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Peter Jackel: Every day was sunny with Mallwitz

Peter Jackel: Every day was sunny with Mallwitz

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What I would give to take just one more call from Bob Mallwitz.

Each spring for more than 20 years, I used to both smile and roll my eyes in resignation when his number appeared on our caller ID at The Journal Times. The spring high school season is our busiest time of the year and, with maybe 35 calls coming in on any given afternoon, the object is to get off the phone as soon as possible to open the line for someone else.

With the gregarious Mallwitz, I always knew that wasn’t going to happen whenever he called in the results of his Racine Lutheran-Prairie baseball game. But not too deep down, I never really cared because the man was pure joy. The heck with deadlines.

Old ‘Mal’ was always worth the extra time.

Typically, he passed along a few one-liners before even getting down to business about that day’s game. Like clockwork, Bob would then shift into a melancholic mood and lament that he would be bawling on graduation day when his current crop of seniors received their diplomas. And if he got wind that the parent of one of his players had called The Journal Times to complain about coverage, he would report that he quickly put an end to that.

“They won’t be bothering you anymore,” he said.

I’ll bet I took at least a hundred calls similar to that from Mallwitz over the 21 years he coached.

“He always made every two-minute conversation into a 20-minute conversation,” Lutheran athletic director Jason Block said with admiration, not irritation.

Bob was physically a large man, but he was dwarfed by his larger-than-life personality. And he loved coaching kids. After calling in his final game of the season, he would inevitably tell me, “I’m already counting the days until next season!” And he meant it. There was nothing phony about this man.

But each of us is only allotted so much time on this earth and Bob’s time ran out on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 1 at the Hospice House in Pleasant Prairie. He had been in failing health since suffering a stroke in August 2018 and while his passing at the age of 68 wasn’t a surprise, it was still a stunner.

Greendale Martin Luther coach Chad Janetzke, a longtime friend of Mallwitz’s, can assure you of that. Janetzke attended Concordia College in Mequon with Nick Gasau, now a social studies teacher at Racine Lutheran, and on the afternoon of Nov. 1, Janetzke’s cell phone dinged with a text from Gasau.

“Mal died this morning.”

And then Janetzke responded with the first words that came to him.

“Oh man,” he texted back, “This hurts.”

Actually, it stings.

So many people — I was one of them — had planned to visit Mallwitz when the COVID-19 restrictions were eased. And now it’s too late.

All that’s left now are the memories which will surely withstand the test of time. Everybody’s got a ‘Mal’ story and nobody respected him more than Tom O’Connell, who coached Catholic Central to five state championships from 2004-11.

“I can’t remember what year it was, but we were playing Shoreland Lutheran and if we would have lost, Racine Lutheran would have won the (conference) championship,” O’Connell said. “He brought his whole team to Somers and they sat in the stands and watched the game.

“We beat Shoreland and I know he was disappointed, but he was the first guy out of the stands to come and shake my hand and he said, ‘Congratulations, great season,’ that kind of thing.” And he made sure his kids congratulated us, too. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

Call O’Connell a blood brother, one of the many that Mallwitz had. That was exemplified when O’Connell used to show up to scout Lutheran-Prairie games with an “L-P” cap.

“We traded caps once and he thought that was the greatest thing,” O’Connell said. “I always pulled for him. It didn’t have anything to do with the standings. His teams always played with class and with good sportsmanship and I like to think that my teams did as well.”

What mattered most to Mallwitz were his players, who he considered to be his sons. Anyone who played for Mallwitz was expected to do things right both on and off the diamond. He wouldn’t hesitate to chew them out for what he deemed as unacceptable performances, but this same man would be the first to embrace his kids after big victories.

“I coached with ‘Mal’ my first nine years at Prairie, 2007-15,” said Jason Atanasoff, who is now the school’s athletic director and boys basketball coach. “After huge wins, here you have this retired police officer who loves to yell and bark at players during practice ... but he would stop midway through speaking to the team and have to gather himself as the tears started to roll down his face as he searched for the right words to tell these young men how much they mean to him and how proud he was of them.”

Always on the lookout for those kids, Mallwitz could be hard on umpires when he felt his team was wronged. Someone I know in the profession once told me that umpires had to earn Mallwitz’s respect — that word had such enormous meaning in this man’s life — but once they did, it was usually clear sailing as far as working his games.

Janetzke recalls an altercation Mallwitz once had with an umpire that set the table for a longtime running inside joke between the two coaches.

“We had a game that was really tense and an umpire ended up ejecting one of his assistant coaches for what Bob and I thought was a pretty minimal disagreement,” Janetzke said. “Bob was vehemently defending his guys and he started saying to the umpires, ‘Every time we come up to Milwaukee! Eveeeery time!’ He just put on a little bit of a show.”

But with Mallwitz, so much eventually took on comic overtones and this was no exception. A new greeting between Mallwitz and Janetzke was born that day and it endured until health issues forced Mallwitz to step down after the 2018 season.

“From then on,” Janetzke said, “it was always, ‘Welcome to Greendale, boys!’ or, ‘Welcome to Racine, boys!’ It was like, ‘We’re going to go in there and get hosed!’ He loved to play that up. That was his favorite greeting to give us.”

But Mallwitz also had a deep respect for the officiating profession and he reached a point where his charm often prefaced any discussion with the men in blue.

“When there was an umpire he had a certain history with and he wanted to talk to them,” Block said, “he would come out of the dugout and say, ‘Blue, may I address you in a respectful manner?’ That was his way of being able to go out there and talk to them without as much animosity.”

Speaking of animosity, that could have been an issue when the baseball programs from Lutheran and Prairie were merged into a co-op program in 2002. These two schools remain longtime rivals and the seeds of resentment could have been sown with players after that merger.

Instead, Mallwitz pushed a message of teamwork and respect that took hold between his players.

“He was able to treat those kids the same to build the togetherness of the team,” Block said.

Jeff Wilson, who became an assistant to Mallwitz in 2011 and took over the program in 2018, happened to think of his predecessor on Sunday — one week after his death.

“On Sunday, we had our first offseason open gym session,” Wilson said. “All I could think of is every year when we had that first offseason session — the season would still be five or six months away — he’d show up and he’d have his list of who signed up from both schools. The season was six months away, but he was so excited because we were doing something with baseball. He just lived for this stuff.”

And as always, Mallwitz’s personality overflowed like rain into a paper cup during a downpour. During Mallwitz’s memorial service on Tuesday, a couple of LPs pitchers were joking that they would often have to warm up again by the time Mallwitz finished his greetings with coaches, umpires and fans before games.

Wilson, who says a piece of Mallwitz will be in the LP’s dugout for as long as he coaches, found himself taking on his predecessor’s verbose style during the 2019 season, when Mallwitz was trying to recover from his stroke.

The reason for that is a tribute to how beloved Mallwitz was.

“People started giving me grief because my (pre-game) conferences started turning into long ones,” Wilson said. “But the reason they were long was everyone wanted to know how Bob was.

“You know, I’d get up to home plate and both of the umpires would say, ‘Oh, how is he doing?’ Then I’d talk to the coach about him.

“All of a sudden, my coaches are looking at me and saying, ‘You’re just as bad as Mallwitz!’ “

Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You can reach Peter by calling 262-631-1703 or by emailing him at peter.jackel@journaltimes.com

Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You can reach Peter by calling 262-631-1703 or by emailing him at peter.jackel@journaltimes.com

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