Back in the spring of 1987 — I think it was the spring of 1987, could be 1988 — I was covering Memphis State baseball for the university’s school newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, and needed to write a preview of the Tigers’ upcoming season.
All I needed were a few minutes with Bobby Kilpatrick, the Tigers’ longtime head coach, who surely I could grab before practice one day that week.
Except, it wasn’t easy.
Kilpatrick never warmed to me. I was a punk kid, masquerading as a future Sports Illustrated star, and Kilpatrick never gave me more than a few seconds of face time whenever I interviewed him. (I was a punk kid, after all.) It didn’t matter if the Tigers won or lost or what I was writing. Coach K gave me an answer or two, acted as if I was delaying his afternoon nap, and then walked away. Truth be told, it was good training for a knucklehead kid who quickly had to learn that prickly people are more common than not.
On this day, Coach K wasn’t available. Too busy, I was told. All I needed was about 10 minutes — 10 minutes — but he said no, through an intermediary, and don’t ask again. (Which, in hindsight, I should have.) That’s where Mike Thieke comes in.
Thieke was the Tigers’ pitching coach, hired in 1979, a quiet, behind-the-scenes guy. I have no recollection of having a serious conversation with him before that spring day. We may have bumped into each other at the ballpark, but I’m fairly sure I’d never interviewed Thieke before he rescued frantic me that afternoon. (That I covered the baseball team but had never interviewed its pitching coach remains an obvious rookie faux pas, but you couldn’t tell me anything back then. I knew what I was doing.)
And, that day, I was frantic.
I suspect Thieke realized that. Had to. And for about 30 minutes, he sat in a folding metal chair off to the side during batting practice and answered all of my questions, even those that didn’t involve his pitching staff. He was a gentleman. Gave me all the time I needed, which can be rare. And I’ve never forgotten that.
Both of us left Memphis in 1989. I moved to Alabama for work, and Thieke, who’d played at Murray State University, went back to Murray as an assistant coach. He became the Racers’ head coach in 1994 and retired from coaching after the 2002 season with a 226-295-2 career record. He spent the following years as MSU’s coordinator of facilities and game-day management and, later, assistant athletics director for facilities.
Baseball at Memphis State (later, the University of Memphis) holds a dear place in my heart because the Tigers were the local team in my hometown, and I’d cheered for them since day one. I’d attended the Tigers’ baseball camps. I’d frozen on many a spring afternoon at utterly forgettable Nat Buring Stadium. Memphis baseball was never on par with its biggest conference foe, Florida State, but that didn’t matter to me. My brain overflows with pleasant recollections of Tiger baseball.
And among those memories is that sunny and cool spring afternoon with Mike Thieke, a baseball coach worth remembering.