Skip, short for skipper, has long been a popular platitude bestowed upon the leader of a baseball team. But within the orbit of Southern California baseball and in larger, lasting circles, it has come to signify reverence for one man:
“There are maybe 100 people in my life that if I drop Skip on them, they know who I’m talking about,” said Aaron Boone, the first-year manager of the New York Yankees who played for Gillespie at USC before enjoying a successful major-league playing career. “They know that’s Mike Gillespie. We obviously use that term affectionately when we’re referring to him, whether its ex-teammates or just people who know him. He’s Skip to so many of us.”
Dodgers’ bullpen coach Mark Prior, one of many former major leaguers to have played for Gillespie, who retired at the end of this season after 11 years coaching UC Irvine, also validated the singular resonance of Gillespie’s trademark moniker.
“I don’t think I’ve ever called anybody else Skip besides Mike,” Prior said. “And rarely do I address him as Mike. Skip is what we called him at school, but I think it carries over as a sign of respect, almost more than Mr. Gillespie. Skip to me is the ultimate. In baseball, there are very few people who players continue to call Skip after they are their manager or coach.”
Few can match the career accomplishments amassed by Gillespie, a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame who has achieved 1,153 victories in 31 seasons as a Division I head coach, including a national championship in 1998 at USC.
Gillespie’s 11 seasons at UCI, including a College World Series appearance in 2014, was celebrated in a pregame ceremony before the May 18 Anteaters game against UC at Cicerone Field at Anteater Ballpark.
Gillespie, 78, was named national coach of the year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association in 2014 and was named Big West Coach of the Year in 2009, when he guided the ‘Eaters to the conference title. He has guided teams to 19 NCAA Tournament appearances, including College World Series trips with USC in 1988, 1995, 1998, 2000 and 2001. Under his tutelage, UCI competed in the postseason five times, including regional titles in 2008, 2011 and 2014.
He was the national coach of the year in 1998 and collected Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors four times.
Gillespie, who played at USC, including the Trojans’ NCAA title season of 1961, is one of two men to have earned College World Series championships as a player and a coach. He will be inducted into the USC Hall of Fame on Saturday.
His legacy includes legions who have admired his thorough preparation, meticulous attention to detail and ability to utilize creative diamond strategies.
“As a coach, I think he is probably the best baseball thinker in game situations that I have ever been around,” said UCLA coach John Savage, who guided the UCI program from 2002 to 2004 after spending four seasons as Gillespie’s pitching coach at USC. “The guy is so ahead of the game. He thinks very well on his feet and he takes risks. He is unpredictable and he has no fear of any sort of play or any sort of opportunity that he sees for his team. He can take advantage of (opponents’) weaknesses as well as anybody I’ve ever seen. His forward thinking is legendary and really something that is clear when you play him.”
Savage, who guided UCLA to the NCAA crown in 2013, gives Gillespie primary credit for his successful coaching career.
“I learned so much from him about how to deal with players and how to run a program and manage a team,” Savage said. “He is among those on the Mount Rushmore of college baseball coaches and, certainly on the West Coast, has been a pillar that has so much respect from young coaches.”
Oregon coach George Horton, who dueled Gillespie for years as head man at Cal State Fullerton, and dating back to their tenures at rival community colleges, also shared his appreciation for Gillespie.
“We coached against each other for more than 40 years and he is on a short list of guys that I admire and have learned a lot from within our industry,” Horton said. “He has a wide scope of respect from colleagues and that’s something you don’t get just from winning or having a good program. That’s something you get when you compete with class and integrity and I think that’s what (Gillespie) has made a career of.”
Beyond his diamond acumen, Gillespie is revered for his articulate wit, humility and concern for others.
“He has this innate ability to tell a story and educate at the same time,” said Fumi Kimura, a former UCI media relations staffer who worked with Gillespie for nine seasons. “He is an amazing storyteller. I think that is how he was able to connect for so long with so many of the players on his teams, because there is just a cleverness there that I don’t experience in a lot of people. It’s just so much fun to be around him all the time.”
Said Savage: “He has such a big heart. He’s a very good listener and he’s unbelievably intellectual. He makes people feel very comfortable and he makes people feel important and I think those are unbelievable traits to have.”
Boone and Prior laughed when recalling Gillespie’s ability to be both stern and supportive.
“He has that commanding presence that you love your leader to have,” Boone said. “He wasn’t intimidating necessarily, but you respected him. He was very, very easy to play for and I always felt like I had somebody that I could confide in. I trusted him and he was just a really great leader. He had a really great understanding of how to get the best out of guys.”
Added Prior: “He really took my game to another level. He made me accountable and challenged me to be the best version of myself in the two years I played for him. He had a very dry way of communicating and instructing. I think he is very mindful of setting up his players to be successful, whether in baseball or later on in their lives. The discipline and impact he had has played out in people’s lives over many years.”
Gillespie said it is difficult to properly convey his appreciation for those he has worked with at UCI. He also said it is players, colleagues, administrators and support personnel that he will remember most about his time as an Anteater.
“Actually, I have to admit that I underestimated the emotion of it and the realization that it is coming to an end,” Gillespie said of his career. “The best parts of it have been the players and these people.”
“It’s hard to see it is coming to an end,” Savage said. “It’s sad for me, but at the same time, I’m happy that he is still in good health and that he is going out such a winner.”
Added Boone: “It’s a career that deserves to be celebrated.”