Listening to the recording of the chat I had with Mike Dea and his wife, Lori, which happened (*looks at calendar and shakes head at how much I’ve procrastinated*) more than a month ago at The Stone’s Throw at Shady Brook Farm — when I was still an employee of Shady Brook Farm — I hear the sound not of a reporter conducting an interview, but of a couple buddies reminiscing.
Full disclosure: we were not drinking coffee. It might be more appropriate to call this a “Tequila Convo,” but unlike me, the Deas (pronounced like “idea”) were enjoying some of the pub’s stellar Pennsylvania craft beers.
This was a fitting setting to get to know more about Mike, who, as long as our paths have been crossing in the world of local sports, has never played the role of Head Coach, Manager or Team Spokesperson. I met him when he started serving as an assistant coach in the Falls American Legion program. So, our interactions always have been informal.
Mike prefers that kind of persona. He’s more than happy being “the guy behind the guy,” or, really, “guys,” if you consider all the young men he’s been able to influence in his three-plus decades of coaching baseball in Lower Bucks County.
He loves teaching the game. It’s in his blood. The son of Frank Dea, a veteran youth baseball coach – and we’re talking 50 years and counting — Mike played at Harry S Truman and immediately started coaching with Levittown Babe Ruth after his graduation in 1985. Some district and state titles came with that. But what really got Mike hooked on the coaching “profession” — and we use quotes to reinforce that coaching youth baseball is basically donating time away from your family, when you’re not working your real job — was not winning trophies, but what he calls “the small things.”
“It’s seeing kids be successful — and there’s different definitions of success,” says Mike, a drywall finisher by trade and the father of two college students, Zack and Corey. “Is it someone like [former Holy Ghost Prep star and current Cleveland Indians prospect] Nolan Jones making it to the major leagues, or a kid who was shy when you started coaching him and came out of his shell? Every kid is different. And when you spend enough time with them, every kid is successful in his own way.
“I’m just as proud of the teams I’ve coached that had two wins as teams that had two losses. Maybe it was a kid on the team who never got a hit in three years and got a hit and the kids congratulated him. Just to see a smile from a kid who got his first hit…sometimes just that makes for a successful season.”
Mike brings up Nolan Jones, who is, by far, the marquee name on the list of kids he’s coached over the years. Nolan was selected by Cleveland in the second round of the 2016 draft and has since climbed all the way up to high-Class A ball, hitting .298 with 9 doubles, 3 homers and 17 RBIs in just 30 games with the Lynchburg Hillcats, after a true breakout performance at low-A Lake County (12 doubles, 16 homers, 49 RBIs) in the early part of 2018.
Nolan started out playing in the Fairless Hills Athletic Association, where Mike was heavily involved, coaching his own son, serving on the Executive Board and running a popular tournament for 7-year-olds that he still organizes, as a true labor of love, to this day. Nolan’s career took off long after he’d moved on, but Mike remains close with the player and his family.
It’s those kind of lifelong relationships that have kept Mike coaching and kept him running that youth tournament — now named the Christopher Raspanti 7U Baseball Tournament, in memory of a Fairless Hills AA administrator’s son who passed away. He’s all in with the tournament every Father’s Day weekend, even though his own sons stopped playing baseball before they got to high school at Pennsbury.
“That’s my baby,” Mike says of the Raspanti tournament. “It’s my legacy.” And it’s a legacy he intends to leave for his sons, who already are involved in many aspects of helping run the event, from umpiring to raking fields to keeping score. It’s not like Mike ditches Father’s Day for this; his kids are always there with him.
Lori Dea refers to her husband as a “father figure” and lists several specific young men who’ve recently become part of their extended family. She might as well be considered a “mother figure,” in that sense, because she both encourages Mike’s continued commitment to coaching and does her fair share of mentoring the young men who pass through her house, whether as friends of Zack and Corey or players on Mike’s team.
“For some of the guys,” Mike says, “their success story isn’t just playing in college, it’s being in college.”
Mike and Lori remember spending part of their son’s high school graduation party sitting down with one young man and helping him get his paperwork in order so he could apply for financial aid, because he didn’t have that kind of guidance at home.
“Baseball is what made him close with these kids,” Lori says of her hubby, “so it’s more than just a sport like that.”
…At this moment, Lori offers to buy me another drink. According to the timer on my recording, it took me 0.4 seconds to agree. While waiting for her to come back from the bar, I contemplated how much baseball, beyond being my favorite sport, has enhanced my own life, from cherished relationships to unforgettable experiences….
I don’t actually remember what I was contemplating at that time. But it’s true: Baseball is SO much more than just a sport to those who love it.
Sipping my second (third?) Tequila-and-seltzer, I asked Mike how he thinks coaching has changed since he was a 19-year-old, fresh-out-of-high-schooler, and he talks for awhile about the influence of AAU, or travel baseball, on how kids view the game and their place in it. In the quest for “exposure” to colleges or pro scouts, families invest in the showcase circuit, where they focus on individual playing time and statistics, whereas Legion baseball still promotes the team game, what it takes to win and representing the community.
Mike coaches Legion ball, so his philosophy on the modern landscape tends more toward that line of thinking. In terms of reaching kids, though?
“I’m not sure if that’s ever changed,” he says. “An 8-year-old kid is the same as when I was 8, and the way you talk to him. My biggest motto in coaching was, ‘Always back a negative up with a positive.’ You have to tell them what they did wrong, whether it be a baseball thing or a thing in life, but just back everything up with a positive. ‘You tried hard there.’ Something small like that.
“I’m a firm believer that if you can coach baseball, you can coach anything. Because in coaching a kid, first of all, you’re a life coach before you’re anything else. If you can teach them lessons about the game, that’s great.
“But coaching a kid on the baseball field is coaching a kid in life.”
Many thanks to Mike and Lori Dea for the time, the drink(s), the photos and the patience, because I should have completed this blog many weeks ago. Follow Mike on Twitter @Coachmike65Dea, and if you know anyone who would make a good “Coffee Convo” interview subject, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.