Power of positivity: Family, friends, softball community mourn loss of Mike Milligan, who died Sunday
The hours kept passing by and Mike Milligan was still going strong.
After all, if he was going to do something, he was going to do it right.
Milligan, a feared and revered right-handed pitcher, was at an empty field in Nevada City at the time, practicing along with his catcher in preparation for the 2019 fastpitch softball season.
Milligan was nearly 50 years old at the time, but he was in his usual form — throwing hard and with relentless dedication.
While Milligan showed no signs of slowing down, his catcher was getting tired and his hand was sore.
After a few hours had passed, Milligan put his glove down, much to his catcher’s relief. That relief was short lived, though, as Milligan was simply changing out his glove because it was time to work on his left-handed pitching.
“He gave every ounce of his being to whatever he was doing,” said Russell Brackett, who spent several seasons as Milligan’s catcher. “That was just the kind of guy he was. He was always go, go, go and he never stopped, and I never saw him down or in a negative mood. He was just always this amazing person.”
Later that season Milligan would throw several scoreless innings left handed, including an inning of a no-hitter.
That was just the way Milligan was, dedicated to his craft and highly competitive, but also humble, kind and infectiously positive.
“He never went 50%,” said Justin Nicholson, Milligan’s longtime friend and catcher. “Just the ultimate teammate. His positivity rubbed off on everyone.”
Milligan gained national notoriety for his ability in the circle, but was widely beloved in the community for so much more. He was a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a highly regarded mechanic, a business owner, a mentor, a teammate and someone people could count on in a pinch.
“He brought everyone up,” said Jaysen McDaniel, a close friend of Milligan’s. “Everyone always asks about Grass Valley and Nevada City, and how there are so many great athletes, and Mike Milligan was a father figure for a lot of people on how to play the game the right way. For whoever grabbed on to those coattails and was able to hold on, he made you better.”
Milligan died Sunday in Dayton, Nevada, following a disc golf tournament. The preliminary cause of death was a blood clot in his heart, according to his family. He was 51.
Milligan, a firm belief in the power of positivity, leaves behind a legacy of love, caring and greatness.
“He really was one of a kind,” said Tammy Milligan, Mike’s wife of 30 years. “He certainly meant the world to us. He’s my hero. He was always the person you could turn to and would help you out, and not just his friends, but for everybody. He was an amazing husband and I’m super lucky to get the years I got with him. It’s going to be hard, because he was always our go to guy.”
Tammy added that Mike was a caring and protective husband as well as a terrific father.
“He was a true man. If he was carrying three bags and I was carrying one, he’d insist on taking the one I had too,” she said. “He was a great father. He would take the kids out and teach them not only how to do things but how to be a good person. To be able to handle yourself and survive.”
Mike had three children — Russell, Micheal and Ryan, all of whom he loved dearly.
“He was a great father,” said Russell Milligan, Mike’s oldest son. “He always took the time to make sure we were all happy and learning. He would help with homework and cars.”
Mike’s daughter Micheal Dunsdon added, “He was such an amazing dad. He taught me about the outdoors. When we were younger we would go camping all the time. He taught me how to golf, how to snowboard, how to play tennis, how to play basketball and, of course, how to play softball. He just really helped show me how to take full advantage of this life.”
Mike was a man of integrity and honor, and one who led by example both in his family life, professional life and on the softball diamond.
In Mike’s 30-plus years of playing softball, both slowpitch and fastpitch, he was a consummate competitor, one that claimed many championships but was also gracious when he came up short.
His softball prowess was one that turned heads and wasn’t forgotten by any batter that faced him or any teammate that played with him.
“I was going through all my old books and trophies, and they are all his trophies,” said Nicholson, who spent decades traveling the country and playing alongside Mike. “They are all his. I just rode his coattails.”
Mike played in tourneys in more than 25 states, and his name quickly became one everyone in the softball world knew.
“You can make a phone call to any league from here to New York and they will know the name Mike Milligan. There are teams in Canada that know Milligan, teams in Argentina that know Milligan’s name,” said Nicholson. “Granted he may not have gone as far as he wanted to, and he wasn’t a blow your lights out pitcher, but he was scrappy … pitched every single game and beat the catcher to every foul ball. His energy level would be noticed three ball fields away.”
For someone who never played Little League and picked up the game of softball at the age of 18, it was an unlikely career that only a person with Mike’s level of desire and dedication could attain.
Early in his softball career, Mike would throw for hours with Nicholson, until one night his relentlessness broke Nicholson’s thumb. With Nicholson unable to catch him, Mike built a cinder block wall and began to hammer it with pitch after pitch. It was on that wall he put in countless hours honing his skills. Over time, he wore a hole in it.
It was that level of dedication that made him the pitcher he was. One that was respected, feared and admired. When No. 55 (or Double Nickel) was in the circle, opposing batters knew the challenge they were up against, and it often didn’t matter.
