The satellite dish outside Mark and Dianne Gillaspie’s west Omaha home beams in more than movies; it lets them dial up their sons’ latest swings, scoops, and slides on the baseball diamond, a scenario many people dream about but rarely experience. The couple multiplies by two the thrills and agonies of watching their children play professional ball.
Their older son, Conor, 28, has returned to the San Francisco Giants, while Casey, 23, advances through the minor league levels of the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Talk about beating the odds: According to an NCAA study, the chances of a high school player making the big leagues is one in 6,600. But then, the Gillaspie (pronounced Gillespie) family has beaten the odds before. Conor and Casey’s base path to success mirrors their father’s.
“I was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 1981, my senior year at Mississippi State,” says Mark, an All-American right fielder who taught himself to switch hit on the sandlots of Omaha. “I played ball with my friends all the time, from morning ’til night,” he recalls of his “good” childhood, when summers also meant sitting in the old Rosenblatt Stadium watching the College World Series. “My senior year we were able to make it to the CWS, winning our first game.
“I miss Rosenblatt. I think most baseball fans do,” he says.
Before Mark reported to rookie ball in Walla Walla, Washington, he became engaged to a pretty softball player studying physical therapy at MSU. He and Dianne bridged the time apart the old fashioned way.
“He wrote me a letter every single day,” says Dianne, smiling. “There were no cell phones back then.”
Mark’s letters, no doubt, filled Dianne in about his teammates drafted in the same class, names now part of baseball lore: All-Star outfielder/first baseman-turned-ESPN analyst John Kruk (Mark’s roommate), and the man who would become “Mr. Padre,” the late, great Tony Gwynn. Mark still chuckles when he remembers the first day of practice.
“We’re in our ugly Padres uniforms, hanging around the batting cage, snickering at this really large kid from Los Angeles who didn’t look like an athlete at all. Well, our first game, he hits four balls off the wall. Two weeks later, he was called up to the next level.”
In fact, within a year, Tony Gwynn would make it to the Show.
Mark reached his ceiling at Triple-A. The Padres, so rich in talent during the ’80s, never had a place for him. Accepting reality, especially since he now had Conor, Mark pursued his second interest—law enforcement.
An Omaha police officer for almost 20 years, Mark currently serves as the school resource officer at his alma mater, Central High School. He has no regrets. “I’ve met the best people in my life,” he says of his fellow officers. “These are my brothers. I would do anything for them.”
Mark and Dianne never prodded or pushed their children into a life of sports, even though the natural athletic skills of all three, including daughter Makenzie, rose to the surface early.
“Makenzie is the best athlete in the family, “ says her proud dad. “She won all-state honors in softball and soccer at Elkhorn.” She’s now a soccer coach in Kansas City.
Luckily for her brothers, she didn’t compete in baseball.
“Conor told me when he was four years old he was going to be in the big leagues,” Dianne recalls. He stayed true to his word.
Conor and Casey willingly and happily put the backyard batting cage to use when they wanted to practice their swings, with dad often throwing pitches. They played in Little League. They both went to Millard North High School and Wichita State. Each caught the eye of scouts their junior year, earning first-round draft pick honors. The similarity ends with their personalities.
At 6 feet 5 inches and 240 pounds, Casey “is our teddy bear—a big, lovable kid, real easy going,” says his mom. Adds Mark, “Somebody that big who can hit the ball out of the park from both sides of the plate attracts a lot of interest.”
Disciplined, strong-willed, and hardworking characterize Conor, who slugged his way to a big league call-up that eluded his father. He won a World Series ring in 2012 as a part-time third baseman with the Giants, only to be traded to the White Sox the next year.
“He had a good first year with the Sox, but the second year his production trailed off,” says Mark. “He’s now back with the team that drafted him.” Mark, who spent eight years in the minors, knows all too well that, “baseball is a game of failure. You’re going to screw up.”
That’s why he and Dianne don’t pay attention to what fans say or write about either son. They just call the kids on the phone and talk about “normal family stuff.” For the Gillaspies, family is what really matters.