Ex-Beaver star fought ALS right to the end
Competitive fire sometimes comes in the smallest of packages.
That's the way it happened with Mickey Riley, the pint-sized former Oregon State second baseman who died Friday morning in Corvallis at 51 of complications from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
At 5-5 1/2 and 128 pounds dripping wet as a senior at OSU in 1983, Riley was dynamite in a bottle while playing for his father, Jack, who coached the Beavers for 24 seasons.
Mickey was a four-year starter as a switch-hitting second baseman, a catalyst for the 1982 and '83 OSU teams that made the NCAA Regionals.
As a junior in '82, playing with such teammates as Jim Wilson, Steve Lyons, Al Hunsinger, Bob McNair, Mike Gorman and Jeff Reece, Riley hit .374 - third-best in school history to that point. He still ranks second on OSU's career walks list.
Wilson, a member of the Oregon State Athletic Hall of Fame, played football and baseball in college and 13 years of pro baseball, including stints with the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners.
'In all that time, Mick was the best teammate I ever had,' Wilson says. 'He was a coach's son, knew the game and was a great competitor. But more than anything, he made you feel good about yourself. He oozed confidence and inspired that in the guys around him.
'He had that way about him. You couldn't ask for a better teammate.'
Wilson and Riley go back to fifth grade in Corvallis, when they both tried out to play quarterback on the local flag football team. They were basketball and baseball teammates through their junior year in high school - Riley transferred from Crescent Valley to Corvallis for his senior year - and then for three years of baseball at Oregon State.
Like his father, Jack, a terrific basketball and baseball player at Linfield, Mickey was a star in both sports.
'For a guy with no size or speed, Mick was as good as a basketball player can be,' Wilson says. 'He was ambidextrous and averaged 18 points a game as a junior at CV. Then at Corvallis, he led the team in scoring as a senior.'
At Oregon State, Wilson says, 'Mick was hands down the best second baseman in the league. Bat control, switch-hitting, throwing, catching - he wasn't overly physically gifted, but very skilled. And he had every intangible. He found a way to be an all-league player in Division-I baseball.'
Jack Riley cites his son's command of the strike zone - 'best of anyone I ever coached' - and baseball intelligence.
'He never ceased to amaze me, his focus on situations,' the elder Riley says. 'He was just like another coach on the field.'
Mick was around sports all of his life. He spent several years in Australia, playing pro and semipro baseball and basketball. He helped his father coach at OSU for awhile and coached at Linn-Benton Community College. He served a stint as athletic director at Lower Columbia CC in Longview, and - as a scratch golfer - flirted with getting a PGA teaching pro card.
Riley, Wilson and my brother, Tom, were all pals in a remarkable class of athletes that year out of the two Corvallis high schools that included Harold Reynolds, Dick Oldfield, Jim Solberg and Tim Atkinson.
Eight years older than the group, I coached most of them in youth sports and grew close to Mick over the years. We played basketball and golf together, talked about sports, our kids and life over a few adult beverages and just seemed to enjoy each other's company. I wasn't the only one, of course.
'Mick was a pretty easy guy to be around,' Wilson says.
Part of that was his dry wit. Man, did he have a knack for the funny line.
Once, we were both playing a good round of golf when, on about the seventh or eighth hole, we had triple bogeys.
'Well, Mick, we're just out here to get a little sun and exercise, anyway,' I said as we headed to the next tee.
'NOW we are,' he quipped, a twinkle in his eye.
In 2005, while living in Australia, Riley was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that weakens and eventually destroys motor neurons. Life expectancy of ALS patients is typically three to five years.
In a column I wrote in 2006, Riley admitted to 'why me?' emotions as he dealt with ALS.
'You're angry,' he said. 'Sad. Feeling sorry for yourself.'
But his four children, along with his parents, Jack and Jean, and other family members and friends made him realize 'I have a lot to live for.'
Riley did for another five years. Did it with dignity, and plenty of courage. I greatly admired the attitude and spirit he showed in fighting the disease right to the end. I marveled at the unfailing support of his parents in the most heartbreaking of situations. They were rocks.
Mick didn't have to prove to me or anybody else he was a competitor, but he did all of that and more in his final months on this planet.
A celebration of life will be held 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16, at Trysting Tree Golf Course in Corvallis. All those who knew him are invited to attend.
I'm sure there will be some great stories shared. For such a little guy, Mickey Riley was a giant of a man.