Sports column: Reflecting on a fallen friend
April 14, 2014
Mike Ellis was equal parts coach, mentor and friend.
He proudly served as head coach of the Truckee High varsity baseball team the past decade, building the program into a perennial contender with a tireless dedication that was second to none. He took players under his wing, taught them about baseball and life, and, as only Ellie could do, made them laugh from the gut when times seemed bleak. Above all, though, he was a warm-hearted friend, as genuine as they come, ready and willing to go to bat for his people.
"Ellie was the kind of guy who, if you were in trouble at 2 in the morning somewhere, you could call him up and he'd come help you," said 2005 Truckee grad Kevin Embertson, who was among a handful of Truckee alumni at the school field Monday, two days after their coach, mentor and friend died of an apparent heart attack at age 46.
While Truckee players and coaches took part in an intrasquad scrimmage, Embertson and others had a chance to reflect on the life of their late coach, known affectionately by most as "Ellie."
Ellie did not lack for stories — or storytelling ability — and he left behind many for his people to tell.
Embertson remembers one day last year, eight years removed from his Truckee playing days, he and Ellie got into a debate at the field about Embertson's ERA his senior year. Finally, determined to prove he was right, Ellis went to his car and pulled out the stats from that 2005 season.
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"That's one of the things I loved about Ellie, is that he never forgot a thing about his players," Embertson said.
I remember how proud Ellie was of his Slurpee machine, which, to his credit, was a good pick-up. He'd spot me from across the parking lot and holler with his boisterous voice to come get one. I'd depart with a camera, notebook and an overflowing cup of flavored ice, trying my best to take it down before the first pitch.
One time after a home victory Ellie was feeling cheery and generous — same as he was after any win. He called me and a Reno Gazette-Journal sports reporter over to the snack bar and fed us a Slurpee and hot dog, treating the new guy as if he were one of our own. I remember the look on the young reporter's face as he happily accepted the offerings. Never before, or likely again, was he taken in so kindly and treated so friendly on the job.
That was Ellie — festive and fun and happy to give. It's like his youth baseball coach, Tom Glover, said: "There was nothing selfish about Mike. He'd help in any way he could. He never asked; he always gave."
Ellie gave an awful lot in his time as Truckee coach. Nearly every minute he had outside of his real job in Reno was spent improving the Truckee baseball field and building the program from the bottom up. I wish my high school coach cared half as much. Ellie wasn't compensated anything extra for his effort. He busted his tail for the love of the game, his kids and the program. And he did it most of the time in significant pain, dealing with a bum hip that he finally had surgically repaired last year.
If anything, like Truckee assistant coach and former player Scott Decker said, "he almost cared too much." Decker remembers Ellie failing to keep it together during end-of-the-season banquets. He loved his players and it hurt him to see them leave.
"Every single banquet he'd cry. He just loved everyone," Decker said. "He'd get all choked up. I used to give him crap about it."
While Ellie possessed a big heart, he also could be described as a bit rough around the edges — not very PC, to be sure. He was a true straight shooter, a man born without the ability to sugar-coat anything that came out of his mouth. He spoke only in truths. "He was such an open person. Sometimes it came out rough but that's because he loved you," Embertson said. "He just said it like it was."
Those who knew him best remember Ellie for his giant smile and infectious spirit. But make no mistake about it, Ellie was competitive, and he wanted to see the game played right. He'd grumble and stew over botched plays, runners left on base or pitchers missing their spots. Not only did he not like to lose, to him, firing a baseball to a specific location or connecting for a bomb were relatively simple tasks.
I remember Ellie trying to convince me to bet him that he couldn't hit a home run off a tee using one of his Sweet Spot wood bats. Suspecting he could indeed power it over the fence, I didn't take the bait. It was a good thing.
The outpouring of emotion and support since Ellie's death shows the impact he had on the lives of others, and how well-respected he was in baseball circles. Matt Konopisos, owner of the Reno Astros and a longtime friend and past teammate of Ellie's, reached out on Monday to pay his respect.
"His passion for the game and endless enthusiasm was an inspiration for even our most seasoned former professionals," Konopisos wrote. "He always had a smile or a humorous anecdote for any situation…
"Being a member of two world championship teams and all the rewards and responsibilities that came along with running Moana Stadium for several years was nothing compared to the pride and reward he received every year by mentoring 'his' Truckee High School kids. He truly viewed them as his kids and lived life's ups and downs with them. He was so proud of them. The state title meant most to him for the kids, the school, the town and then himself. It was his validation in the coaching community, but for his players and his teammates, we already knew."
I remember my final conversation with Ellie. It was Saturday afternoon between games. Truckee had just lost 15-2. Ellie was scrapping around behind home plate, his hands wet. He offered his elbow to bump in place of a handshake and lamented the lopsided loss. He went back to work as I continued on.
"All right," he said, "talk to you later."
— Sylas Wright is sports editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers. He may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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