More than a baseball coach
Prep Focus • 'They broke the mold' with hardworking, winning Clopton
Thousands upon thousands of coaches have worked the dugouts since high school baseball began being played in Oregon more than a century ago.
Four have won more games than Wilson High's Mike Clopton.
And only two -- Dave Gasser and Tom Campbell -- have exceeded Clopton at the highest-enrollment classifications.
Going into today's 4:30 p.m. home Class 5A playoff game against Parkrose, Clopton has a record of 578-413 in his 36-year career coaching at Jackson and Wilson.
Clopton's teams have won 10 league titles, reached the state semifinals three times and ruled the state Class 6A roost in 2006.
But Clopton's impact on his players goes far beyond wins and losses.
"He was really hard on us, but it was to prepare us for not just baseball after high school but for life," says Joey Mahalic, the pitcher on Clopton's state championship club who went on to play 4 1/2 years of pro baseball. "He cared deeply about all of us individually."
"They broke the mold with Mike," says Wilson associate head coach Jeremy Shetler, who was introduced to his wife by Clopton. "He is much more than a coach to these kids. He has been their counselor, their mentor, in some cases their employer. You don't realize until after you leave his program all that he has done for you."
"Mike cares about what his players do beyond high school," says former McMinnville High coach Ross Peterson, a close friend. "He cares about their grades. He'll make phone calls to place kids in the best situation they can get in for college. He follows their careers afterward.
"Mike stages an alumni baseball game and a fundraising golf tournament every summer. A huge number of his ex-players take part, a sign that as they get older, they appreciate what he taught them beyond catching and throwing."
"The appreciation his past players have for him after the fact is amazing," says Mike Wantland, who coached for Clopton at Wilson. "They figure out what he was trying to do when they were 17, 18 years old.
"They might not have thought so much of him when they played for him, but they'd step in front of a train for him now."
Clopton, 65, ponders his standing on the state's career coaching list and smiles.
"I'm surprised, humbled -- all those things," he says. "It's something you never think about. I never envisioned it when I started this thing."
Clopton became a baseball junkie growing up on the playgrounds and ballfields of Southeast Portland.
"We played workup, double-or-nothing at Llewelyn School, home-run derby at Westmoreland," he says. "We didn't have bottled water and cell phones. We just rode our bikes somewhere and played ball."
Baseball was a refuge for Clopton, whose parents divorced when he was 5 years old. His father died when he was 10. His mother worked two jobs. Plenty of men stepped in to help.
"My coaches were my father figures," he says. "Bill Jaynes was my first Little League coach when I was 9. He made it a lot of fun. If he hadn't, who knows what direction I'd have gone in?"
As a teenager, Clopton got a job as clubhouse boy for the Portland Beavers and as stick boy for visiting teams for hockey's Buckaroos.
"The Buckaroos' trainer, Berlyn Hodges, was a mentor to me," he says. "I worked at Farrell's Restaurant, and the owners, Bob Farrell and Ken McCarthy, were great influences, too. Very instrumental in shaping my life. Same with Jack Dunn, my coach at Cleveland High. All my coaches have been that way."
Two of Clopton's boyhood pals -- Tom Trebelhorn, who later managed in the major leagues, and Dwight Jaynes, now a writer/broadcaster for Comcast SportsNet -- also have helped shape his coaching philosophies.
Clopton was married with two children and had a solid job delivering milk for Carnation when, in 1974, he opted for a career change. At the time, high school coaches were required to be teachers. Portland State baseball coach Roy Love gave him a scholarship and a work-study job to help coach the Vikings and get his degree.
Clopton coached a year under Love and two years under his successor -- ironically, Dunn -- before starting at Jackson High in 1977. Clopton took over at Wilson in 1983 and has been ensconced there since.
Those who played or coached for or against Clopton mention first his integrity.
"He has done things the right way," Peterson says. "Anyone who has ever coached against one of Mike's teams knows his players are always well-behaved. There is no popping off, no throwing helmets, no getting into arguments with other teams.
"Mike is probably the most honest person I know. I've never heard him swear. If you tell him something in confidence, you can rest assured no one else will ever hear it. I don't know if he has a cherry tree in the backyard, but I don't think he has ever told a lie.
"Mike has kind of flown under the radar all these years because he doesn't promote himself. He is been really good for high school baseball. We need more people like him."
"The thing I admire most about Mike is his character," Wantland says. "It's what you're doing when nobody else is around -- your actions when nobody sees them. Do you do the right thing? He is certainly that way. He follows his own rules and expects that from the kids. He can expect it, because he doesn't just talk the talk, he walks it."
