Russellville, Arkansas: Population, 27,920.
Los Angeles International Airport: Daily passengers, 231,665.
Wes McCrotty wasn’t just nervous heading to the West Coast from rural Arkansas to play semipro baseball in the summer of 2000, he was downright overwhelmed.
The unexpected cure? One magical smile.
And that belonged to Mike Pearl.
“It was a million-dollar smile,” said Mr. McCrotty. “He flashed that smile, and I knew I was going to be ok. Mike Pearl changed me. He impacted me.”
“I’ll never forget his smile. Such a huge heart,” added Morgan Ensberg, a former Major League Baseball all-star third baseman.
For the past 20-plus years, Mr. McCrotty and Mr. Ensberg were one of dozens of out-of-town youngsters to bring their cleats to Santa Barbara each summer to play for the hometown Foresters, not realizing their hosts — Mike and Gail Pearl — would become a second family.
“(Mike) was a second dad to me (that summer),” Mr. McCrotty added. “He had a way of making you feel like you were the most important person in the room.”
On Monday, Mr. Pearl passed away after an 18-month battle with prostate cancer. He was 76.
“It’s devastating news. He was really important to our community,” said Ryan Spilborghs, a former Foresters, UCSB and Santa Barbara High standout. “He will be sorely missed and forever honored and remembered by the Santa Barbara baseball community.”
While some live to get out of life what they want, Mr. Pearl was quite the opposite: he didn’t want the attention or accolades, he wanted to see others succeed, particularly children and young adults. He deemed his own success by the triumphs of those around him.
And combining that heart of gold with his first love, baseball, was a match made in heaven.
Raised in Coquille, Oregon, Mr. Pearl was exposed to baseball by his father, a lumber industry scout that would take him to Cheney Studs games in Tacoma, Wash. The obsession with America’s Pastime would never tire.
He went on to play second base at Oregon State University, tickled to play the same position as one of his childhood idols, former Major League Baseball player and manager, Billy Martin.
“Mike was one of those hardcore baseball guys, it’s in our blood, you don’t get rid of it,” said Bill Pintard, longtime manager of the Santa Barbara Foresters. “Mike found a beauty in baseball that not many find.”
And that beauty wasn’t doing the glamorous work that it takes to field a team in Santa Barbara each summer — the exact reason why Mr. Pearl was the first person Mr. Pintard asked to join him when he took over the franchise in the mid-1990s.
“I’m known for not being able to delegate, but not with Mike,” Mr. Pintard said. “He knew how to get things done. Mike was a standup guy.”
With a plastic toothpick hanging from his lips — he’d sleep with it as well — Mr. Pearl was many times the first person to show up on a game day and one of the last to leave. Despite his status as a board member for the organization — and eventual inductee into the team’s Hall-of-Fame in 2015 — he would play the role of usher for fans at both UCSB’s Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, as well as at their current downtown home, Pershing Park. He’d also run the concession stands, rub up baseballs and bring dozens of seniors to a game each season.
In addition, Mike was critical to the growth of the team’s Hugs for Cubs outreach program — inspired by watching Mr. Pintard’s son, Eric, and his own battle with cancer.
“There was nothing beneath Mike,” said Dave Pintard, a longtime Foresters coach and supporter. “There was nothing too small, he was all about helping the kids. He wanted to bring happiness to people, and he did.”
Mr. Pearl managed to find a way to spread his love 12 months of the year — spending more than two dozen years intermittently helping both the football and baseball programs at Bishop Diego High School.
In 1992, Mr. Pearl joined the school’s baseball staff as the junior varsity coach, allowing him to continue to tutor his son, Joey, at the game they bonded over (and eventually passed along to Joey’s three children).
By 1995, with Mr. Pearl now on the varsity staff, the team he had fostered as freshmen and sophomores won the school’s first Tri-Valley League title.
His role for the title-clinching game at Fillmore? Scorekeeper — and dad.
“He told me, ‘I got this covered. You just focus on winning,'” said Ralph Molina, the school’s varsity baseball coach at the time and longtime friend of Mr. Pearl.
“I owe that championship to Mike. His approach in believing in them and the way he coached them up, they were a special group by the time they got to me as juniors and seniors.”
Despite his commitment to athletics all over Santa Barbara, Mr. Pearl was also a successful businessman alongside his wife of 44 years, Gail.
Their romance started abroad, as they met while Ms. Pearl was on a trip with a girlfriend in Garmisch, Germany, where Mr. Pearl was residing during an extended stay in Europe after leaving the Army.
After returning to the U.S., they would marry in the living room of her parents’ house in Illinois, eventually buying a Volkswagen camper to enjoy a cross-country driving adventure. By happenstance, they stopped in Santa Barbara en route to Seattle and left impressed, thinking that it could be an eventual landing spot for their family. While the visit to Washington went on as scheduled, the allure of the Santa Barbara beaches and lifestyle was too much to ignore, returning to make the South Coast their permanent home.
Mr. Pearl owned and managed a World Oil Co. gas station in town for just under 15 years, before shifting gears to go into business with Ms. Pearl as a real-estate power duo known all over Santa Barbara.
“He helped me buy my first house,” said Chris Koeper, a former standout player for the Santa Barbara Foresters and current baseball coach at Bishop Diego. “Mike was a buddy first, it was never about business. He always wanted to help.”
As a fellow real estate professional, Dave Pintard admired the couple’s partnership.
“They were very unique: a husband and wife that can be best friends, love one another and work together,” Mr. Pintard said. “They did it for the love of helping clients fulfill dreams. It was never about money or commissions for them.”
Over the past 18 months, Mr. Pearl had to focus on his health, leaving him less time to help Mr. Molina in person — but that didn’t keep him from consistent texts and phone calls, promising to return to the dugout for the following season. While that proved to be difficult, his impact on the young athletes left a lasting impression and inspired the 2017 team to the CIF semifinals after a sluggish start to the season.
“It was customary for our teams to break a huddle with ‘Go Cardinals,'” Molina said. “But, for that team, they loved Mike so much that they made the decision to end every break with, ‘Coach Pearl!’ When we lost in the semis, the last thing we did as a team was break with ‘Coach Pearl!’ That’s the impact he had on everyone.”
Cue one of those patented Mike Pearl million-dollar smiles.
Mr. Pearl is survived by his wife, Gail; son, Joey, and his wife, Domenica, and their three children, Savina, Audrey and Micah; and brother, Matthew.
Services will be private. A public memorial will take place on Saturday, February 2 at 11 a.m. at St. Raphael’s, with a celebration of life to follow.