HED:As good as it gets
By Ross W. Reily
When the promise of professional sports came to Tupelo in the form of minor league baseball and indoor soccer, a lot of three-piece suit types talked a lot about family entertainment and family values and the worth of the family in Northeast Mississippi.
No one knows more about the meaning of family than Tupelo Tornado manager Steve Dillard.
Dillard, a native of Saltillo, played professional baseball for the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox during an eight-year major league career. His best season was in 1979 when he hit .283 with five home runs for the Cubs. He was also named National League Player of the Week during that season.
He continued his professional career after hanging up the spikes, spending 13 years as a manager, coach, infield instructor and hitting instructor in the minor leagues with the White Sox, Cubs and Astros.
After the 1995 season in Rockford, Ill., with the Cubs organization, Dillard made the decision to come home.
“When that season was over, my wife (Mary Jane) said, We need to get out of this,'” Dillard said. “I had only seen my kids for eight days from March until September. That just doesn’t make for a very good family life.”
So without a job or knowing exactly what he would do, Dillard decided to leave baseball and head back to Saltillo.
“I worked with an electronics company for a few months,” he said. “I worked with vinyl siding a few months. My brother and I put in some satellite dishes.”
He even worked as a mailman for a while, never really finding anything he wanted to do other than spend time with his family and watch his kids play baseball.
And watch he did.
This past baseball season, Dillard saw the majority of Saltillo High School games where his sons, Andy (a junior) and Tim (a ninth grader) played. He also got to see son Jeff play for Dillard’s childhood friend, Roy Cresap, at Itawamba Community College as a freshman.
Then along came the Big South League and the Tupelo Tornado. Current Tupelo general manager Mike Begley and a group from the Big South came to Tupelo and Dillard approached them about coaching in his own backyard.
“I thought I would give it a shot and see how it goes,” Dillard said. “I never did really want to get out of baseball. The only reason I got out was because of the kids.
“I thought I might get back in after a few years, when they get out of the house, as a scout or something, but I knew I was home for a while,” Dillard continued. “But when this happened, where we could be home, in your hometown shoot, you can’t beat this.”
The Cubs had wanted Dillard back and he had a lot of fun with the Cubs organization and professional baseball in general. But the lure of coming back home to family was worth more than the fun of baseball.
But the lure of professional baseball and family all in one town was almost too much to fathom.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do to make a living when I came back,” Dillard said. “But this is here and we’ll see how it goes.”
And the 46-year-old has no plans for a major league coaching comeback.
“I told Mike, I want to stay right here,'” Dillard said. “I’ve been to the big leagues and I don’t even care about going back and getting a coaching job at the major league level. You stay around the minor leagues hoping you will get a major league job to get on the pension plan and to get hooked up with the licensing money.
“But I just want to stay here, work with this team the next 20 years and retire.”
All the while, Dillard will be living out a dream coaching professional baseball with Mary Jane, Jeff, Andy and Tim at his side.
That’s family entertainment.