By Phil Rogers
KANSAS CITY -- In a house in the middle of Clintonville, a small town to the west of Green Bay, Wisc., it's not unusual for the telephone to ring at 1 or 2 in the morning during the summer and, this year anyway, the fall.
While middle-of-the-night calls can be alarming, that's not as true when life has unhooked you from the conventional 9-to-5 routine. And for Don Jirschele, an 81-year-old widower now living in a once-noisy house by himself, it's a comfort to hear from his son, Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele, no matter the hour.
"It's been hectic lately but at least two or three times a week we talk," Mike Jirschele said. "He always laughs. He says call me whenever. There are some times I call him at 2 or 3 in the morning. Get out of the stadium, back to the hotel, give him a call. He stays up late at night, watching TV, falls asleep in that recliner. The phone rings at 2 in the morning, he knows it's me."
Those late-night calls have never been more fun for father and son.
After 35 seasons in minor-league baseball, including 14 as a Triple-A manager, the 55-year-old Jirschele was given his first big-league job this year, as an addition to Ned Yost's coaching staff. Now his team is two victories away from a trip to the World Series.
As much as the Royals mean to so many people, you wonder if there can be anyone they mean more to than the Jirscheles, who have been through more as a family than most of us, and that's putting it mildly.
Don has buried his wife and three of his four sons. Pete, Doug and Jim all were severely impacted by muscular dystrophy before dying in their 40s. The disease didn't strike any of Don and Mary's four daughters and likewise skipped Mike, who was given a chance to pursue a career in sports, like his father. Don, a football star for Clintonville High, played for Bear Bryant at the University of Kentucky and signed a contract with the Packers before returning home to raise his family.
Mike, like his father and oldest brother, Doug, was a multi-sport star. He turned down a chance to play quarterback at the University of Wisconsin to sign a contract with the Texas Rangers, who drafted him as an infielder in the fifth round. He married his high school sweetheart, Sheri, tore up his knee while playing Triple-A ball, and eventually dug in to support his wife and their children while working in player development for the Royals during the baseball season and his wife's family furniture store during the winter.
Year after year, he went to Florida or Arizona every February to work with young baseball players, trying to help them do what he did not -- reach the Majors. Imagine what it means for No. 59 to finally have his own uniform and locker stall in the clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium.
Imagine what it means to his father, after so much heartbreak.
Don has had his own health issues, the biggest being a heart attack. He rarely travels, so Mike and Sheri made sure he had a satellite television package that lets him watch all the Royals games.
"He's doing great," Mike said. "He's very excited that I got the opportunity to finally get to the big leagues. He's very excited that I'm coaching third base and taking care of the infield. Just being at the big-league level, getting into the playoffs. He's not a guy to come out and say it, but I know he's really excited that I finally got the opportunity."
Mike's pretty excited too, especially since no one can say he caught a break to get where he is now. Even Orioles manager Buck Showalter is touched by the persistence of the Kansas City third base coach. He told Jirschele so when he brought out the lineup card for the Royals, as Yost allows him to do every night.
"I'm proud of him," Showalter said of Jirschele on Monday, tossing him into an unrelated conversation. "I don't know him that well. There's a guy that did it right. I commend Kansas City [for] promoting him. Every stop, [he] did it the right way. You love to see a guy [like that]."
Jirschele never stopped hoping to spend a season -- or more -- in the big leagues. But he had long ago learned to be grateful for the chances he had. Lots of people would love to manage in the Pacific Coast League too.
"I always felt, and I was brought up [to believe] that I was fortunate to have the opportunity to play, along with getting into coaching and managing," Jirschele said. "I had a job to do, whatever level I was at. I was just going to go out and do my best at whatever my job was, whatever happens happens. The Good Lord has a plan for everybody. You just go out and do your job, the things you have control of, and whatever happens happens.
"Then you can look back and say, 'You know what, maybe I didn't get the opportunity, but I did everything I could possibly do to get there.' I did that as a player, and it was getting to be like that as a staff member, Triple-A manager for 14 years. I never worried about that, if I was going to get a big league job, if I got passed up for a big league job. It was like, 'You should be happy you have a job in professional baseball. That's the way I always looked at it."
Watching his brothers struggle to do simple things has kept Jirschele from complaining about anything life has sent his way. He has said he considers himself lucky to be able to "just get up and tie my shoes in the morning by myself" after helping his brothers dress themselves and even go to the bathroom. He may have put pressure on himself as a player to succeed for his father and his brothers, but he wouldn't have been human if he didn't bear the weight of his situation.
