TRUCKEE, Calif. — The Truckee High baseball program lost its charismatic leader Saturday night.
Mike Ellis, who took over as head coach of the Wolverines in 2005 and had led the team to six consecutive state championship appearances, died of an apparent heart attack, school officials confirmed. He was 46.
“It’s hard to accept — a young guy like that with so much to give,” said Tom Glover, Ellis’ youth baseball coach in Forestville, Calif., north of the Bay Area. “I can still see his face the last time we met, laughing and stuff. We lost a very close friend.”
Dozens of Truckee players, parents and alumni gathered Sunday afternoon at the school’s baseball field, where Truckee Athletic Director Jaime Legare informed them of the news.
Legare said the meeting began solemnly but gradually turned to an atmosphere of fond reminiscing about the Truckee coach, known to most as “Ellie.”
“He was a great guy,” said an emotional Legare, who added that an autopsy is being performed to determine the exact cause of death; Ellis did take medication for an enlarged heart. “You could tell that he didn’t just coach his players, he touched their lives.
“It was so interesting to have so many alumni just pouring out of the woodwork and calling and texting and trying to figure out what happened. They’re just heartbroken. He was kind of infectious. All the kids just loved him.”
Truckee assistant coach Michael Taylor, a former Truckee player who graduated in 2009, will take over as interim head coach the remainder of the season.
“Personally, he’s the reason I got into baseball as much as I did,” Taylor said of Ellis, whom he described as a baseball-loving kid trapped in an adult’s body. “After my freshman year I almost quit, and he took me under his wing and kind of coached me up a little extra. He kind of molded me into the ballplayer and person I am today. He was incredibly influential.”
Taylor was among the large group gathered at the Truckee field Sunday. “It was heartbreaking,” he said. “The kids were in tears. It was tough for me to watch that.”
Aside from showing frustration with his team losing, Ellis seemed to be in generally good spirits Saturday afternoon when the Wolverines hosted a league doubleheader against South Tahoe. In fact, it was that positive aspect of his personality that his friends and rivals remember most.
“He was a great guy, first of all — not just a great coach. Everybody knew that,” said longtime Spring Creek baseball coach Scott Gilligan. “He had an enthusiasm for life and the game that was second to none. We coached against each other for a long time. We always wanted to beat each other, of course. But after the game, it was always a hug and we were friends.
“It’s tough. I honestly am struggling with this. In all my years I’ve never heard anybody say one bad thing about Ellie — and that speaks volumes about who he was. He was just so upbeat, and it was contagious to his kids, who always played well. It’s a sad time.”
South Tahoe coach Starbuck Teevan said he, too, was saddened by the news of Ellis’ death.
“I’ve only known Ellie for four or five years, but as a baseball guy, they really don’t get any better,” Teevan said. “I think we’re a lot alike. There’s definitely a brotherhood of coaches, and I’m very sad to hear of his passing. He was definitely a good friend of mine in the time that I’ve known him. He’s definitely going to be missed by everybody in the league.”
Former North Tahoe coach Bob Habeger echoed the other coaches’ sentiment. He described Ellis not only as a knowledgeable and dedicated coach, but also a good human being who cared about his players.
“My initial thoughts were, ‘Man, who’s going to take over and fill his shoes with all that he’s done for the Truckee program and the summer program?’ It’s definitely a huge loss,” said Habeger, who knew Ellis for about 12 years, dating back to his coaching days at North Tahoe when Ellis was still an assistant. “His kids always played hard for him, and they had a good time. Not only was he a good coach, and knew baseball, he was just a good guy.”
Aside from his infectious personality, Glover remembers Ellis as a talented player as a youth. “Mikey had great power,” he said. “He could hit the ball a long way.”
After starring at El Molino High School, Ellis went on to pitch at Santa Rosa Junior College and later became a professional scout for the Cincinnati Reds. He also constructed his own wood bats, which he called Sweet Spot Baseball Bats. The Glovers own one of the bats.
“He was so thoughtful. He’d come by the house after all these years and bring us stuff and sit down and visit for a couple hours. The thing was, he just had a spirit around baseball that, when he was around it, he was in his world. He was at home and at peace,” Glover said. “He loved the game, and he loved people and seeing them succeed. There was nothing selfish about Mike. He’d help in any way he could. He never asked; he always gave. And in turn, he received a lot.”
Ellis may never have been more happy on a baseball field than he was on May 19, 2012 — the day his Wolverines earned Truckee’s first baseball state title since 1994. That team finished 29-6 overall and carried a 15-game winning streak into the state final against Elko, which Truckee defeated in nail-biting fashion at Nevada’s Peccole Park.
Even when things were not going Truckee’s way, Ellis had a way of easing the mood of his players, said Truckee assistant coach Scott Decker, a 2006 grad who also played for Ellis.
“No matter how down he got about anything, he always left with a smile. Even after a bad loss he’d crack a joke and get everyone smiling again,” Decker said. “If anything he almost cared too much. He just had the biggest heart.”
No one ever put more time and effort into working on the Truckee baseball field than Ellis, who could be spotted nearly any time of the year grooming the field. He added grass to the previously all-dirt infield, overhauled the dugouts and spruced up the outfield fencing, among other improvements. He retired two of his players’ jerseys in the outfield, JR Murphy and Jason Chapman.
“He worked tirelessly on the field,” Legare said. “I told the kids yesterday that it’s a bittersweet thing to meet at the field because everywhere I look I think of conversations with him, whether it was in the dugout or by the Slurpee machine or outfield — that field is him.”
On Monday, Truckee players and alumni conducted a scrimmage on the school field, where they were joined by Ellis’ parents and sister.
“Michael’s whole life was baseball,” said his mother, Sue. “He lived and breathed baseball. It kept him out of trouble.”
Ellis had a daughter named Lexi who celebrated her first birthday on March 28.
Counseling will be available for players and any other students at the school’s Wellness Center this week, Legare said.
A memorial service will be held at the Assumption Catholic Church — 10930 Alder Drive, Truckee, CA 96161 — on Monday, April 14, at 2 p.m. A tribute at FiftyFifty Brewing Co. in Truckee will follow the service.