116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — At the old ballgame, it’s “one, two, three strikes you’re out.”
For former City of Cedar Rapids Athletics Program Supervisor Mike O’Neill, it was his third attempt at retirement that finally stuck.
Now, he’s out.
“This is it,” O’Neill said. “There’s no going back. I’m done.”
O’Neill’s final day on the job came on May 20, ending a 44-year run of employment with the City of Cedar Rapids.
“I tell people, I’ve collected a check from (the City of Cedar Rapids) parks and rec in six separate decades,” O’Neill said. “How many people can really say that?”
O’Neill, 65, graduated from Charles City High School and came to Cedar Rapids in 1976 to attend Coe College. He began working with the City of Cedar Rapids’ Parks and Recreation Department in the spring of 1978 as a seasonal employee.
What started as a way to earn extra income became his passion.
“I came to Cedar Rapids to attend Coe and one of my fraternity brothers, Rick Blackwell, became a full-time employee with the parks and rec department,” O’Neill said. “Once the spring start (1978) came around, he approached the fraternity and asked if any of us would be interested in working as a seasonal sports official.”
O’Neill, having had previous experience as a baseball umpire and a love for the game, agreed to help Blackwell.
“I didn’t start out thinking that I’d ever work for a parks and rec department,” O’Neill said. “Just like any other 20-some-year-old, I was just looking for some spending money, some extra cash and I wanted to help a friend.”
O’Neill’s love for the game of baseball began at an early age. A diehard Minnesota Twins fan, O’Neill and a neighbor friend grew up listening to Halsey Hall and Herb Carneal call games on the radio.
“We’d sit there with our baseball cards, and as the Twins came up we’d have the batting order and in the field,” O’Neill said. “So, I learned the game of baseball listening to Twins games.”
His devotion to baseball, specifically to the Twins, carried into adulthood. O’Neill attended Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Twins and the Atlanta Braves.
“I was a fan since 1967, so since I’d been 11 years old, I’d followed the Twins religiously,” he said. “So now I’m in attendance, they won Game 7. It was phenomenal.”
For nearly 30 years after the win, O’Neill saved his game ticket. Then, at a Twinsfest event in 2019, he had the opportunity to meet Jack Morris, Minnesota’s Game 7 starting pitcher in the ’91 Series.
Morris autographed the ticket.
“I kept the ticket all those years hoping I’d have an opportunity for him to sign it,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill’s passion for the game, combined with his business acumen, proved to be an asset for the parks and rec department.
In 1980, O’Neill graduated from Coe with a business degree. He worked full-time primarily in the finance field for the majority of his professional career, while maintaining a seasonal role with the parks and rec department.
“Working in the private sector taught me the business side,” he said. “A lot of those years I was in credit and collections, so I had to talk to people and ask them to repay their debt. You learn some job skills and people skills when you do that.”
Over the years, as his supervisors (Blackwell and later Jeff Kraayenbrink) became more comfortable with his abilities, O’Neill started earning more responsibilities.
From 1978 to 2009, O’Neill worked his way up to a league administrator, to running the adult softball program as a seasonal employee, to eventually taking over as the full-time athletics program supervisor in the fall of 2009.
“My journey’s a little different, because not many would’ve stuck with it as long as I did,” O’Neill said. “I was just kind of waiting for my time, sort of like being in the minor leagues. It wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I knew that in order to get the call up, I had to be in the system.
“I believe my story gives individuals hope to always chase your dreams in some capacity. Even if it’s a few hours a week. You never know when your few hours may turn into a full-time opportunity.”
One of O’Neill’s fondest memories early in his career was watching the evolution of 12-inch slow-pitch softball in Cedar Rapids.
“In the late ‘70s, the 12-inch (slow-pitch) game started coming to our community,” he said. “So, I umpired the first 12-inch districts ever played in Cedar Rapids, and it was played at Ellis Park. Back then, teams started finding that they loved to play (slow-pitch) because you didn’t have to be a superstar. In fast-pitch, you had to have the pitcher. So, 12-inch appealed to the masses.”
O’Neill also recalled that in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Ellis Park, Diamond 1, was the hub for Cedar Rapids’ “marquee matchups” in men’s fast-pitch.
“There would be 3,000-4,000 people there watching a specific game,” O’Neill said. “Anybody that really follows softball in Cedar Rapids will tell you, people would be lined up.”
The early ‘80s also is when O’Neill recalled Cedar Rapids implementing co-ed softball.
“Another great memory is watching the co-ed game grow,” O’Neill said. “When we first brought co-ed to Cedar Rapids, it was 14-inch and 12-inch, not the 12 and 11 it is now. Before that, there were only men’s and women’s leagues.”
The silver lining for O’Neill was, even as a seasonal employee, he was earning funds for retirement through IPERS (Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System).
