If an amateur baseball Mount Rushmore is ever constructed in Eastern Jackson County, Blue Springs Rod’s Sports A’s longtime manager Mike Rooney would be a rock-solid candidate to be among the first sculptures featured.
Over the past 27 years, Rooney has guided an American Legion team that has won six state championships (1995, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2013), two runner-up finishes (2000 and 2006), a third-place finish in 1994 and a fourth in 2017.
The 2003 team finished fifth in the American Legion World Series.
During Rooney’s reign, the A’s are an incredible 1,233-401, including an area best 11-1 mark this season.
But a number that makes those lofty totals pale in comparison is the fact that 89.7 percent of the 341 players Rooney has managed have earned college scholarships.
“Here’s what people don’t know about Mike,” said longtime A’s associate and former state championship winning coach and Truman High School Hall of Famer Clyde Kubli, “is how hard he works to get his kids scholarships.
“He calls coaches on the phone. He talks with them at games, he sends them messages – if a kid on Mike’s team wants and deserves a scholarship, Mike is going to see to it that he gets it. And to me, that’s what separates Mike from the other managers.
“Sure, he wins a lot, but he cares for his players. He thinks of them as his kids, and I think of them as my kids, too.”
This is Rooney’s 27th season with the A’s and 46th overall year of managing and he has decided that it is going to be his last.
He has coached his sons, Mike Jr., and Lance, who is now an A’s coach, his grandsons Brett and Kyle and many all-state and all-conference players, some of who went on to pro and even major league careers.
When asked why he has decided to step away from managing, a wry grin comes to his a weathered face that has spent so much time in a dugout and on a baseball diamond it personifies what the game has meant to him for nearly five decades.
“You just know when it’s time to step away,” said Rooney, who also works at Rod’s Sports in Blue Springs, “and it’s time. I’ve thought about it for a while – the game has changed, the kids have changed, everything has changed.
“I still love it, but it’s not like it was back when I was coaching Tep (major league pitcher Nick Tepesch) and those guys. The game meant something to them. It means something to the guys today, but not like it did to the guys back then.”
That comment is backed by coach Jack Gillis, who is Rooney’s choice to succeed him in the dugout.
“That’s quite a challenge to take over from a guy like Mike, who has not only been successful on the playing field, but done so many things for kids that no one knows about – getting them scholarships, things like that,” said Gillis, who has been by Rooney’s side the past 18 years. “If I am the next manager, I want to make sure that Tommy (Bush) and all our other coaches stay around because they all mean so much to the program. The game and the kids have changed, and that will be a challenge, too. But Mike is a one-of-a-kind guy who can never be replaced.”
The humble Rooney shrugs off comments like that. He was never one for the spotlight. After most of his 1,000-plus wins, he walked off the field to join his coaches for a cold brew in the parking lot, never seeking any adoration or attention.
He’s one of the guys – but, he is one the guys who has impacted more lives than he can ever imagine.
“I heard he might step down, and I want to let people know what he meant to me personally, and to our teams," said Tepesch, who is now pitching in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. “Mike means so much to me. I still call him about once a week – just to talk about baseball, and life and whatever we decide to talk about. I really look forward to those visits. He has done so much, for so many kids and the only people who know about it are the kids themselves.
“He surrounds himself with not only good coaches, but good men – great men! We’d play 60 or 70 games a summer and we spent a lot of time together and they were the type of men you wanted to be with.”
Even if that was being tough on his players, Tepesch said.
“I remember we won one game something like 8-0, but Mike didn’t think we played the game the right way, the way he thought it should be played, and he lit into us. He gave us a butt chewing that I still remember,” Tepesch added with a laugh. “But he wanted us to be good representatives of the A’s, and of American Legion baseball. And he wanted us to be good individuals, and good men. He won a lot, but he cared a lot more about coaching good men, and he and his staff are a big reason so many of his players become good men.”
Former A’s slugger Andrew Melanson remembers that same post-game rant when he and his teammates experienced the wrath of Rooney.
“He is a one-of-a-kind manager and a one-of-a-kind man,” Melanson said. “He would not accept mediocrity. Even if we won, he would not accept it if anyone left the tank half empty. I think that’s why most of his players went on and became good men in the community.”
One of those good men is former standout Scooter Hendrickson, who has this to say about his former manager: “Mike has been incredibly influential in my life, as well as my brother Scott’s life.
“Mike taught me the values of self-discipline, hard work and integrity. Mike’s passion for the game was evident every game and his teams are a reflection of that passion,” he added. “The World Series run, in which the regional was at Hidden Valley, will always be a memory I will cherish forever. Through Mike’s leadership, we went from a .500 team early in the year to a 30-plus win team and had the best postseason run of anyone in the area.
“I can’t thank Mike enough for the years he has put in developing the young men in our community and for instilling the love of baseball into each and every one of us.”
Next season, the man who always made sure his players and coaches got most of the attention, will be in the shadows making schedules and doing the detail work.
“I’ll be doing the paperwork, but I’ll still be around the ballpark,” Rooney said, grinning. “I’ll be up in the (air conditioned) press box with … Clyde. You know I have never been a fan of the big-money travel teams or the way other things have taken away from the game today.
“I’ll be there for my players and for my coaches and if one of our players deserves a scholarship, I’m going to be sure he gets it. Of all our numbers – wins, losses, championships, etc. – the number I am most proud of is that 89.7 percent getting college scholarships.
“It’s easy for the players like Tep and so many of the guys he played with. But we want any kid who has a passion and a desire to keep playing in college to have the opportunity to do it. That will always be my top priority – that, and teaching the guys to love the great game of baseball.”