Jirschele played 13 seasons in the minors as an infielder, hitting .225 in 999 games. His best stretch as a hitter came after he was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A in 1982, and there was rumbling that he might be promoted that September. But then he collided in shallow left field with a teammate, chasing a pop fly, and that chance -- the best one he ever had -- was gone.
Jirschele did go to one big league camp as a player, with the Rangers in 1984. They trained in spartan conditions in Pompano Beach, Fla., and before camp broke he was sent to Oklahoma City, although he didn't go empty-handed. All-Star third baseman Buddy Bell made sure he and his Triple-A teammates had spikes, and Jirschele always remembered the kindness of the gesture.
Bell, the Royals manager in 2005-07 who is now an assistant general manager for the White Sox, remembers Jirschele as a good listener and a solid, fundamental player. He's reminded of him regularly now because Justin Jirschele, Mike's son, is a 24-year-old utility man in the White Sox system.
"I don't know if [Justin] is going to make it to the big leagues but he's going to be in baseball a long time," Bell said. "He's got great baseball knowledge and is somebody you can count on. Just like his dad."
Bell says there was discussion of finding a room for Jirschele on the coaching staff when he managed the Royals. "There was a lot of talk, but there are only so many of those jobs," Bell said. "Looking back, I wish I would have pushed harder. He was such a posititive influence on the young guy."
After Jirschele was promoted to Yost's staff, he got a note of congratulations from Joe Klein, who had been the Rangers' farm director when he was in his prime as a player. He had left a lasting impression, even if he never made it to Arlington.
Now that he's in the majors, Jirschele says he's "most comfortable when I'm out at third base," which makes sense. In Triple-A, managers often coach third base. But his role with the Royals is a lot bigger than just waving in runners.
Thirteen of the 25 players on the ALCS roster played for Jirschele in Omaha, where his last four teams combined for a 313-261 record. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Salvador Perez are among the players who won PCL championships playing for him.
"Jirsch has been with those kids from the minute that they were signed," Yost said. "He knows them inside and out. He's got a great relationship with each and every one of those guys. He's deeply respected by everybody in that locker room. He's paid his dues and they know that."
Jirschele was the guy who put Royals left fielder Alex Gordon back together when he was demoted to Triple-A in 2010, after two-plus years in Kansas City. He put the finishing touches on players like Cain and Hosmer, but cared just as much about his players who weren't as gifted athletically or couldn't quite figure out how to hit the curveball.
Moustakas says Jirschele's impact with the Royals is as much as a big brother as a coach.
"He's always been the guy you can go and talk to about pretty much anything you want, stuff on the field, stuff off the field, if you're having problems with your family back home, or anything," said Moustakas, the third baseman who is suddenly delivering home runs. "Jirsch is always the guy, the first one sitting at your locker, the first one telling you everything's going to be all right. Everybody in this clubhouse has the utmost respect and love for that guy."
Royals general manager Dayton Moore is a big believer in winning at the minor league level. He was thrilled when Jirschele's Omaha Storm Chasers won PCL titles in 2011 and '13. They were laying the seeds for the success the Royals have had this season, recovering from a 48-50 start to claim a Wild Card spot and then knock off the A's and Angels before winning twice in Baltimore in the ALCS.
"You know you're working on development, developing these players," Jirschele said. "But to me it's developing players with a winning-type attitude that's very important. They know what it's like to win. They know how much fun it is to win. You go through the minor league system and you're getting beat up year after year, losing games, it doesn't become a big deal to win. It's just take care of your business and you'll be okay. But these kids have had success at that level and now have had success at this level. It's snowballing."
This is the Royals' first trip to the postseason in 29 seasons. What were the odds that such an event would intersect with a baseball lifer's first big league season after 35 in the minors?
Jirschele knows the timing is wild.
"No doubt," he said. "With how many years I spent in the minor leagues, this year coming up here, and now we have a chance to play in the World Series, an opportunity possibly to play in the World Series. … I feel very fortunate we are where we're at right now."
Fortunate? Maybe adding Jirschele was all the Royals needed to do to change their karma. Maybe he's the difference maker.
"No," he said. "No."
That's his opinion, anyway.
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Phil Rogers is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a columnist for MLB.com. He previously wrote for the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News.