“Even though I wasn’t working full-time, I was accumulating quarters,” O’Neill said. “Once you accumulate quarters, then IPERS starts recognizing it. I became eligible to retire in 2020 because I had met my IPERS timeline and my Social Security would start.”
Retirement. That’s where this story takes an interesting turn.
O’Neill’s original plan was to retire in 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, just two months before the softball season was scheduled to begin.
Due to a variety of variables, O’Neill knew the person who had been hired to replace him was still too new to the program to get the softball season started through the pandemic.
So, he stayed.
And as many parks and recreation programs around the country were canceling their programs, O’Neill worked toward a solution to make adult softball happen in Cedar Rapids in 2020, for his “friends.”
“I’m very proud of this,” O’Neill said. “I lobbied and put together safe protocols that would allow adult softball to continue, because I knew so many of my friends needed that in order to get through the pandemic.
“I thought, we’re outside, we can as a softball community come up with something to make it as healthy as possible. Because I knew we needed it.”
The softball season started a little later than normal in 2020, but the community was playing ball.
“Now things are clicking,” O’Neill said. “I’m like, OK things are back on track.”
Then the derecho hit in August of 2020, causing significant damage to Cedar Rapids’ two primary baseball and softball complexes — Tait Cummins Sports Complex and Ellis Park.
Again, O’Neill found the silver lining.
“The memory I’m most proud of is how my team came together after the derecho,” he said.
There was a USSSA baseball tournament originally scheduled to be played in Cedar Rapids just 10 days after the storm.
O’Neill, along with Mount Mercy University baseball coach Jack Dahm, worked together with North Liberty’s parks director, Guy Goldsmith, and found a home for the tournament at Penn Meadows Park.
“In 10 days we went from homelessness, and we’re talking 1,000 families, we turned that into something we could focus on — watching our children play baseball,” O’Neill said.
At the same time, O’Neill also managed to get the adult softball program up and running, thanks to a close friendship with the parks and rec director in Fairfax, Joe Kell.
“We got Fairfax to buy into our adult softball program,” O’Neill said. “It was a win-win situation; he got concessions, we got to play.”
Following a hectic 2020 season, O’Neill made the decision to stay for the entirety of the 2021 season to see it through. He then set April 2022 as his new retirement date.
His retirement plans, however, were again nixed.
In March, O’Neill’s longtime apprentice took a job offer he couldn’t refuse and put in his two-week notice.
O’Neill was shaken.
“I tell people this — pandemic, I never missed a day of work — derecho, never missed a day of work,” O’Neill said. “Two days after he gave his notice, I couldn’t get out of bed. If affected me that much. I was so concerned of what was going to happen to my friends.”
O’Neill had no other choice but to stay and get the adult softball season started this year. He cared too much about his “friends” to let the program he’d help develop for decades be left entirely on a new employee’s plate.
“If I didn’t stay, adult softball wouldn’t have started this year,” O’Neill said.
Fortunately for O’Neill, many members of the adult softball community, knowing the situation, took on new responsibilities to help get the 2022 season off the ground.
“I’ve learned that the softball community is bigger than Mike,” O’Neill said. “We’ve had four new league administrators this year step up. We have umpires that typically wouldn’t umpire (step up). I put out an SOS to the softball community, and the softball community responded.”
So finally, in his third retirement attempt, O’Neill was successful. He made sure to enjoy his last few moments on the job.
“I reached out to teams, they approached me, and we shared memories,” O’Neill said. “We cried, we hugged. I actually had people ask me to take pictures with them. I was on cloud nine. My last few days were phenomenal.”
The softball community likely won’t see O’Neill at a city baseball or softball complex in 2022. He’s made a commitment to stay away from the complexes this year to allow for a fair transition of administration.
“Over the years, I’ve seen supervisors retire,” O’Neill said. “I’ve seen what happens if you come back. The teams are confused because they see you and think that you’re still the person.
“So, I made a commitment to myself after watching that, that I will stay away from any city diamonds, any city facilities for a full year.”
However, O’Neill doesn’t plan to be gone forever.
“I hope they’ll consider bringing me back as an umpire or league administrator (next year),” he said. “These are my friends. These are my families. It’s going to be hard for me not to go out there. I enjoy seeing them and I think they enjoy seeing me.”
As for O’Neill’s immediate retirement plans …
“I want to spend time with my family and visit them where they’re at,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill has two children — Stephanie, 31 and Andrew, 23. In addition, he and his wife, Cheryl, plan to visit parts of the country they haven’t seen before.
He’s also set a goal to visit 15 different Major League Baseball venues in the year of his retirement.
“One of my main objectives is to continue to the path of good health,” O’Neill said. “I’m retiring with no health restrictions, and I’m so grateful.”
O’Neill left a simple piece of advice to his successor, and the softball community as a whole.
“Treat people the way they want to be treated,” he said. “People aren’t really interested in what you know or what you’re doing, but they will always remember the way you made them feel. If you have that relationship, they want to do business with you.”