Lee Willis on Mike Shull: ‘He would do anything for kids’

By Jerry Briggs
For The JB Replay

The McAllister Park All-Stars made history 11 years ago when they became the first San Antonio area youth baseball team to reach the Little League World Series.

Given the historical significance of the moment, it’s impossible to separate the inspiring story of the 2009 McAllister Park kids and Mike Shull, who managed them to a fourth-place finish at the iconic event in South Williamsport, Pa.

But after Shull died Friday morning, the tributes started to flow so freely, it became evident that there was much more to the man under the ball cap than a guy who knew when to bunt and when to hit away.

“I love you dad,” said his son, John Shull, in a Twitter post. “You’re at peace now. I know you will be watching over us every single day. I miss you and love you and can’t wait to see you again.”

Lee Willis confirmed in a telephone interview that his longtime friend had passed away after a nine-week battle with the Covid-19 virus. According to online baseball sources, Shull was 56.

“His heart for kids was true,” Willis said. “He would do anything for kids. Literally anything. It wasn’t an accident that those kids (on the 2009 team) were good. He was literally giving it everything he had.

“That’s who he is. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Willis said Shull was working as controller at Republic National Distributing Company.

The news of his passing broke Friday evening when his son posted it on social media, touching off a flurry of comments by the coach’s former players.

“It is impossible to not think of Mike Shull when I think about my childhood,” Jacob Ramos said. “Playing baseball for him … gave me some of my most favorite memories. Mike Shull changed my life, and I am very thankful for him.”

Nick Smisek called Shull, simply, “the greatest.”

“Everyone please say some prayers for the Shulls,” Smisek wrote. “Coach Shull was the greatest Little League coach of all time and made all of our childhoods better … The world lost a great man today.”

Mike Shull, a MacArthur graduate, played baseball in college and in the pros.

According to online records, he lettered in college at Texas Tech in 1983 and 1984 and later pitched for California Angels minor-league affiliates in 1986, ’87 and again in 1990.

Shull started coaching youth sports teams around 2003, Willis said. He said his former high school classmate coached through last fall when he led a team of players from MacArthur in a fall league.

In 2009, he painted his baseball masterpiece.

Shull did it with a group of 12- and 13-year-olds who liked to joke around, play ping pong and employ a wide variety of “secret” handshakes, according to stories archived in the San Antonio Express-News.

On the field, the McAllister kids were exceptional, rolling through the World Series all the way to a second-place finish among U.S. teams and fourth place overall.

Willis said he still remembers the late-night conversations with Shull in “The Grove,” where all the teams are housed, during the 16-team, nationally-televised tournament.

“Those evenings, late at night, were special,” he said. “I really can’t explain it. You’re not hooked up with your family. They’re all separate when you’re in The Grove. We spent every night, late at night, just talking.

“It wasn’t all about what we were going to do for the next game. A lot of time it was about our kids and where were they mentally. How were they dealing with everything. That was quite an experience for 12-year-old kids.”

Willis said his second favorite memory was clinching the regional title at Waco.

“We looked at each other like, ‘Are we really going to Williamsport?’ ” Willis recalled. “Mike’s a lot bigger than me. He’s 6-4. I’m 6-1. But he outweighs me by 150 pounds. He lifted me so high up in the air. We were in shock.”

During the late-night strategy sessions, Willis said the two talked not only about how they wanted to approach the next game, but also how they could be fair to all of their players.

“Mike wanted to win every game, but he wanted every kid to feel special,” Willis said. “I think that’s important. Some coaches just want to win every game. He wanted to make sure every kid felt some special part of it.

“They may not even contribute on the field. Then he’d have them doing the post-game interviews, whatever it may be, if they weren’t the star of the game. He was really good about that.

“He made sure they all felt very important the entire time we were there.”

Mike Shull (holding plaque) and Lee Willis (at right) celebrate at the 2014 San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame gala.