Jim Collins will tell you he likes to be in control. So when he saw his 22-year-old son “holding court” with some veterans on Collins’ University High School baseball team earlier this spring, the head coach and dad in him felt uneasy.
After the meeting, he asked his second-year assistant coach, “What was that about?”
“He said, ‘I was letting them know, ‘Here’s how we do things. Here’s how we do things the right way,’ ” Collins said. “It ran the gamut, and it was stuff he learned at Normal West and at Heartland … here’s how we wear our shirts, here’s how we’re going to act, here are the things we’re not going to do.
“He was trying to say, ‘You guys need to sit down with your team and let them know, ‘Here’s how we do things the right way.’ That was Michael.”
Most of us aspire to “the right way.” Michael Collins settled for nothing less.
Even in death, which came tragically this week from a car accident at the hands of an alleged drunk driver, Collins had prearranged to do what he felt was right.
As an organ and tissue donor, he will live on in as many as 200 people, his father said. In some cases he will improve quality of life. In others he will save it.
Jim and Kelly Collins had no idea their youngest son had signed up to be a donor.
“He didn’t come to us and say, ‘Should I? Can I? What do you think?’ ” Jim Collins said. “He did it because I think in his mind he knew that was the right thing to do.
“It was a great blessing to all of us. It was that last ‘right’ thing that he could do.”
There were countless others. One led to him earning a scholarship to play baseball at Heartland Community College.
Prior to his senior year at Normal West High School, Collins was among several Bloomington-Normal players invited to a tryout camp by Atlanta Braves Midwest scout and Heartland head coach Nate Metzger.
Metzger had seen Collins play the previous spring at West and, frankly, “I wasn’t real sold initially,” he said. Collins’ performance at the tryout was solid but not spectacular. Metzger still had not seen enough to recruit him to Heartland.
“Honestly, we had all but told him no at that point,” Metzger said. “But after the camp that day he comes up to me, looks me in the eye and shakes my hand and says, ‘Hey, Coach Metz. Thanks for having me over to the tryout today.’ ”
Collins knew he wasn’t high on Metzger’s radar. Yet, when someone gives you an opportunity, the right thing is to thank them.
Metzger soon decided, “That’s the type of guy we want in our program.”
Collins was an engaging mix of fun, faith and focus. He had a wit that could break up a room and a disarming/mischievous smile.
He knew where the line was in regard to humor, and would “tiptoe up against it pretty good at times,” his father said.
One came prior to a baseball game in high school. Among his teammates was Brock Stewart, son of San Diego Padres scout Jeff Stewart.
As the Wildcats prepared to face a Chicago-area team at Illinois Wesleyan, West coach Chris Hawkins was about to deliver an intense talk in the pregame huddle.
“Michael says, ‘Hey, don’t look now, but there’s a scout in the stands,’ ” recalled Jim Collins, a West assistant at the time. “Everybody starts cracking up. He was pretty good at sensing, ‘Are we too tight?’ ”
There also was a sense of who he was, who he wanted to be. A senior exercise science major at Illinois State, Michael Collins once told his Heartland teammates his biggest fear was “that one day he wouldn’t be able to have a child that looks up to him as much as he does to his parents.”
That story was shared on Facebook this week by his former Heartland teammate, Trey Rogers of Fisher. Rogers called Collins “a natural leader with a huge heart, but also a goofball with a free-spirited demeanor to those who knew him.”
“It was a charm. He could reel you into him,” he said. “It was just a very dynamic personality … fun-loving, yet serious. He was going to have a great time and be that prankster, but he was dialed in. He knew what was what and what was important.”
As passionate as he was about baseball – Collins treasured his time as an infielder at West and later at Heartland on two NJCAA World Series teams – his faith in God was dearest to him.
He was part of every pregame prayer huddle in his two years at Heartland. The huddle later became part of U High’s pregame ritual.
His faith sustained him through some trying times in the game he loved. The low point came his sophomore year at Heartland on a bus ride home from a doubleheader in which he did not play in either game.
He called his father.
“I said, ‘Michael, play harder. Get better. Do the right thing. You’ll get another chance. You’re only halfway through the season,’ ” Jim Collins said.
He did, and after playing the “tournament of his life” in the Region 24 playoffs, hit a home run in the World Series at Enid, Okla. He also had three hits in a game there after his mother surprised him by arriving just in time to see it.
He blew her a kiss that night during pregame warmups. About 800 miles away, his father’s 2012 U High team was playing in the Class 2A state tournament.
Heartland placed third at Enid while U High won the title the next night. Father and son had talked about how cool it would be to earn championship rings on the same weekend. When it didn’t happen, Jim Collins offered to get a U High ring for his son.
“He said, ‘No, I wasn’t on your team,’ ” Jim Collins said.
About a month ago, Michael reconsidered. His father had repeatedly called him during that season to see how Heartland handled situations on and off the field. As a current U High assistant, he decided he probably had as much input in 2012 as a staff member. So yeah, he would take a ring.
Jim Collins called the manufacturer. Turns out they keep the mold for five years. He planned to place the order.
“The lesson for me is if you have a good idea, do it. Don’t wait,” he said. “It was a good idea a month ago and I wish I would have done it.
“But he got mine. He got it before he passed. As far as I’m concerned, he did get his ring.”