Clairemont Hilltoppers Coach Mike Van Cleave Receives First National Chevy Cares Award

10-year-old Clairemont Hilltoppers Little Leaguer, Mike Van Cleave (1969)

To quote the great Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.”

This is an endearing story about a little boy who never left the ballparks of his youth.

Clairemont Hilltoppers Little League information officer Ken Cicalo explained the “Chevy Cares” award.

“Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet has been a league sponsor for about ten years. Early this fall, I was contacted by someone with Chevrolet and asked to nominate a coach who goes above and beyond for an award. I had to do it in one paragraph.”

Cicalo submitted the following statement describing longtime Hilltoppers coach Mike Van Cleave.

“Mike has been involved at Clairemont Hilltoppers Little League for 50 years. He began by playing Little League at 8-years-old, and just never left, transitioning into a coach, umpire and board member. Mike has been involved in absolutely every aspect of our league, and has coached hundreds and hundreds of Clairemont kids over the past 45 years, including many children of parents who he had also coached when they were kids. In addition to his coaching, Mike is in charge of uniforms and equipment, mows and maintains our fields, attends board meetings, works on schedules, participates in our fundraisers, and is just a constant presence at our ballfields virtually year round. It would be hard to imagine a more dedicated volunteer to any Little League program.”

Board member, Troy Keltner, was the only other person who knew about the nomination. “I didn’t really share it, because I wanted to keep the focus on Mike and not the nomination or the process,” Ken said.

“In early October, a woman from Chevrolet called to advise that Mike was selected as one of five finalists for the national award. Mike would hear from her early the next week if he’d been selected.”

Ken continued. “When I didn’t hear by Wednesday, I figured someone else had been selected. Then she called and it turned out that she had been trying to reach Mike, but he didn’t return her calls. He didn’t know what they were about. I told him it was very important that he call the woman from Chevrolet. That is how he learned he’d been selected to receive the first ever Chevy Cares Award for a Little League coach.”

Mike was blown away. He was told to bring three friends to watch Game 2 of the 2018 World Series in Boston.

“I wanted to share this experience with Bill (Salonius, longtime league president), Ken and my brother, Les, because they deserve as much credit as me for giving back to the Hilltoppers Little League. The four of us have totaled over 100 years with the Clairemont Hilltoppers,” Mike proudly stated. “No other youth volunteer program in America can say that.”

When they arrived in Boston, they appreciated warm Chevy World Series jackets to wear. After all, the Hilltoppers are San Diego boys. It got down to 41º in Beantown during Game 2.

2018 World Series, Red Sox-Dodgers, Game 2: Les Van Cleave, Bob Geren, Mike Van Cleave, Bill Salonius (Ken Cicalo photo)

Prior to the game, Les was able to get a message to the Dodgers dugout and bench coach Bob Geren, who didn’t realize the Hilltoppers were in the house. Green and the Van Cleave brothers had been classmates at Clairemont High School during the late 1970s. They visited before the game and all agreed that legendary Chieftains coach Ernie Beck was their hero.

At game time, their seats were in deep left field along the “Fisk Foul Line” beside the foul post and the Green Monster. A Chevrolet official admonished them to pay close attention to the scoreboard in the middle of the sixth inning. Mike was shown on national TV receiving the first Chevy Cares award during the on-field, pre-game ceremony.

They all laughed when Mike was told to look at the scoreboard at a picture of himself as a ten-year-old Clairemont Hilltoppers Little Leaguer and a current picture as a coach. Embarrassed, he playfully reacted by punching Chevrolet executive Steve Haener in the shoulder.

Then Steve told him to look back again at a shiny, white 2018 Chevrolet Traverse parked along the outfield wall. It would be his new car. Mike lost it and started to cry.

Back home in Sunny San Diego: Les Van Cleave, Ken Cicalo, Bill Salonius; (front) Mike Van Cleave holding Chevy award (Bill Swank photo)

In “A League of Their Own,” Tom Hanks was wrong. There is crying in baseball. For a 59-year-old man who has devoted his life to kids and baseball and then received a national award he didn’t even know existed, crying is understandable.

Since returning to San Diego, he said, “I can’t go to Vons without somebody saying, ‘Congratulations, Mike,’ or, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV.'”

How does such a legacy happen?

After his playing days, Mike continued to hang out at the fields next to Cadman Elementary School. As a teenager, the league paid him $5.00 a week to mow the grass. He cherishes his CHS “Calumet” yearbook with a note from Mike Winters. It reads, “To Mike. You’re the best groundskeeper the Clairemont Hilltoppers have and I’m the best umpire. Mike.”

Mike Winters has been a major league umpire since 1988. Mike Van Cleave is still mowing the grass.

At a fundraiser a few years ago, Ken asked Mike to autograph a baseball for auction. Mike thought it was a foolish idea, but the beer was flowing. The opening bid was $5.00, then $10.00 and the ball eventually sold for 75 bucks. When Mike returned from Boston with his award, the man who purchased the ball said, “The value just went up.”

Mike and Ken tried to determine how much time Mike now spends with the Hilltoppers. They estimate 35 hours a week during the season and ten hours in the off-season.

Ken marvels at Mike’s even temperament with his players, but, as a young coach, he often had the butterflies.

“It’s true about me and the bathroom before every playoff game,” Mike admitted. “Now I tell my parents to enjoy this time with your kids and soak it in because it goes way too fast.

He keeps the game simple and fun for the kids.

“I’ve had the same signals for 40 years” Mike confessed. “I’ve always told my players about my k-i-s-s signals… keep it simple, stupid. Now I leave out the word ‘stupid.'”

His peers tease him, because he stays with the 12-year-old division. They claim it’s because the older kids are all taller than him.

“Look at that picture of him as a Little Leaguer,” laughs Bill Salonius. “He’s the same height he is now.”

You can’t be thin-skinned and stay around baseball.

Everybody loves this humble, selfless man who has given so much to the kids in our community.

Chevrolet loves him, too, because Mike Van Cleave… cares.

And now, Mike Van Cleave will be tooling around Clairemont in a brand new Chevy.