At first, Charlie Christner thought it was a case of heartburn.
It was Jan. 12. He had taught social studies at Scranton Middle School for five hours and now was beginning his prep hour by preparing for his other job as baseball coach at Brighton High School.
“I was actually … in my last hour (of) the day, and just started having heartburn,” he said.
So he made a quick trip to a nearby store to get an over-the-counter heartburn remedy.
“I wanted something to help me before I went to (offseason) hitting,” he recalled.
But the feeling didn’t go away, and about 4 p.m. Christner told his coaches he wasn’t feeling well and was going home.
He didn’t get there.
“I made it about a mile down the road and had to pull over and just started throwing up,” he said. “(I) felt better and started back down the road and stopped, (and) just started throwing up again, and I said ‘I’ve got to get to the hospital.’”
He called his wife, Jackie, who was at home working, and she rushed to the hospital.
Once he was admitted, Christner was diagnosed with pancreatitis.
Waiting out a serious situation
The pancreas is a gland located under the stomach which secretes hormones, including insulin, to aid in digestion.
In Charlie’s case, gallstones had blocked the ducts connecting his pancreas to his small intestine. This, in turn, was leading to part of the tissue in his pancreas beginning to die.
Over the next several weeks, the Christners made several trips to the hospital while he dealt with pain and a gradual buildup of fluid due to a cyst that had formed around the inflammation in his pancreas. The cyst made him feel full all of the time and made it difficult to eat or drink.
The pain medication affected him, too.
“It messed up his thought process a little,” Jackie said. “Some days he didn't know what day it was or, you know, he doesn't remember those days.”
Although the diagnosis was fairly swift — the Christners knew from the beginning what was wrong and what needed to be done — surgery was delayed for nearly two months to let the inflammation in his pancreas go down.
But it was still a serious situation.
“It’s a most sobering experience to have a surgeon come out and tell you your son is very sick and it’s a very serious situation and has a 70 percent chance of survival,” said Dan Christner, who coaches with his son after a long career as a basketball coach at Brighton. “I’ve seen enough missed free throws to know that if you make 70 percent of your free throws, that means 30 percent aren’t going in. It gives you pause, and (you) say let’s make sure we’re a part of that 70 percent.”
The delay was to help increase those odds.
“They didn't want to do surgery (right away) because of all the inflammation and everything that's going on inside your body,“ Charlie said. “If you have to do it soon, then you end up being in a position where the odds of surviving are less if we have to do emergency surgery. So they delayed it.”
Charlie and Jackie made several trips to and from the hospital during the six weeks after the initial diagnosis.
When he felt up to it, Charlie was working on lesson plans along with administrative tasks while his coaches ran offseason workouts.
“He really wanted to make sure things were coordinated,” Jackie said. “And you know, that's Charlie to a T. He wants to make sure that everything runs smoothly and in that, you know, he's informed of any decisions or changes or things that are happening with the team.”
A veteran coaching staff, led by former Pinckney baseball coach Matt Evans, stepped into the breach.
“I think the big thing on our part was making sure that it was business as usual,” Evans said. “We weren’t going to let Charlie not being there through the winter be an excuse for why we performed or didn’t perform. He’s been a stable force and head of the program for a number of years now. We knew what we needed to do, and so it was about executing a plan that's pretty familiar to us.”
Christner went to a few offseason workouts, watching from a chair.
“(Jackie) would drive me up to hitting and I'd sit in there and watch the guys for as long as I could, 30 minutes or an hour, just to give me something to do," Charlie said. “Otherwise it was, you know, a lot of daytime TV and naps. I did do some stuff with baseball during that time, even if it was just to go watch hitting for an hour and talk to the coaches on how kids are doing. ... It gave me definitely something to do and something to look forward to.”
In the meantime, the Christners were flooded with cards, texts and phone calls of support, prompting Jackie to post regular updates on her Facebook page to lighten that load.
Their families were supportive, as was the community.
