s Photo Stars.
If so, I will offer to be an assistant, and hopefully he will accept that offer to allow me to fulfill a longtime goal of being part of Coach Mike’s team.
He could teach me so much, and I just know I will look great in one of those Elks jackets.
— Bill Foley, who would also look good in a Chico’s Bail Bonds jersey, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74