In a ritual as old as the game itself, fathers and sons have played catch with two leather gloves and a dirty baseball in the backyard. But one day, it stops: fathers will grow old and sons will grow up, leaving the gloves to collect dust.
Head baseball coach Eric Theisen and his father, assistant baseball coach Gordie Theisen, however, have managed to capture time in a bottle. The father and son duo have been coaching the Charger baseball team for the last four seasons, and spend every single day around the sport that has formed their close relationship.
“Sometimes I need to take a minute and realize how lucky I am,” Eric Theisen said. “Most people don’t get to spend this time with their dad — sometimes they are gone or not in the picture. That time is important, and I have to remember to not take it for granted and realize that he’s a big part of my life. We share an office together. It’s all day everyday.”
After playing baseball for Illinois State in college, Eric played professionally in Brussels and Traverse City, but eventually found his way into coaching at Siena Heights University and then as the assistant coach at Hillsdale in 2010. Two years later, previous head coach Paul Noce stepped down, paving the way for Eric to take over. His first order of business was filing the assistant role, and he had only one man in mind.
“My dad was the head coach at Siena Heights for 16 years, and then he was the pitching coach at Adrian College for nine years,” Eric said. “So once I got the head job here, I didn’t think of anyone else. It was a pretty easy hire.”
Gordie Theisen was hired on, and the man who taught the head coach how to play was now going to be his assistant. Some things just stay in the family. Baseball was in Gordie’s blood and he said it was sure to be in Eric’s blood, too.
“My dad was a big sports guy, especially baseball,” Gordie said. “To be honest, I probably didn’t have a choice in which sport I wanted to play when I was a kid. And, in all honesty, I assumed Eric would be playing baseball too, just because I was around it with my job all the time.”
Gordie has worked primarily with pitchers throughout his coaching career, including his son. When Eric was a baby, Gordie said he would put a small hacky-sack in his left hand hoping he would throw it back to him, but he would always place it in his right instead before throwing it back. To this day Eric still throws right handed, despite his father’s early attempts.
In Gordie’s 16 years as the head coach at Siena Heights, he not only earned 341 career victories, but he saw his son grow from a boy into a man on their campus field.
“I just remember running around the indoor fieldhouse at practices and my Dad would yell at me to get out of the way and not get hurt,” Eric said. “I was just a kid hanging around college athletes with baseballs flying all-around.”
When Gordie would drive to his 6 a.m. practices, he said he would often take a fast-asleep Eric with him. Gordie wouldn’t want to wake him when he pulled up to the ballpark, so he’d pull the truck into the fieldhouse and let him snooze in the car.
Gordie also took Eric on recruiting trips across Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois. But no matter the destination or the time of day, Gordie said Eric would always want to play catch.
“One thing I’ve always said to parents is that you shouldn’t force your kids to go out and play catch with you,” Gordie said. “Thankfully, I never had to do that with him. He was constantly bugging me to go and throw. Even when we were on the road recruiting, he would make sure we had two gloves and a ball. I didn’t have to encourage it, he just wanted to keep playing all the time.”
Eric and Gordie still get to play catch as coaches at Hillsdale. During games, Gordie said he calls the pitches, and Eric stands by third base, giving signs to runners. According to assistant baseball coach Michael O’Sullivan, a 2016 graduate and former Chargers infielder, the chemistry of the two is evident to all of their players.
“They go back and forth strategizing throughout the game,” O’Sullivan said. “There’s father-and-son banter, a lot of love, and some sparks every now and then.”
After leaving Siena Heights as the head coach in 2003, Gordie worked for the Adrian Bulldogs as their pitching coach. According to the Hillsdale Athletics’ website, during Gordie’s time there he coached three straight Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Pitchers of the Year. Because of Gordie’s specialty with pitchers, and Eric’s overall vision for the team, they work well together.
“We do a pretty good job of leaving each other to our responsibilities,” Eric said. “I don’t mess with pitchers too much, which is nice. But I’m constantly bouncing ideas off of him about lineup possibilities, substitution possibilities, pitching changes. It’s nice to have him around to bounce stuff off of and to continue to learn from.”
Last season was one for the books. Eric was named GLIAC Coach of the Year, and led the Chargers to the a new single-season program record with 32 wins as well as a berth in for the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional Tournament for the first time in the program’s history. When asked what makes him so proud of his son, Gordie said it’s seeing him grow up to be the best man and coach he can be.
“My proudest moments are now seeing him relate to players and all people,” Gordie said. “He treats them well, and he has great communication skills. When you’re a parent and your kid is 18, you wonder who they’re going to grow up to be. That was no different when he was 18, but to see the person he has become has been awesome.”
Eric said he couldn’t do it all without his Dad’s sense of humor and positive nature. Gordie is somewhat superstitious and has some classic rituals on game days. Before every game he tweets out a lyric from a Bruce Springsteen song, and if they’re on a winning streak he will wear the same shirt or socks as the previous game — after he washes them, of course.
“He’s kind of a like a buddha,” Eric said. “He’s very positive, encouraging and uplifting. It’s cool to see how he blends his competitiveness with all that. The best lesson he ever told me was to love and feel it all.”
While the Chargers baseball team has a big challenge ahead of it after last year’s record season, Eric said he’s just happy to take his assistant coach’s advice to love and live in the moment every step along the way with his dad.
“You don’t want to get to the end of the road and realize you never appreciated it while you were in it,” Eric said. “That’s what I try to remind myself of.”