The Parallels of Life
December 7, 2017 by Emma Fernandez , Arizona State University
The Queen Creek High School baseball program is on the rise, and coach Mikel Moreno is leading the surge. But his coaching style teaches more than just baseball.
Whether playing baseball, football or fighting in the Army, Moreno has always had a passion for team sports. When coaching, he points out the parallels between competition and life.
In baseball and life in general, Moreno teaches that everything is possible if you set your mind to it and work hard enough.
A Boy and His Dream
Moreno grew up in Mesa, Arizona. He played Little League, among other sports.
“I played all sports, football, basketball, wrestling, baseball,” he said. “As you get older, you can’t play all those sports so you gravitate toward the sport that you’re best at.”
Moreno went to Mesa High School, where he gravitated toward football. As a quarterback, he played varsity football for three years.
“Football, I was pretty good at. I was one of the best players on the team,” Moreno said. “I just kind of accepted that I was going to go play college football, because I wouldn’t get any offers for baseball.”
However, baseball had always been Moreno’s passion.
“I always told myself when I was a kid, I want to play ASU baseball,” he said. “I didn’t think about any other sport.”
His love for Arizona State baseball stemmed from watching them as a kid.
“Growing up, I always went to ASU baseball games,” Moreno said. “I grew up watching Barry Bonds, Oddibe McDowell, Mike Kelly. Great players and a great team.”However, Moreno never saw his ASU dream as possible until his senior year of high school.
“I was an OK high school baseball player until my senior year (in 1994),” Moreno said. “My senior year, I had a really good year. And I was fortunate enough that JP came and saw me play.”
John “JP” Pierson was ASU’s assistant baseball coach in charge of hitting when Moreno played.
“I loved Mikel from the get-go when I recruited him,” Pierson said. “His switch was always on. He played hard, with passion, all the time.”
From that moment on, all that mattered to Moreno was playing ASU baseball.
“JP saw something in me and thought I could be a good player for ASU,” he said. “That was it. As soon as Coach Brock offered me a scholarship, it didn’t matter that it was a small scholarship, I was going to go make it happen, no matter what.”
At the time, playing baseball for ASU seemed like a dream come true.
“I was the first person in my family to go to college so it wasn’t like I had all these options or these big dreams,” Moreno said. “I just wanted to play baseball at ASU.”
A Rough Start to College Ball
But the dream would be a lot more work than even Moreno could have anticipated.
“Freshman year I was totally overwhelmed, overmatched,” Moreno said. “Worst player on the team probably, and that’s not an exaggeration. I was a football player trying to play baseball.”
Growing up playing so many sports made Moreno a great athlete, but he didn’t have the baseball experience that most of the other guys on the team had.
“I had not played year-round baseball,” Moreno said. “I had not had tutoring or lessons or gone to camps. In high school, I played the outfield with a first base-man’s glove.”
While Moreno called himself “the worst player on the team,” to Pierson, it was only freshman jitters.
“From a coaching side, I saw his potential and I knew he was going to be fine,” he said. “I knew he’d make the transition like most young players with talent do.”
Still, Moreno had a lot of work to do to impress coach Pat Murphy, who had replaced Brock after Brock died at the end of the 1994 season.
“When Mikel showed up, Murphy didn’t really know much about him,” Pierson said. “Mikel did not perform really well, what he was capable of doing, in the fall.”
“I was so overwhelmed, it was eye-opening,” Moreno said. “But JP believed in me … None of the other coaches on the team believed in me.”
Pierson said: “(Coach Murphy) was going to pull his scholarship and I said don’t do that because he’ll leave. I said that Mikel is going to be the heart of this team, and he was from then on, once he established himself.”
Moreno established himself by working hard.
“I would get to the field before everybody, and I left after everybody,” Moreno said. “Every day was just working hard and trying to get better at something.”
For Moreno, the turning point was winter break.
“We had about five weeks off from baseball, no classes, no nothing,” Moreno said. “I went to my high school and I did the drills that JP told me to do for four to five hours a day. When we came back from that winter break, I was the best outfielder.”
Despite the winter improvements, Moreno still had a lot of work to do.
“I had put myself in such a bad hole … as a coach you have your doubts,” Moreno said. “These other kids were playing good in the fall, and they were playing good in the spring. Since I had dug such a deep hole for myself, I didn’t play until probably the last 10 games of the year.”
Despite the hard year, Moreno proved to the coaching staff that he deserved to be there and ensured in himself that he had a spot on the team.
“I knew I was one of the best outfielders,” Moreno said. “They were never going to bring in three outfielders better than me. They might bring in two, but there’s still three positions in the outfield. I was always going to be one of the top three.”
Perseverance Pays Off
Including his disappointing first year, Moreno played baseball at ASU for four years.
Despite being an All-American his sophomore year, ASU failed to make playoffs in Moreno’s first two years.
“It was really disappointing to me,” he said. “I had a really good (sophomore) year, and I was happy on an individual level, but you’re at ASU, you expect to go to the (College) World Series and we didn’t even get to the regionals.”
Things started looking up in Moreno’s junior season. Despite a slew of injuries, Moreno was named first team, all-region. The team got as close as one out away from the College World Series that year.
In Moreno’s senior year he found consistency and the team found success through unity.
“Senior year was a really steady year,” Moreno said. “I was really consistent throughout the year. We had some really good guys on that team that I still talk to. It was an awesome experience.”
That year, ASU baseball made it to the College World Series. They lost 21-14 in the final to the USC Trojans.
“Playing for the national championship was the highlight of my career at ASU,” Moreno said. “It was almost a dream come true.”
A Coaching Career Begins
After his four seasons at ASU, Moreno played pro ball in the Chicago Cubs organization for two years.
