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Baseball more than a game for Massey family

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Baseball more than a game for Massey family

Michael Massey throws the ball to first base during Illinois’ game against Milwaukee on March 14. Massey is heading into this season as the No. 2 Big Ten MLB draft prospect.

Michael Massey throws the ball to first base during Illinois’ game against Milwaukee on March 14. Massey is heading into this season as the No. 2 Big Ten MLB draft prospect.

Michael Massey throws the ball to first base during Illinois’ game against Milwaukee on March 14. Massey is heading into this season as the No. 2 Big Ten MLB draft prospect.

Michael Massey throws the ball to first base during Illinois’ game against Milwaukee on March 14. Massey is heading into this season as the No. 2 Big Ten MLB draft prospect.

By Meghan Rest, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s well past normal practice hours on January 10, 2015, and the Bo Jackson Dome in Lockport, Illinois is almost empty.

Almost.

Within the empty belly of the dome, a lone 17-year-old kid sits propped up between a blue plastic curtain and a thin support beam. His Chicago Blackhawks ball cap is tilted down to cover his eyes so the indoor field lights don’t interrupt his sleep. All the other players have gone home. But for Illinois junior infielder Michael Massey — or “Mike” as his friends and family call him — the dome, rather the baseball field, has always been home.  

Although Massey is a Rawlings Gold Glove Winner for second base and has handfuls of Big Ten All-Team accolades, his relationship with baseball has always been simple. His .987 fielding percentage and ability to play 60 straight games without a single error has grown from an unparalleled work ethic and inherent love of the game.

His father Keith Massey played baseball at Illinois from 1983 to 1986 as an infielder under the guidance of former head coach Tom Dedin. Keith committed to Illinois during his senior year at Oak Forest High School and made his collegiate debut as a backup infielder for a team fresh off a Big Ten title. It wasn’t until his sophomore season that Keith worked his way into a starting position at second base — the same position Michael was recruited for.

Keith’s baseball background stemmed from his father and four brothers, which he passed on to Michael and his older siblings Katie and Andrew. According to Keith, baseball was a “constant” in the Massey household.

“I think early on a lot of my life consisted of baseball, baseball, baseball,” Michael said. “I always wanted to be a baseball player and my mom and dad were instrumental in getting me to look at the world in a bigger way and impacting it through baseball: winning championships and getting drafted and playing in the MLB and all that stuff.”

If the Chicago Cubs or White Sox weren’t on WGN, there was a good chance the Masseys were watching Baseball Tonight or whatever game they could catch. Michael grew up to the sound of  “Field of Dreams” and “The Perfect Game.” In fact, anything involving a little white ball with red stitches was welcomed in the family’s home in the southern suburbs of Chicago.

Michael probably went to his first baseball game when he was 3 or 4 years old, or “sometime around that age,” according to Keith. It’s hard for him to remember when Michael went to his first official game because once the youngest Massey entered a major league park for the first time, it was hard for him to stay away.

“We went to a bunch of games –– probably mostly White Sox games,” Keith said. “But after a few years of going, when Michael was five or six, when most kids that age were focused on hot dogs and candy, he was laser-focused on what was happening on the field.”

Keith remembers Michael’s interest in baseball blooming around five or six. It started with Michael’s grandmother tossing a whiffle ball to him in the backyard and led him all the way to a starting spot on a Division I baseball team.

But Michael’s success didn’t happen overnight.

He began playing competitive baseball at about six years old for the Illinois Sparks, a club team his dad was the president of for most of Michael’s playing career. From a young age, however, Michael found himself playing with boys one, two and sometimes three years older than him.

“When he was six he played in a league with seven- and eight-year-olds; when he was eight he was playing up with nine and 10-year-olds,” Keith said, “so he was always capable of playing with the older guys and that’s always been something that’s helped him develop.”

Playing with older boys helped him develop both on and off the field.

According to Dave Payton, Keith’s former Illinois teammate and former president of Illinois Sparks, Michael has always been mature for his age. His intense yet level-headed demeanor has been ever-present since Michael joined the Sparks in elementary school.

“From any standpoint, you never looked at him as the youngest in the family. He’s always very mature to talk to and wise beyond his years,” Payton said. “Probably by the time Mike was seven years old he was acting like he was about 20 years old, and sometimes he talked like he was 20 years old too, and that wasn’t always in the proper language. He was just very matter-of-fact and very competitive.”

Michael’s maturity and the unrivaled pursuit of excellence on the baseball diamond are still his two most dominant characteristics.

“We knew from day one when Michael got here that he was more mature than most freshmen I’ve seen,” assistant Illinois baseball coach Adam Christ said.  

Around the age of nine, Keith began to coach Michael and his older brother Andrew’s little league teams. Although he played a role in coaching Michael most of his childhood, Keith didn’t want to make Michael feel like he had to play baseball. But Michael not only fell in love with baseball on his own terms but succeeded on them too.

“It’s a very difficult spot to be the son or daughter of the coach because in the back of their mind, one it’s like ‘I’m the coach’s son, I can’t make a mistake’ or maybe it’s more and there’s people saying ‘if she or he wasn’t the coach’s kid he wouldn’t be in that position or he wouldn’t be playing shortstop if he weren’t Coach Massey’s son,’” Keith said.

Keith said he learned early on he didn’t need to compensate for his son-father relationship with extra discipline at practice or during games. Before Michael was even 10 years old he was putting heavy pressure on himself to succeed.

