Mike Clopton - Wilson Baseball Coach photo

Mike CloptonMike Clopton

Mike Clopton - Wilson Baseball Coach photo

August 2023 ~

Even the most ardent PIL fan would be hard pressed to find a high school baseball team that is better represented in the league’s hall of fame than the 1965 Cleveland squad.

The names on that lineup card included future Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs manager Tom Trebelhorn (inducted in 1988) and Dwight Jaynes, the longtime Portland-area sportswriter and journalist (2017 merit award). The guy filling out the card was legendary Cleveland (and Wilson and Portland State) coach Jack Dunn (2014).

And last but certainly not least — unless one is talking about this gentleman’s playing skills and he is the one doing the talking — there is Mike Clopton (Cleveland, 1965), the former Jackson and Wilson skipper who earned his spot in the PIL Hall of Fame a year after his old Cleveland coach and mentor.

His 613 career wins rank sixth all-time among Oregon baseball coaches and helped Clopton also get enshrined this year in Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. But he has never measured his baseball success in wins, nor in his own skills on the field back in the day. Clopton describes the young him as an “just average” player who, in his earliest playing days, did most of his damage with his wheels and on defense.

“I was probably much better at age 10 or 11 than I ever was after that,” he says. “I had a pretty good arm, and I could run like a deer. If I walked and ball four was a wild pitch, I could usually get to second base on it.”

Turn the subject to Clopton’s prowess at the plate, however, and Clopton offers up two anecdotes that paint a pretty clear picture why he showed great potential — as a coach.
The first involves his career statistics at Cleveland, where he played varsity for two years. While he earned 2nd Team All PIL status as a senior, his junior year hardly foretold that level of future success.

“I had 12 at bats that year. I hit one home run and struck out 11 times,” he deadpans.

The second story features his future pal, future major league all-star and fellow PIL Hall inductee, the late Wayne Twitchell, and a game between Cleveland and Wilson’s American Legion squads.

“Twitch was pitching and didn’t have his best stuff; we knocked him out in the first inning,” Clopton says, teeing up the punchline. “He only got two outs, and they were both strikeouts. By me.”

But Clopton’s potential in the sport was showing in another way. In 1964, while he was still in high school, Clopton and his best friend Jaynes spent the summer helping with the Cleveland Babe Ruth team, having benefited from the recommendation of another coach.

Today, he expresses great appreciation for that coach and the numerous other mentors who were involved in his maturation and development as both a person and a teacher of the game.

Clopton’s parents had divorced when he was 5 and his father died when he was only 10. But there were plenty of other role models in his life, including his buddy Dwight’s dad, Bill Jaynes, Clopton’s first coach.

“The fathers of my friends, those were the male figures and mentors in my life,” Clopton says.

At the same time Clopton was learning the ins and outs of the game from Jack Dunn, he was also benefiting from his own strategic eavesdropping.

“Dwight and I were really fortunate,” he says. “He was the clubhouse boy for the Portland Beavers in 1964 and 65 and I was for the visiting teams. We’d go into clubhouse where a lot of players, many of whom had been in big leagues and were on their way down, would drink beer and talk, and we’d just sit and listen. It was very helpful. I was always around helpful people.”

At the top of that list was Coach Dunn, whose teachings would guide Jaynes and Clopton in that first year of coaching. “What we knew, we learned from Jack, so that’s the way we were going to coach,” he says.

Not a bad strategy. In just his second year of coaching, at the tender age of 18, Clopton was picked as an assistant on a Babe Ruth all-star squad that won the state championship.

By then, Clopton was a high school graduate working at Farrell’s, the iconic ice cream parlor on 21st street. He held that job for five years before being hired at Carnation Dairy to deliver milk on a route through the Wilson High School neighborhood, including Gabriel Park. That’s where he reconnected with Chuck Stilson, a coach Clopton had faced during Babe Ruth all-stars play.

“This was either 1968 or 69 and Chuck either needed someone, or allowed me, to help coach his Viking Hall team,” he remembers.

In short order, Clopton would be coaching a 13-year-old youngster named Dale Murphy who, of course, would mature into a two-time MVP winner with the Atlanta Braves.

“I had no idea Murph would become the player he became,” Clopton remembers. “here’s an interesting bit of trivia about him. Every year each Babe Ruth team drafted five new players out of Little League. Out of the 60 kids drafted in our league, Murph was 44th. I only told him that about five years ago. He’s so humble, he just laughed.”

(Full disclosure: Clopton also coached this writer — who was never mistaken for Dale Murphy — on that Viking Hall team.)

