Park Ridge, Niles coaching dads teach life’s lessons through fave pastime
Park Ridge Baseball coach Mike Cristiano talks with his son, Antonio, between innings during a June 2 game at Southwest Park. | Jerry Daliege~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 15, 2012 6:21AM
Mike Cristiano and Mike Passaneau grew up hitting curveballs as players with the Park Ridge Baseball organization.
Today they are still present on the ball field — only this time they’re the ones coaching the game.
While their sons attempt to hit some out of the park, the men are the ones teaching them the techniques to accomplish it, while scoring a host of other benefits in return.
“It’s a great way to spend time with my boys and their friends,” Cristiano, a Niles resident, says of coaching his sons Antonio, 14, and Nicholas, 11.
A coach for two Park Ridge Baseball teams and manager of a third, Cristiano got his start as a player in 1976 at the age of 6 years old. He played for 10 years before joining the Maine East High School baseball team and then, several years ago, got back into the game when his oldest son expressed a desire to play.
One of the best things the program has done for Cristiano and his boys is introduce them to new friends.
“I think it’s great for long-term relationship-building,” he said, adding: “I’ve made tons of lifelong friends by participating in this program and my sons have, too.”
For Passaneau, playing for Park Ridge Baseball as a child meant spending quality time with his father. Today he’s sharing that same experience with his sons David, 14, and Luke, 11.
“It was a great way back then to bond with your dad and this is a great way to bond with my sons,” the Park Ridge resident said.
Passaneau has also formed bonds with other players on the two teams he coaches, many of whom remember their coach even after they have left the program.
“We’ll go out to eat and a number of times I’ve had kids come up and say, ‘Hey, coach,’ or ‘Hey, Mr. P,’ and they’ll come over and give me a high-five,” he said.
Glenn Lombardi, another Park Ridge Baseball coach, joined the program nine years ago when his oldest son, Jack, first picked up a bat.
“Obviously everyone wants to coach their son and be involved in that process,” he said of becoming a coach. “It’s a father-son kind of thing.”
Like Cristiano and Passaneau, Lombardi agrees that the relationship he has with his sons has been strengthened through their common pastime.
“I think it’s built a tremendous bond you may not get outside of baseball,” he said. “We spend a lot of time together.”
But Park Ridge Baseball offers more than just a father-son bonding time for the men.
“Once I started (coaching) I started to love working with the other kids, helping them to become better baseball players,” Lombardi, of Park Ridge, said.
All three coaches agree that their responsibilities extend beyond teaching the techniques of hitting a double or pitching a fastball. It’s about handling failure and loss, having compassion for teammates, addressing mistakes while staying positive and working well with others, the coaches say.
“It’s teaching them life lessons through the sport of baseball,” Lombardi said.
For Passaneau, one life lesson means understanding how to win and lose “with dignity.”
“Winning isn’t everything and losing might stink for a few minutes, but it’s not the end of the world,” he tells his players. “You have to battle back from it.”
But coaching can, at times, be grueling — and it requires dedication. For example, Cristiano expects to attend between 65 and 70 games for his 14-year-old’s team this season alone while his 11-year-old’s traveling team will play about 60 games.
“We have baseball almost every night,” he said.
There are also the challenges that come from parents’ expectations, Cristiano and Lombardi say.
“A lot of parents, especially with older kids, think their kids are going to the Major Leagues, but that’s a one-in-a-million shot,” Cristiano said.
“You have to check your expectations at the door,” Lombardi added. “That’s probably the biggest challenge as a coach: the parents’ expectations and your expectations as a dad.”
Some parents also express unhappiness with the position their child has been given to play and others feel their sons haven’t been given enough opportunities at bat, said Cristiano, who believes his responsibility is to give the boys a good baseball experience while making sure the lines of communication with parents remain open.
Passaneau says the competitive nature of the game brings its own trials for the coaches.
“I think the challenge is to mix the winning with the teaching,” he said.
Still, each of the coaches remains enthusiastic about his leadership role, whether motivating the team during a Saturday morning game at Southwest Park or a night game at Hinkley.
“I think the more time a dad spends with his kids, the better the relationship is in the long run — not only with my kids, but also their friends,” Cristiano said.
“I’m happy that I get the chance to do it,” Passaneau said of coaching. “I would do anything I could to make sure that I could coach, whether it’s for my sons or even once my sons are done.
“I don’t see myself moving away from it.”