“Over time I realized that’s not fair to do to my own kids,” Keith said, “and I think it helped me to be a lot more positive with Michael and let the results be what they are, and I think the result was that he played with less pressure, and I think that really helped him flourish as a player and nobody doubted the reason he was on the team.”

Throughout junior high and high school, Michael continued to put pressure on himself. His parents jokingly call him “Captain Serious” – a reference to one of Michael’s favorite athletes Jonathan Toews.

Sean McBride, his former high school baseball coach at Brother Rice, said Michael was always looking for ways to get better. Often, that came in the form of staying hours after practice just to hit ground balls. McBride said he remembers countless texts he got from Michael asking him to come early and stay late, just so the preseason All-American could perfect his throw or get a few more swings in.

If Michael wasn’t at school, he was doing something related to baseball.

“In the basement, I used to hear a ball bouncing off the wall when he was working on fielding drills and was hitting balls off a tee at 10 o’clock at night,” Keith said. “He’s always been known on every team he’s played on as the extremely hard worker and a great teammate, but he outworks people.”

As Payton puts it, Michael “set a bar that was almost impossible for anyone to keep up with.”

Tee ball and little league may have been starting points in Michael’s life-long dream to make it to the Major Leagues, but they were also opportunities for the Masseys to flourish as a family.

Tournaments and weeknight games were always a family affair and still are. Keith, Michael and Andrew could be found in their usual spots in the dugout while Michael’s mom, Lisa Massey, and his sister sat in the stands.

Win or lose, the Masseys never dwelled on it.

“I read something a long time ago that said rather than talk about the game after the game, maybe you should say ‘boy, bet you’re hungry, what would you like to eat?’” Keith said. “So we did a lot of that after games, and if the child wants to talk about the game then let them.”

Post-game snacks and meals were as every bit a constant as baseball itself was for the Masseys. It wasn’t just an opportunity to bond with teammates and other families, but it instilled the idea that “there’s more to life than winning and losing,” according to Keith.

From a young age, Michael’s parents wanted baseball to be about more than just swinging a bat or catching a ball.

“I think in sports you learn life lessons about the value of dedication and hard work and what it takes to be a good teammate,” Keith said “How to deal with being the G.O.A.T for a day or having an error with the bases loaded and striking out… I think sports allows you to kinda have those highs and lows and all of that is battle testing you for life.”

And that mantra still rings true for Michael today. Even though the 6-foot, 190-pound junior has devoted countless hours to perfecting his technique on the field, the relationships he built through baseball are more important than any national title or championship ring.

“Those are all the things you’re going to remember later in life more than ‘hey, we beat Michigan State on a Friday in April,’” Michael said. “It means more right now, but I think in the future my dad’s helped me a lot getting an understanding and perspective that those relationships will last the longest.”

Michael’s career on the field has been virtually unscathed, with only one notable two-game slump during his junior year at Brother Rice and two injuries he endured during different off-seasons. His batting average hasn’t dipped below .300 since before high school.

His journey as a baseball player has been about as picture perfect as it gets. Even head Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb said, “He’s one of those athletes that only comes around a few times in your career.”

But Michael doesn’t like to talk about any of that.

To his friends, family and teammates Michael is a product of his own hard work, but to himself, he’s gotten to where he is today because of his faith, family and teammates.

“He was always a kid that was very humble,” McBride said. “He was obviously a very good high school player, but usually those guys are at times a little full of themselves because of their immaturity and their age, but he was always very mature, very humble and very involved in the helping of people.”

Giving back is another pillar of Michael’s life and something he’s become more involved in since high school. The Brothers Rice baseball team hosted an annual “Buddy Night,” benefiting people with special needs. On the Illinois baseball team, Michael’s a leader in giving back. Whether helping people during the program’s trip to Curaçao and Aruba or reading to grammar school students in the Champaign-Urbana area, helping others is as important to Michael as baseball.  

“It helps having those guys saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to go do this, do you want to tag along?’” Michael said. “I have a good opportunity with (my team), but they’ve been instrumental in just helping getting involved in the community more.”

And just like volunteer work, Michael’s faith has been an essential piece of his life outside of baseball.

According to Keith, Michael grew up going to church regularly with his mom and two siblings until he began traveling for baseball on the weekends. And while Michael and Co. may have missed out on weekly church services to play at out-of-town tournaments, faith has always been a cornerstone in Michael’s life.

At practice, Michael wears a silver chain with a silver and blue cross hanging just below his collarbones – a gift from his Nana he got years ago. According to Keith, Michael never tucks the cross into his uniform. It’s not because Michael wants to be boastful or flashy, he said, but rather to represent his unwavering faith and love for his family.

On Friday, Michael will officially begin his third season playing baseball for the Illini. And while it’s unclear whether it will be his last – Michael is the second-ranked draft prospect in the Big Ten according to D1baseball’s preseason rankings — Michael is focusing on his team and the journey to lift them towards a Big Ten championship.

It’s hard to think about Michael Massey without baseball – if you ask his friends and family, it can’t be done – but for him, baseball has always been more than a sport: it’s a lifestyle, and it’s home.

“I think baseball has led me to a lot of different paths in my life, like my faith in FCA and meeting different people on campus,” Michael said. “So it’s hard to look at it and say if I wasn’t a baseball player where I’d be because I think if my career ended today, I’d be happy with where it’s led me and who I’ve become along the way, so I’m grateful for the game in that sense. I don’t want to think about it if I don’t have to.”

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