Clopton sets rules and expects his players to abide by them.
"I'm highly organized," he says. "I have expectations of the players and I'm consistent in following through on those guidelines. The kids like to know what's expected.
"Communication is important. All of the kids have roles. We go over what those roles are so they know what they are. At the end of the season, we talk about it and things to work on."
"Mike is one of the most consistent people I've ever met, whether it's what you know you're going to get from him each day, or how he'll react when things happen," Wantland says. "It's that way with his players. Whether you're Joey Mahalic or the 18th kid on the bench -- everybody gets treated the same. I've seen a lot of situations where that doesn't hold true."
Mahalic, the best player Clopton has coached, learned early what was expected of him.
"Tough love is the best way to describe it," Mahalic says. "The preparation he gave me for the next level of baseball was incredible.
"Understanding what it meant to be responsible as a player and to do the right things and be accountable -- it prepared me well."
"What you see is what you get from Mike," says Toby Harris, a pitcher/first baseman on the Wilson team that lost to McNary in the 1989 state finals. "He never loses his temper. You knew exactly what to expect."
"Holding kids accountable is something very few programs implement any more," says Shetler, who played for Clopton in the early '90s and is in his 15th year on his coaching staff. "Some people claim it's bullying or intimidation; that's just not the case. He demands that you communicate, and when you say you're going to do something, you do it.
"What he provides is not just the on-the-field baseball experience. Players understand that after they leave his program."
Coaching high school baseball is not just about what happens between the white lines.
"The games are the fun part," Clopton says. "The practices, the organization ... it's about the kids making grades, about working with youth programs and your freshmen and junior varsity, fundraising, field work, field repairs. There's a lot to it. In some cases, it's close to a year-round job."
Few have done it as well as Clopton.
"There is no one better," Harris says. "He built that program. He took what Wilson had and blew it up tenfold."
"Mike has transformed the whole feeling of the baseball program at Wilson," Wantland says. "He has made (the field into) a real baseball park, by far the best in the PIL. A lot of that comes from his ability to fundraise.
"Jack Dunn was Wilson baseball in the early '70s, but no one has done more for Wilson baseball than Mike Clopton. He is the reason it is where it is now."
Shetler says Clopton's wife, Gayle, "deserves as much credit as anyone for building this program."
"She has been there for him for so many years and helped him run the program almost like a fine-toothed business," Shetler says. "The time he puts in with the program -- not just the varsity, but the JVs, the freshmen and even the area youth teams -- he separates himself from the other coaches."
Peterson says, too, that Clopton's teams are always among the most sound fundamentally.
"Mike is so well-organized," he says. "He has always been one of the best coaches in the state. He is one of the few left who still coaches the way baseball is supposed to be coached. They play 50 to 60 games in the summer, play lots of games against good competition. He wants his seniors to play. That's the way it was done when I coached."
Clopton is old-school, but not averse to trying new things. For the past five or six years, he has used a sports psychologist, Brian Baxter, to work with his players.
"The mental game, that's what it's all about," Clopton says. "The money we've spent for the guy to come in has really helped. It's noticeable more this year than ever. The guys have meshed together as a team. The things Brian talks about -- routine and focus -- have paid off. I really see a difference."
Clopton says his greatest rewards have come from individual and group achievements, not necessarily wins and losses. "Baseball is a vehicle for your athletes to become good citizens," he says. "I get the biggest kick from seeing them mature as people, and move from point A to point B as a player. It's the excitement he and his family have over his improvement that is what I enjoy the most.
"You play to win, but sometimes the great strides the players make is as rewarding as winning games."
After a bout with prostate cancer in 2000, Clopton gave up the athletic director post he had held for a decade at Wilson. In 2004, he retired from teaching. His coaching career is into the ninth inning.
"I don't know what he's going to do when he's done," Shetler says. "This has been his life."
Clopton says he is taking coaching one year at a time now, but has no immediate plans to quit. He has a spring-break trip to Arizona planned for next year's team.
"I still like it," he says. "As you get older, it's a little tougher, but I've always had great assistants. And we've had great kids, too, in the program."
If he coaches long enough, he'll have a shot at Dave Gasser's career win record -- Gasser, who had much success at Madison High, has a career mark of 661-194. That doesn't drive Clopton at all.
"It's not really important," Clopton says. "I have so many wins only because I've been around so long. It's the relationships, the competition, the kids. Those are the fun things."