Standing behind the backstop last week at Recreation Park in Arlington Heights, legendary Coach Lloyd Meyer pulled no punches. He chided his young shortstop for letting his bat droop during his attempts to bunt.
"Hold it level, not down here," Meyer said firmly. "What did I tell you last year? Haven't you been working on this all spring?"
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Meyer is beginning his 61st season coaching the baseball team sponsored by Arlington Heights American Legion Post 208. Over his long career, the team has had eight state championships and a berth in the national championship game three times.
But don't expect him to start easing up on his young players.
"I get after them," says Meyer, 83. "That's what I love -- teaching the game. Usually, it's the simple things -- moving the hands, adjusting the swing, aiming for right field instead of down the middle -- that make a good hitter a little better.
"But when they succeed, that's what I love to see," he adds. "I've had some success in changing kids, and they appreciate it."
Despite his advanced age, coaching baseball isn't Meyer's main activity. The rest of the year, and even during the season, he continues to run Meyer Brothers Dairy, which his father started in 1938. His business supplying schools, restaurants, day care centers and nursing homes is smaller these days, but it's still the family business.
"I've been blessed that I can coach as long as I have," Meyer says, "and run my own business. It's been the best of both worlds."
He credits his many assistants along the way, including Bob Whisler and Tom Garms, both of Arlington Heights, and his current assistant, Dennis Drolet of Inverness, with helping to produce winning teams.
But it is Meyer that former players are rallying around this season in advance of the Arlington Heights team hosting the state championship, beginning July 29. They are working to raise money for the event, but more than that, they believe it to be a fitting tribute for Meyer, who helped shape their lives.
Arlington Heights native George Vukovich played for the Philadelphia Phillies and later the Cleveland Indians after developing his skills by playing for Meyer for two years on the Legion team and then by playing at Southern Illinois University.
"Those two years got me to the Major Leagues," Vukovich said. "I never met a coach or a man that had more passion for what he did than Lloyd Meyer, and I took that passion with me the rest of my baseball career."
Another Arlington Heights native, Jerry DeSimone, was drafted by the San Diego Padres after playing for Meyer on the Legion team and then at SIU.
"I was fortunate to play in college and then in professional baseball for six years," DeSimone says. "If it wasn't for Lloyd Meyer and his inspiration, I don't believe I would have played at the next level at all."
For 17 years after DeSimone left professional baseball, he ran a baseball academy in Las Vegas. He points to several of his former teammates also involved in coaching youth across the country, including Mike Quade, a former Cubs manager.
"Lloyd inspired us to play and coach," DeSimone says, "and thousands of kids around the country have benefited both directly -- and indirectly -- from Lloyd Meyer."
One of the first testimonials to come in was from Mark Newman, a Prospect Heights native who played for Meyer on the Legion team and then coached alongside him after graduating from SIU.
Those combined experiences led to a college coaching career, first at SIU and later as head coach at Old Dominion University before being hired by the New York Yankees. He now serves as the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations, in charge of developing young talent in the team's farm system.
Newman still credits Meyer with being his inspiration, pointing to both his passion and his ability to teach young people the game.
"I am extraordinarily grateful that 50 years ago he gave me the chance to play for him," Newman says. "What a break that was."
To read more testimonials and to see ways to donate to the state tournament, visit the team's website, at http://ahpost208statetourney.webs.com/.