Spring arrived almost as it usually does for Eric Mihkelson.
There were chirping birds and the odor of freshly cut grass. Warm sun touched his fair skin, converting the ample hair on his muscular forearms to a lighter shade of blonde.
Mihkelson stood on the baseball field at Cal State Dominguez Hills the other day, his favorite rites of spring unfolding before him. He heard the clinks of aluminum bats on hardballs, the "hum-babies" shouted by players. He caught whiffs of glove oil and shoe leather. His green eyes squinted into the hazy horizon, a square jaw protruded from under a red-and-gold cap with the letters "DH" on the front. In the distance, the pops from catcher's gloves being pounded by fastballs thrown by toiling pitchers were heard in the wind-swept bullpen.
On the Sidelines Now
Yeah, this was spring, all right, he thought, but what a difference a year makes. The coming of the season had never felt so strange for the 22-year-old former infielder from Long Beach. For Mihkelson, a graduate assistant coach, a new life has begun.
"I see the pitchers warming up, and I want to play," he said. "It's tough to realize I'm through."
Last season, when Cal State Dominguez Hills advanced to the Division II World Series, Mihkelson led the club with 58 consecutive starts at third base. But a .222 batting average and 12 errors are not the numbers pro scouts look for, especially in a 5-foot-8, 160-pound spray-hitter.
His lifelong dream of playing baseball for a living came to a screeching halt.
Professional baseball, a boy's game played by grown men, is the dream of many a schoolboy. For every player who makes it to the major leagues, there are a million more who someday face the same dead-end that Eric Mihkelson has. Only a few seek careers close to the field, as coaches, groundskeepers or sports writers. Even fewer succeed in those jobs.
Many Take Up Softball
Most, Mihkelson agrees, leave the game with an empty feeling. Eventually, they find other careers. Many continue their playing days with little adulation in city softball leagues. But there are few packed stadiums and cheering fans, just a handful of wives and friends in wooden bleachers.
Softball seemed a lonely path to Mihkelson, although, purging the game from one's system, he said, is difficult. When it was his turn, his gut feeling was to continue to play baseball.
"There are always the Mexican Leagues and Sunday leagues for recreation," he said.
Reality dictated that he change directions, however painful.
"I have played baseball all my life," he said during a Dominguez Hills practice session. "My life has revolved around it. Even now it's still hard. I wish I could be out there with them."
A public administration major, Mihkelson is back "out there with them" as an unpaid member on the staff of Coach Andy Lopez.
"But I don't look at it as if I'm a volunteer coach," he said.
Father Is Policeman
Mihkelson prefers to look at his new start as if it is part of his education. He thought he wanted to be a policeman, like his father. Now he says he wants to make a career as a coach. Lopez thinks Mihkelson has a good shot at it.
"He will make a good coach," Lopez said. Mihkelson has three pluses working for him in his quest, according to friends and observers:
He understands the need to finish his education. "A lot of jock-types took only P.E. courses," he said. He plans to graduate later this year.
He is a winner. At Millikan High School in Long Beach, he played on the 1983 CIF Southern Section championship team. At Long Beach City College he was a member of the 1985 team that advanced to the state playoffs. He was the most valuable player in a Canadian summer league playoff series two years ago. Twice at Dominguez Hills, teams he played on won California Collegiate Athletic Assn. titles and advanced to post-season play.
But more importantly, Lopez said, Mihkelson epitomizes the successful over-achiever. "He wasn't a tremendously gifted player," Lopez said. "He had no business playing as well as he did, but he has a good work ethic."
That attitude provides a positive influence this season on a team that is struggling well below .500.
"I like having him around," Lopez said. "He rubs off on you after a while. He's an intangible."
No Girlfriend or Hobbies
When his career ended early last summer, Mihkelson faced an intangible world. Without the sport he had coveted so highly, his life was suddenly without thrills. No girlfriend. No hobbies. He is at a loss to explain how he passed most of the time. "I just worked at Ralph's Grocery Store," he said.
An offer from Lopez to take up coaching looked better and better.
"I don't do a lot. Just baseball and go to school," Mihkelson said.
At first he approached coaching with less zeal than he did at being a player. "I thought it would be easy," he said.