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‘Coach Mike’ pitches a new game

September 16, 2018

Many know Mike Downey as the sheriff of Kankakee County. But for the past six weeks, a bunch of kids from Pembroke Township have known him as “Coach Mike,” as he taught them how to play baseball.

Downey, who played for Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School for three years, coached his children’s sports teams and was coach of Maternity BVM School’s junior high team about 10 years ago.

He approached Pembroke school officials about starting a team during the summer, knowing the Lorenzo R. Smith Sustainability & Technology Academy was the only junior high school in Kankakee County that did not have a baseball program. The school board gave the sheriff its approval to start a team and be its coach.

So, the sheriff took to his Facebook page and asked the community to donate any baseball equipment it could. Shortly after that post, used gloves, bats, helmets and baseballs occupied a storage closet at the Jerome Combs Detention Center. Some organizations even contributed uniforms, and another anonymous donor bought new gloves for each player.

“The community is very good about getting behind these sorts of things,” Downey said. “It shows that people want to see other people succeed. It’s a blessing because it has allowed kids to bring home a baseball glove.”

Pembroke’s season, however, got off to a slow start. Six kids showed up to the team’s first practice on July 30.

None of them had played baseball before. A few of them wore collared shirts with khakis. Most of them stepped with the same foot as their throwing arm. And they still were learning the layout of a baseball diamond on an open grassy field.

But they were hooked after that first night of practice. So much so, they asked Downey if they could take a baseball home so they could practice.

“That was the most exciting thing about our first practice,” Downey said. “It made my night when they asked if they could take a ball home with them.”

The original six kids kept coming to practice. Most of them rode their bikes there. Downey unloaded all the equipment from his conversion van, including a cooler full of bottled water for the kids. Trying a new sport excited the kids.

“It’s great to have something to do after basketball season,” eighth-grader Dashjantae Thomas said. “You just want to stay active and be good at something.”

The kids made the most of their makeshift field that was surrounded by playground equipment. When they first started hitting off a tee, they found joy in chasing down the baseball they hit. They measured their bragging rights by who had to run the farthest.

“It just made me so happy after that first hit,” said Thomas, a lefty who displayed natural power in his first swings.

From the very beginning, Downey’s goal was to make sure his players could play some games during the Illinois Elementary School Association’s fall baseball season.

“It would be a success if we have five to seven games and we participate in a game with umpires and kids go up there, take their swings and pitch from the mound,” he said on the second day of practice. “Whether we get beat 10-0 or win 3-2, that really doesn’t matter. I just want them to have the opportunity to feel what it’s like to play a baseball game.”

The kids made sure that happened. On the first day of school, they recruited eight more players, giving them a roster of 14 — more than enough to field a team. They even added another coach in Rig Lile, a former assistant coach at Kankakee Community College.

“We walked through the hallways and asked people if they wanted to play after school,” eighth-grader Jaymari Watson said. “It was really inspiring. We had enough people to play a game.”

Game One

After less than four weeks of practicing, Pembroke students were warming up at Bishop McNamara High School to play their first game against the school’s junior high team.

They were donning their new blue uniforms with “Lorenzo R. Smith” displayed across their chests in yellow lettering.

“It was so exciting for them to get their uniforms and represent something they are proud of,” Downey said. “Everybody should be proud of it.”

Downey was confident in his team’s ability to hit. However, he had concerns about fielding. Those concerns subsided slightly in the first inning when the Mustangs recorded their first two outs on an unassisted double-play by D. J. Wilgus.

Bishop Mac ultimately pulled ahead with a blistering offense, but the Mustangs managed to score three runs in their first game. Fans cheered after every Mustang player got on base — whether it was a walk or base hit.

Players chanted after scoring their first run — or as they referred to it, their first “point.” They gave each other high-fives when they ran in the dugout.

Though the game was a rout, Bishop Mac players displayed upstanding sportsmanship. They gave Pembroke players fistbumps each time they got on base. The Fighting Irish’s coaches also shortened their team’s at-bats so every Pembroke player could get a few turns at the plate.

The two teams took a photo together at the end.

“You have to give a lot of credit to Bishop Mac,” Downey said. “They let us play a game, and they made it fun for us.”

Downey also praised his players after their first game, which happened to be on his birthday.

“Baseball is not an easy game to learn, especially if you are not exposed to it,” he said. “I think they did very well for having started this adventure a month ago. They were better than I thought they would be. That is not a credit to anybody but the players. They got better. That’s what this is about. They started off on July 30, and we want them to be better by the time the year ends.”

Forward

The Mustangs went on to play three more games before their season concluded on Thursday against Bradley Central Middle School.

The team of rookies accomplished what Downey set out to do. They learned how to play baseball, a feat parents considered a victory for the Kankakee County community.

“It makes a big impact when the kids see the community pull together,” said Angela Robinson, whose son played on the team. “I think it’s also a good thing that Sheriff Downey is willing to take the time to coach. It’s great for the community, and it’s great for our kids.”

Downey never mentioned he is the sheriff to his players, who always referred to him as “Coach Mike.” That was by design. This whole season was about community and baseball.

“I’m here as Mike Downey the baseball guy, not Mike Downey the sheriff,” he said.

Regardless of whether the kids knew their coach’s identity, they appreciated him.

“He’s a great coach,” Thomas said. “He taught us a lot about baseball. He helped us out. When we didn’t know nothing, he was there for us, and he gave us the surprise we needed. One night, he gave me a ride home from practice.”

“He’s a very good coach to push us on,” Watson added. “He taught us a lot of stuff.”

Downey intends to remain involved with the team as long as his day job allows. With the fall season complete, he hopes some of his eighth-graders continue to play when they reach Momence High School or St. Anne High School.

“Who knows how far it goes?” he said. “I grew up on baseball. I love the sport. I love the strategy. I love what it has taught my children. I think every kid should have that chance to play baseball.”

Thanks to him and the community, kids in Pembroke got that chance.

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