By Jen Bakken
DELANO, MN Growing up in Delano with his seven siblings, Steve Eilen was like many young boys he had a blast living in a small town, and enjoyed sports.
“It was great to grow up here,” he said. “If you wanted to go somewhere, you hopped on your bike and went. There were always enough kids around to make up your own teams.”
While basketball and football were high on his list, baseball could be called his first love.
From youth ball, high school ball, Legion ball, and the Delano Athletics (As) town team, Eilen feels fortunate to have played on good teams with great coaches such as Merrill Pavlovich and the late Dick (RT) Traen.
The area ball fields became like a second home to him, and continue to be today.
After he turned 18 years old, Eilen spent three years with the Army Rangers in the Light Infantry Unit, stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state.
When he returned to Minnesota, it was right back to baseball, playing for St. Thomas College, where he graduated in 1990, and he continued to play for the As.
For 16 years, Eilen played for the Delano A’s, until he injured his shoulder at age 35.
“It was shortly thereafter that I took over coaching the A’s for Jack Lynch,” he said. “Maybe it was just by default because I was the oldest guy on the team, but I’m still here today.”
Though he lived in Brooklyn Park for many years, Delano continued to feel like home and last summer, he purchased his parents’ Delano home, where he grew up.
His father, Alphonse Eilen, passed away in 2000, and his mother, Gen Eilen, unfortunately lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in February. Seven of the Eilen children continue to live in Minnesota, and one lives in Wisconsin.
“My brother Allan is getting ordained as a priest,” he said. “We are proud of him, would have been nice to have Ma stick around for that, but we’ll have a big party for him.”
And big family gatherings do happen with the Eilen clan, especially over the Fourth of July, when the parade goes right past the family home on Elm Avenue.
By day, Eilen works as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley in Minneapolis. A normal evening for him consists of grabbing some things from work and having a quiet night with his dog, Cookie, reading the paper (and not only the sports section), or watching sports and movies.
Of course, those quiet days are rare, because during the winter months, he is part of a successful amateur basketball team in Plymouth with a group of Delano men.
Beginning as a D league team, they’ve placed second in state and are now a highly competitive A league team.
Basketball tends to run from November into April and overlaps with baseball for a month or two. “Funny thing about it is when I became the A’s coach,” he said, “I automatically became a member of the Delano Athletic Club, and that has led to other committees like the Fourth of July Committee.”
For Eilen, the summers get busy, hectic even, with all of the volunteering he does, but he’s thankful for what he has learned and the opportunity to meet good people.
“My schedule gets hectic in the summer,” he admitted. “The coach is the first one there and the last one to leave; it takes a lot of time, though I do get a lot of help. It’s a big commitment. You don’t get paid, you have to do it because you love it and I love it.”
The A’s 2009 season begins with a home game at Delano Municipal Stadium Sunday, May 3 at 2 p.m. against the Minneapolis Angels.
New to the roster this year is Stefan Snyder, a 2008 Delano High School graduate, and the team has a new web site, www.delanoathletics.org, put together by Adam Jaunich.
Eilen admits he’s had some ballplayer superstitions over the years, such as wearing the same socks or not stepping over the baseline coming off the field. “If something was working,” he said, “you don’t want to change it.”
As for predications on his team’s success this year, you won’t hear them from Eilen. He simply hopes for improvements throughout the season.
Eilen plans to continue coaching as long as he enjoys it, but this story can’t end without one of his funny baseball memories.
“So, about two years ago, while playing a game at Mound, one of the guys had to use the bathroom,” he laughed. “I won’t say his name, let’s just call him a beloved member of our team. Well, he came back from the port-a-potty with a 2-foot-long piece of toilet paper hanging out of his pants. It’s stuff like that, it makes you laugh and keeps you around.”
Why is he called ‘Cheeks?’
“I guess it started years ago they use to call me ‘Chico Esquelo’ after the Saturday Night Live character “beisbol been berry good to me,” because I was dark-complected,” Eilen said. “It just kind of morphed into ‘Cheeks’ over the years. My college teammates used to call me ‘Sarge’ because I was a sergeant in the military. I have had a few nicknames over the years.”