Clopton was still delivering milk and coaching during baseball season when one day he heard that a Babe Ruth coaching colleague had been named head coach at a local high school. They had the same experience. Their games against each other were always competitive. Clopton wondered, If this guy could be a high school varsity coach, why couldn’t he?

The short answer was: No degree.

“At that time, to coach you had to be a teacher. My high school GPA was 2.1. I had a fun time. I had a lot of common sense, but not a lot of book knowledge.”

That would soon come courtesy of another male mentor, former Portland State coach and AD and 2003 PIL Hall of Fame inductee Roy Love.

“In the fall of 1973 I took two night classes at Portland State, while still delivering milk,” Clopton recalls. “I wanted to see if I liked college and could do it. Somehow, I ran across and got to know Roy and he wound up offering me a scholarship.”

Clopton quit his day job and enrolled at PSU as a full-time student winter term 1974, helping coach the baseball team for a year before Love turned the head job over Coach Dunn, who kept his former player on for another two years.

“During that time, my wife, Gayle, and I had two kids and had bought our first house. Without Roy Love’s help, I could never have gone back to school.”

Clopton landed his first teaching job at Jackson with another boost from Dunn, whose college roommate happened to be the head of Portland Public Schools. He coached Jackson from 1977 until the school was closed in 1982, a decision that was a bitter pill for him to swallow. The taste improved significantly, however, when he landed the head job at Wilson, which he kept from 1983 until his retirement in 2014, compiling those 613 wins along with 438 losses.

Clopton is not one to recite in glorious detail the greatest hits of his 51-year coaching career. “I remember the guys, but not necessarily all the stuff,” he says. “There are a few things that are memorable, but it’s the whole experience I remember. I had a great career and I loved it.”

There were the state titles in 2006 and 2012, a year that he remembers for how proud he was the underdog Trojans came from behind in every tourney game enroute to the title. There were the annual summer road trips to Roseburg or Grants Pass or Medford Clopton would take his team on to show let them enjoy the baseball experience in other parts of the state.

There was the sports psychologist he’d bring in to help his team understand the importance of the mental aspects of the game and there was his controversial decision to add a complementary orange highlight color to the Trojan’s traditional green and white uniforms (don’t get him started).

Other than Murphy, whom he only coached in Babe Ruth, none of Clopton’s players made it to the show. But that was never the point.

In the early days, the point was to help young 13-to-15-year-olds improve their skills and knowledge of the game and prepare them for what to expect from Coach Dunn in high school. And during legion season, the goal was to play as many games as possible. Winning was secondary.

“I always played to win but never at all costs,” he says. “In the 40 years I coached Legion ball, my teams only went to the state tournament twice. Most of those 40 summers I had losing records. But the success my teams had later at Jackson and Wilson is testament to how playing all those games made us better.”

It was never the wins that mattered as much to Clopton as what playing on a team did to develop young men’s character, the number of his former players (50-plus) who went on to coach and the number of dollars (more than $1 million) he and Gayle raised to improve Wilson’s baseball facilities.

None of this appears in Clopton’s bio on the PIL Hall of Fame website, but it matters as much all the stats that are there, not that he is complaining.

“Being inducted was a real honor. I’ve coached so long, I’ve certainly thought it could happen sometime. But it’s not something I ever thought about while working.”

If the honor wasn’t a complete surprise, some of the attendees at the banquet for his class of inductees were. They included an entire team of city league hockey players – who just happened to be the then 70-plus-year-old player’s teammates.

“I played hockey from age 11 to 35,” he says. “Then when I was 65, one of my player’s dads found out I played and asked if I wanted to play in this team. I just retired from it this year (at age 76).

That appears to be one of the few things he has retired from. He’s assisting Gayle, his wife of 54 years, in their real estate company, The Clopton Team. His son, Kevin, and one of his former players are also on the team.

The Cloptons love to travel. They’ve already visited every Major League Baseball stadium and National Hockey League arena in the country and, on this particular August day, he’s preparing to leave for Seaside and the 20th annual Clopton family vacation, with Kevin, daughter, Denise, and four grandchildren.

The old coach even learned a new trick recently when he signed up for Facebook “mainly to reconnect with old players and let them know I’m still around.”

More than half a century after he started coaching, Mike Clopton is wondering where the time has gone, but grateful for how he has been able to spend it.

To prove this point, he uses one of his favorite expressions — or “Cloptonisms” — from back in the day. “Every day is a good day,” he says.

Once a coach, always a coach.

Do you know Mike? He can be reached at mikeclopton@hevanet.com

Photo Note: Click on a photo to see its caption

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