“I could have played longer, but my temper got the best of me,” Moreno said.
After pro ball, Moreno went back to ASU as a graduate assistant coach.
After two more years at ASU, Moreno took an assistant coaching job at Central Arizona College where the Vaqueros won a national championship.
Later on, he became an assistant coach at the University of New Orleans. He taught and coached at Florence High School before going back to ASU as a player development coach.
“I wanted to be a coach,” he said. “I was just following every coaching job and trying to get closer to being a head coach.”
Ballplayer Turned Soldier
After pursuing various coaching jobs, Moreno decided to enlist in the Army.
“I didn’t really have a drawn-out plan of how my life was going to go,” Moreno said. “But I knew I wanted to be a coach, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and I knew I wanted to be in the army. I wanted to be a soldier.”
Moreno said he had always wanted to be a soldier, but didn’t know when it would happen.
“We were in a time of war,” Moreno said. “This was my generation’s Vietnam, and there I was sitting at home.”
Moreno was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012-2013 as a soldier in the U.S. Army.
Moreno said that playing organized sports growing up prepared him for the Army.
“The army is a lot like football; there’s a lot of screaming and yelling,” he said. “I didn’t mind it because I was used to people yelling at me and was able to perform under stress.”
Moreno noticed that most of the people who were successful in the Army also grew up playing organized sports.
“The Army is structured very well,” he said. “All you need to do is do your job, and you’ll be successful. They’ll teach you everything else. But you have to be on-time and be where you’re supposed to be and be physically fit. … In sports, you need to be physically fit and you need to show up every day.”
Sports also taught Moreno how to deal with people who didn’t necessarily like.
“I didn’t like all of my coaches, but I wanted to play so I had to do what they want me to do,” Moreno said. “In the army, I had a lot of superiors I didn’t like. I had to learn how to work with that person and do my job.”
Coming to Queen Creek
After the army, Moreno found his way back to coaching. He coached and taught at San Tan Foothills High School for a while before the job at Queen Creek opened up.
Moreno was skeptical, but his best friend, Andrew Ramirez, convinced him to apply.
“I was just looking for somebody really enthusiastic, and he definitely fit the bill for that,” Paul Reynolds, Queen Creek High School’s athletic director, said.
Moreno interviewed for the job in the summer of 2015. He was deployed to Kosovo as a member of the National Guard in November.
“My best friend was my assistant (Ramirez), and he took over for that year that I was gone,” Moreno said.
Ramirez said, “It was kind of tough when the head guy’s not there and you’re trying to teach what he wants and you want everybody to learn.”
As a coach, Moreno brings the same intensity he brought when he was playing.
“His love for the game and his passion for the game rubs off on the kids,” Reynolds said. “Everyone knows that when you’re getting on that baseball field, it’s time to go to work.”
Pierson, who volunteers at Queen Creek in his time off from coaching professional baseball, has had the opportunity to see Moreno as a player and a coach.
“They’re very similar,” Pierson said. “When he was a player he was all out, all the time. There was no in between. And he coaches the same way. It’s all out. There’s no in between. It’s either all go or no-go.”
Ramirez has known Moreno off and on the field for more than 15 years.
“That’s the thing, they’re both really the same,” he said. “His personality and his coaching are the same: they’re both intense. It’s not like you’re going to get something different on the field than if he walked in the door right now. …You’re going to get the same intensity you get on the field.”
It’s an intensity that Pierson says some people can’t handle.
“What I like about him is he sets the bar high for everybody, makes demands and pushes people,” Pierson said. “He doesn’t give in. Some people can’t handle that, they want to take the easy road and (Moreno) knows it doesn’t work that way.”
Ramirez sees himself as a calm balance to Moreno’s intensity.
“While you’re there at practice with Mikel, give 110 percent. And that’s why we fit in so good together. I’m the soft guy on the bench. When he’s yelling at them, I have to say, ‘This is why he’s yelling at you.’”
As for Moreno, he’s living a dream-come-true as a coach.
“I really enjoy being here at Queen Creek and the number one reason is Paul,” Moreno said. “He gets it and he allows me to coach the way I want to coach. I enjoy coaching. I enjoy every single day going out there and watching these guys get better.”
More Than Just Baseball
This will be Moreno and Ramirez’s third year at Queen Creek, and they’ve already had a little success.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Moreno said. “You have to perform every single day to play. And you have to get better every single day or your competition is going to pass you by.”
But the short-term results aren’t too important to Moreno and Ramirez as coaches.
“We want our kids to be good citizens,” Ramirez said. “We don’t want them to get in any trouble, we want them to have good grades, be respectful at home, everything. (Moreno) really ties that in as a big part of being successful in baseball.”
“Not all of them are Divison-I prospects, but they can be good high school players,” Moreno said. “A lot of times that’s the end of the line for them baseball-wise, but they can take the lessons learned and apply it to other areas of their lives and be successful.”
Lessons learned: what Moreno believes sports used to be about.
“Sports used to be a place where you would learn all those things,” Moreno said. “You would learn teamwork, hard work, dedication, commitment, and to be humble. Today, there’s no semblance of reality; everybody is a star.”
Leaving a Legacy
Moreno uses his experiences to teach young students to be good baseball players and even better people.
“If you can sit there and say I honesty put everything I had into it, then you’re going to be successful,” he said. “Regardless of results, you’re going to be successful.”
Besides coaching at Queen Creek, Moreno is now in the Army Reserves.
“Each year I learn more about myself and about life,” he said. “I have great memories from high school, great memories from college. I have great memories from pro-baseball. I try to live for each day. I’m living a very blessed life.”