EVERETT — Like a lot of dads, Gary Kell started coaching Little League baseball because he wanted to help with his young son’s team.
Thirty-one years later, Kell is in his final season with South Everett Little League, having announced his plans to retire from coaching.
Those who know him best say his longtime commitment to the league and to all the kids he coached has been tireless, selfless and, more than anything, remarkable.
“You figure in 30 years he’s probably coached 300 kids,” said Rick Bergman, a past league president and currently a rival coach in the league. “And he treats each one of them like they’re his own son.”
For Kell, what makes this final season even more special is that he is coaching his grandson. Jordan Hansen, the 12-year-old son of Kell’s daughter Emily, is a second baseman, third baseman, shortstop and outfielder for Kell’s team, the H&L Sports Dodgers.
The chance to coach his own grandson is, Kell said, “something I never, ever anticipated. But the relationship the two of us have is just special. We get to spend a lot of time together. He’s kind of a quiet kid, but he’ll talk and talk about baseball.”
Having started out by coaching his son, “I’ve now come full circle, coaching my grandson,” he added with a grin.
The 65-year-old Kell grew up in the Ballard area of Seattle and graduated in 1967 from Blanchet High School, where he competed in cross country, track and baseball. He has lived in south Everett for the past 35 years, and he expects to work another few years as a safety officer for the Snohomish County PUD.
It was in 1984 that Kell started coaching the T-ball team of his older son, A.J. With the exception of one year with the Everett Boys &Girls Club, he has coached Little League every season since, including a few years with Senior Little League. He coached his younger son, Ben, and on other teams in other sports he coached his three daughters, Amy, Katie and Emily.
Over the years, Kell has coached and also coached against some of the area’s top baseball talent. He recalls games against future major leaguers Brent Lillibridge and Travis Snider, and he especially remembers Snider “because he hit a home run against me,” Kell said.
Several members of the current Cascade High School baseball team, which is headed to this year’s Class 4A state tournament, played for Kell a few years ago. “And when I go to the (high school) games now, they all come up to me and hug me,” he said. “And for me that’s really exciting.
“The thing that motivates me the most,” he went on, “is that when I get a group of 12 kids at the beginning of the season, a lot of them aren’t very good because they haven’t played all year long. But then you see the improvement from the very first practice to the end of the year tournaments and it just blows me away.”
Playing to win is important, of course, but Kell emphasizes other priorities, too.
“I have fun with the kids, but I also talk to them about getting their homework done before they come to practice,” he said. “I talk to them about no swearing and no fighting, and I always say a team prayer before we play. I want to be a good role model, and I think I have over the years.”
His work has not gone unnoticed. Bergman describes Kell as “a great guy who really cares about the kids. It’s just a real joy to coach with him. He’s had winning teams and he’s had losing teams, but he’s always kept a smile on his face.”
For all the fun he has, Kell sometimes has to show a sterner side. Recently he detected some bickering among his players, so he sat them down for a heartfelt lecture.
“I said, ‘You guys aren’t acting like a team. You need to start complimenting each other instead of criticizing each other.’ Then I talked about their attitudes toward other players and coaches. I talked for about 40 minutes and you could’ve heard a pin drop.”
Also this season, one of his players sassed another player’s mother, “and when I heard that’d happened to a parent, and to a lady, I was shocked, just shocked,” Kell said. “So I pulled that boy aside and said, ‘If you want to play tomorrow, you need to go apologize to her right now.’ And he did.”
But for all the enjoyment he gets out of coaching, and for all the difference he knows he makes with kids, the years are catching up.
“I’m just physically wearing down,” Kell said. “When I go home at night, I’m beat. (Coaching) takes a toll on you, and there are enough younger coaches doing a great job that I need to step aside and turn it over to somebody younger.”
Because of the great time commitment, Kell says he could never have coached for so long without the support of Linda, his wife of almost 40 years.
“She’s been the glue that’s really helped me keep all this together,” he said. “We’ve had family commitments and social events that sometimes conflict with a game … (but) she understands because she knows the passion I have for this. She’s been so supportive. A real blessing.”
Though Kell expects to help out with South Everett Little League in the future, league officials already have found a way to honor him for his years of service. There is a new perpetual trophy, the Gary Kell Award of Excellence, that will go each year to the team that wins the league’s majors championship.
Kell calls the trophy named for him “really special,” but says what he particularly cherishes are the many relationships he has enjoyed over the years.
“I’ve made so many lifetime friends through Little League,” he said. “I’ve met so many great kids and outstanding parents, and it’s just been such a positive experience in my life. It’s given me the feeling of being able to help a kid, to help a coach, to help a parent and to help the league. And for me, that’s my reward.”