“My first time ever catching (Milligan), I asked him about signs and pitch sequence,” recalled Walter Carson. “He responded, ‘my first pitch is down ball. My best pitch is down ball. My out pitch is down ball.’”
Batters from coast to coast know that down ball all too well.
“Mike was always happy and his smile was contagious,” said Josh Matzke. “He could turn coal into diamonds with his hands, and threw the craziest upside down thumber flick I’ve ever seen.”
Mike’s success on the diamond never went to his head. He was always quick to credit his teammates in victory, and applaud the other team in defeat.
“He was one of the most competitive people I ever met when it comes to giving everything he’s got,” said Brackett. “But, if you got him, if you hit a home run off him, he was the first guy to tell you ‘nice hit’ as you rounded second base.
“His respect for people, his respect for the game, his respect for everything, it was unheralded and I think that made him extra special.”
Mike would collect many trophies and accolades over the years, but by all accounts he wouldn’t measure himself by those, rather by the experiences he had with the people he shared the field with.
“Milli has been a very special person to me and my favorite softball player I’ve ever played with, against or watched,” said Toby Thompson, Mike’s friend and former catcher. “… It’s really hit me hard as I just can’t believe Milli, who was bigger than life, is gone.”
What made Mike special on the field wasn’t just his ability, but his attitude. His competitiveness was uplifting and never toxic.
“The one memory Mike Milligan has left with me is how much joy he would share with the world when he was in his element,” said Guy Tortorici. “(I) feel blessed to have witnessed Mike’s joy as he lived in this world.”
Despite being 51, Milligan was still at the top of his game. At the time of his death he had a 27-game win streak as a pitcher.
He was also coming into his own as a disc golfer, having won his division by seven strokes at the Duel in Dayton.
“Mike was super grateful human being that was very interested in the flight of the disc,” said Garrett Gurthie, the 2021 Disc Golf Distance Champion. “He loved coming up to me and picking my brain about how to throw the disc further. I always loved helping the guy out because he was such an amazing guy.”
A FRIEND TO ALL
In addition to his love for his family and his passion for softball, Milligan was a man of many interests and skills. He was a highly respected mechanic before opening his own business in Grass Valley, A Perfect Game. He would later purchase the 49er Fun Park and ran that for a handful of years before selling it a year ago.
He was also a man who loved the outdoors, hiking with his family, blowing glass, feeding birds, disc golf and much more. Through all his endeavors, he forged lifelong friendships.
“My most prevalent memories of Milli are him and his ’55 Chevy. That car was bad ass,” said Ben Painter, SPD owner and general manager. “In our later years I was impressed with his creative abilities in designing super slick disc golf courses. His work ethic and character are something I truly admired.”
A to Z owner Danny Wheat added, “I am one of the many people that were so fortunate to have had known such an awesome man. His fire for life lit up the ball field and dugout and whomever he was around during life and sport.”
Disc golfer Jason Herm said, “Michael Milligan may be the best human I’ve ever met. His kindness, acceptance and exuberance for life all came across as love and he showed it to every person who had the pleasure to meet him.”
Softball teammate and friend Justin Deme added, “Every time I saw Milli, he had a smile on his face. Always so welcoming and made me feel like family. He’s the kind of guy you want to raise your son to be. A truly amazing soul.”
Daryl Allen, another close friend and teammate, said, “The man was more than a friend, he was a cross between a brother and a father to me. The words of advice and dedication to whatever he was involved with made it easy for everyone that knew him to love ’Ol 55. Milli was our workhorse and a true ironman on and off the field.”
Mike’s ability to connect with people was something his family takes pride in.
“He had so many friends, everywhere we went he knew someone, and was always saying ‘hi’ to people,” recalled Micheal. “He would go to the store at like 6 a.m. so that he could go grocery shopping without having 20 conversations.
“One of the things I have reflected on and that stood out to me was that he never tried to act cool. He was always just himself. I never imagined him feeling insecure. He’s very outgoing and he fit in, everywhere.”
Russell Milligan added, “His heart was so big and so awesome that his ripple effect is never going to stop.”
EVENING OF REMEMBRANCE
The Nevada County Men’s Fastpitch Softball League has canceled the rest of its 2021 postseason, and will be hosting a fundraiser for the Milligan family instead.
The league will host an evening of remembrance at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Memorial Park in Grass Valley. A pick up game will be held at the event in Mike’s honor. There will also be a fundraising raffle, and all concessions sold at the event with benefit the Milligan family.
“(Milligan) was a true friend that would do anything for the people close to him, and a man that set a high bar for other men to achieve,” said league president Tom Allen. “He will be deeply missed and not soon forgotten.”
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, email email@example.com
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Collin Rutherford celebrated a return to his hometown on Aug. 22 by scoring a hole-in-one at the Nevada County Country Club.