Tuesday May 21st, 2013.
It was a bittersweet day but it was also a historic day. After more than 32 years as the head coach of the Highland Trojans, Dan Miller walked the line-up card out to home plate for the final time at Highland High School.
32 years, that’s a long time. In that span Coach Miller has over 600 wins, two state finals appearances, and numerous conference and sectional titles on his mantel. But maybe the most important thing is not what Coach Miller took from the game but what he gave back, like the dozens of players who went on to play collegiality or the number of current coaches that once played for him.
Coach Miller gave me some great life experiences and taught me valuable life lessons, even if he didn’t realize it. You see, I was Coach Miller’s bat boy for a few years. I’ll never forget when Coach Miller and my dad were sitting atop the bleachers at Portage High School watching a Highland basketball game. I went up and said hi to Coach and to ask my dad for money for the concession stand when Coach asked if I wanted to be the bat boy that season? You can’t imagine the excitement.
Growing up I loved sports, still do. But more than playing them I loved being around them. My dad was a coach so I spent a lot of time in the summer and during the school year hanging out at practices, being one of the guys. The winter before I won a $100 bet with Brad Smith the Highland Middle School A.D. who was also the Head Varsity Football Coach, the bet was that I couldn’t hit a three pointer. I was in the fifth grade and sure enough I knocked it down. I don’t know who was more shocked Coach Smith or myself. I traded that bet in, not taking the money but asking if I could be the water boy. Coach Smith said yes but he had one better, I would hold the cord for his headset on game day.
During basketball season I was the water boy for the basketball team and at halftime I swept the court. All I asked for in return were nachos and a hotdog from the concession stand (I was a fatty then and well…now…yea).
I loved football, it was my favorite sport growing up, but being “husky” I couldn’t play Pop Warner. My family was a basketball family but I wasn’t ever going to be a star so it didn’t interest me as much. But baseball? Baseball was a sport I played. It was a sport that I was good at (until I was 14), so getting to hang out with high school baseball players and pick up on things that I could use on the field, I was pumped!
I’ll never forget my first game as bat boy, I wanted to look the part so I wore my all-star uniform. Blue shirt with a yellow “H” on the chest (Highland’s home uniforms were the same but theirs were real button up jerseys)with a number on the back, white pants, royal blue socks, baseball cleats, and a cup. Yes a cup, why did a bat boy need a cup? I have no clue, but I was a weird kid so I wore one. My Baba (Serbian grandma) dropped me off at the baseball field and I walked in. Coach Miller told me what I was going to be doing, it was pretty simple, take a helmet put it on and go get the bat after a player got on base. I used Chris Anderson’s helmet that first year and after the first game Coach Miller gave me a fitted Highland High School baseball cap just like the varsity players wore, I was on cloud nine.
That first season went on and Highland made it all the way to semi state, down in Anderson. I missed a Little League game because I wanted to go fulfill my duties as 'the Highland Bat Boy'. That trip might have been one of my most memorable moments from my childhood. The Trojans lost the game and I was bummed, nothing a little post-game Taco Bell couldn’t fix. The team stopped and ate and then got back on the road. I ended up getting into the equipment van with Coach Bedka and Coach Bogner and slept on the bat bags while they blared country music. We arrived home and that was the end of my first season as bat boy.
Over the next two years I returned each year in the spring to continue my duties. My second to last year, my brother’s friends were seniors and I would get rides home from Bobby Lewis or Ben Porter after each game. But this season was special, because I started to pick up on those life lessons, I started to pay attention and listen more. That’s when I started learning, not just about baseball but about life.
Lesson one, always hustle. Coach Miller would get on guys who weren’t hustling on and off the field or weren’t giving max effort. I didn’t understand what the big deal was then, but as I grew older I figured it out. It wasn’t in baseball that Coach Miller wanted the players to give that extra effort, it was in life. He was teaching them that you can’t cut corners and if you give a little extra effort it will only help you in the long run.
Lesson two, always look good. This may have been one of the things I remember most and it has stuck with me since then. Clean, pressed uniforms. Hang them up when you travel, don’t let them get wrinkled. Look like a ballplayer. Pant legs up and 12 inches from your ankles. Look the part! Coach would yell at players who came in with their jerseys draped over their arms and not on hangers, they had to pay for their sins by purchasing sunflower seeds for the team’s sunflower seed bucket. Another life lesson that has stayed with me all this time, look good. Take an extra few minutes and iron your pants and shirt, people will notice. My slow-pitch jersey is always pressed and hung up, shirt is tucked in and a belt is worn with my baseball pants. Look the part. Except now, I wear my pant legs down and I hear Coach Miller has become a little laid-back on that as well.
Coach Miller might not have known it at the time but while he was teaching his players those life lessons I was picking up on them as well.
You might be wondering about my baseball career. Well earlier I said I was pretty good until I was 14 and that wasn’t a lie, I was the game MVP in an all-star tournament when I was seven and then again when I was eight. I played my freshman year and was the third string first baseman; my biggest contribution to the team was keeping the scorebook. Due to some grade issues and a deal I made with my parents I had to quit half way through the year. The deal was if I got a 'D' on my report card I could no longer play and like any punk teenager I tested my luck, but I lost. I got a 'D' and had to quit (first and last time my parents let me quit something). I’ll never forget freshman coach Matt Havens responding to me turning in my gear, “Who’s going to keep the book now?” I still laugh to this day when I think of that.
Then after my sophomore football season I was in the coach’s office and Coach Miller (who was also a football assistant) was sitting in a chair helping collect equipment when one of the other coaches asked what I was going to do in the spring? I had a knot in my throat as I uttered, “I’m going to golf this year”. I don’t know who looked more relieved me or Coach Miller. I think we both knew that my career wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t want to put coach in a position where he would have to cut me, so I decided I should golf. I never asked coach about it, he probably doesn’t remember it and hopefully it didn’t hurt his feelings. If it did, I’m sorry.
But I wrote this to say thank you. Thank you Coach Miller, for the hundreds of memories you gave me and the life lessons you taught me. I enjoyed every minute I spent as a kid, player and student around you. Congrats on a great career and enjoy everything the next chapter of your life has to offer. You made an impact on thousands of kids and made Highland High School Baseball one of the most respected programs in the state.