“Everybody was so gracious and heartwarming and opened their arms to us and said, ‘anything you need,’” Jackie said. “There's nothing that we really needed that the community could help us with too much because we were just stuck in a hospital, just kind of sitting there waiting for medicines, waiting for diagnosis, waiting for the doctor to progress the treatment, etc. And that was kind of what we needed.”
“I’m proud of the way that everybody came together and did what had to be done, and how excited people were to see him," Evans said. “That speaks to the time that Charlie’s put into this program over the last however many years as a coach, Any time you’re a coach, you look for those moments you can point to as having a positive impact on kids and the baseball community and all those things, and I would say the willingness of everyone to pitch in is a testament to how much he’s appreciated as part of the Brighton baseball community.”
On the way back
Surgery was March 3. Christner’s gallbladder was removed, along with the dead tissue on his pancreas. A pair of cysts were drained, and he went home a few days later.
Christner, always slender in physique, had lost 40 pounds – 10 of which liquid that had been building up in the cysts.
But, albeit from a chair, he was at tryouts March 15.
His voice was weak at first, but he made his presence known.
“When he was back at tryouts, those first couple times, he would cut loose and let out a yell,” Evans said. “And it was ‘OK, Charlie’s back, and he’s in it,’ and that made everyone feel good. Same old Charlie. He’s locked in. Same old competitor.”
A frustrated competitor, at one point, irritated because fungos weren’t being hit by his coaches in the manner he prefers. But he coached from third base, albeit from his normal spot a step or two from the dugout.
He progressed from liquids to solid food (his first solid food was pizza), and returned to the classroom April 12, three months to the day his medical odyssey began.
After an 8-8 start, the Bulldogs won District and Regional titles before falling in a Division 1 Quarterfinal.
The healing continues, but things are back on schedule for Christner, who turned 40 on Saturday.
He’s not outwardly emotional. He appreciates the love and support he and his family have received, but also wishes he could have accomplished more for his team during the time he was critically ill.
Jackie Christner is not as reserved.
“I just thank God every day that he is healthy,” said Jackie, who married Charlie in 2019. “And yes, our bond has strengthened. I think everything for us just knowing that we need each other and we need people in our lives as everybody does. But especially to know that we had each other and he had me. He often said, ‘I don't know what I would do if you weren't here. I don't know what I would do. If I hadn't met you, this would be 10 times harder to go through if you weren't here.’"
PHOTOS (Top) Brighton varsity baseball coach Charlie Christner, fifth from right, addresses his team. (Middle) Charlie and wife Jackie Christner enjoy a moment on the lakeshore. (Photos courtesy of Jackie Christner.)
If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.
For starters, the Grand Rapids Christian coach credits the superior coaching he had as a youngster, especially for helping him make the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team in 1988.
From there, Gates points to the experience gained as a former Big 10 Baseball Player of the Year, a seven-year major league playing career that saw him rubbing shoulders with such notables as Hall-of-Famer Tony LaRussa and Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, and then landing at a high school where the critical support he received from players, community and administration was priceless.
Put it all together and that, at least in part, explains Gates becoming the first Grand Rapids-area baseball coach with three state titles on his resume.
The Eagles' 2-1 win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in the June 17 Division 2 Final marked Gates' third title as a coach. His Grand Rapids Christian clubs had previously won back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Gates passed former Grandville Calvin Christian coach Jay Milkamp as the Grand Rapids-area coach with the most state titles. Milkamp won in 1994 (Class C) and 1996 (Class B).
Gates, a member of three Halls of Fame, is quick to deflect the credit for three championships and two other championship game appearances. What he treasures most is being mentioned in the same breath as other legendary west-side coaches such as Jenison's Gary Cook, Ron Engels of Wyoming Park, Hudsonville's Dave Van Nord, East Grand Rapids' Chris LaMange, formerly Rockford and now Ada Forest Hills Eastern's Ian Hearn and Milkamp, most of whom Gates either played against while an all-stater at Grandville or through coaching at Grand Rapids Christian.
"I'm just a small piece of what has transpired in 11 years," he said. "Just to be mentioned with them and their success is an honor. (Three titles) is not an individual thing, but because of many people and what they can do working day in and day out together.
"I've always said the west side doesn't get the recognition it should in baseball. There are some great coaches here with great baseball talent, and I think you see that in the postseason."
If basketball can spawn what is affectionately known as "gym rats," then Gates is surely a classic example of the diamond's version of someone who has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. He was a two-time all-stater at Grandville who went on to a standout career at the University of Minnesota that included a lifetime .387 batting average. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1991 and consensus All-American. Gates played internationally with USA Baseball on the 18U team in 1988 and then the collegiate national team in 1989 and 1990. Over those two seasons on the collegiate team he appeared in 68 games, hitting a combined .363 with 49 runs scored and 54 RBIs.
He was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round (26th overall) of the 1991 draft and went on to hit .264 in 685 major league games over seven seasons.
Upon his retirement, Gates founded the Frozen Ropes training facility in Grand Rapids, worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, became the West Michigan Whitecaps' second-ever manager in 2001, coached Byron Center for two years and has compiled a remarkable 298-89 record in two coaching stints at Grand Rapids Christian.
After virtually a lifetime in baseball, Gates said his coaching success can be spread in many directions. He said it began at Grandville, was influenced by such managers as John Anderson at Minnesota and LaRussa and Kelly at the major league level, and with brushing shoulders with many of Grand Rapids' most successful coaches.
The experience led him to a coaching philosophy that includes a priority on building relationships with players, providing a full explanation of his thinking to the players, a quiet but firm coaching of fundamentals, and, above all, communication. If there is anything that Gates does not do, it's relying on the "old-school" coaching method where coaches demand excellence in no uncertain terms.
"I've taken little bits and pieces from a lot of people," said Gates, a member of the Grandville, University of Minnesota and Grand Rapids Halls of Fame. "I want players to figure out who they can be. Whether it's Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitter, Randy Johnson as a pitcher or Terry Steinbach in catching, you don't just take one person and say who can I be? If you want to compete at a high level, you need to be better than anyone you go up against.
"Part of being a good coach, and it doesn't matter if it's a 9U program or high school, is about making players understand and be able to apply what they learn. Baseball is a hard game, one of failure where if you succeed three times out of 10, you're a star. You have to get players to understand failure."
Gates said all three Grand Rapids Christian champions were marked by different strong suits. The 2012 club, for example, breezed its way to a 36-5 record, while the 2013 club finished the regular season just 12-15 but put together a torrid seven-game winning streak during the tournament. This year's team was marked by a deep pitching staff and what Gates describes as a "group of gamers."
"All of them were different, but I firmly believe that pitching and defense win championships," Gates said. "But you also have to get hot at the right time."
It's not unusual for major leaguers to completely hang up the spikes once their playing days are over. They're tired of the pressure, the frustration of fading talent and losing the battle with Father Time, and the constant travel away from family. Gates faced all that and still found himself enthralled with the idea of coaching.
"I've loved the game since I was like 4 years old. There's nothing better than smelling pine tar or the look of manicured grass. The smells and sounds of baseball, that's what I love," he said.
One of his coaching goals is to impart the love of the game to his players. And it seems the message is getting across.
"It's awesome playing for him," said first baseman/pitcher Ty Uchman, who graduated this spring. "He gets us to focus on the little things. If there is something on our minds, we know we can go to him. He's an open book. I know he'll always talk to us, and that builds trust and a bond."
Another recent grad, infielder Kyle Remington, will follow Gates' footsteps to the University of Minnesota and said one particular trait sticks out to him about his coach.
"He's very patient," Remington said. "There are all levels of players in high school, and he treats them all the same. Doesn't matter if they're struggling; he never raises his voice. He's a very comfortable and relatable coach to play for.
"He knows baseball is a game of failure so if you don't understand a drill or an adjustment to have to make, he'll talk to you in a patient way."
Gates said he suspected even when he was a major leaguer that coaching was likely in his future.
"I did, and it was an easy decision. God has a plan, and I had a feeling I would stay in the game," he said. "Baseball has given me everything. I love the game, and I know I've been blessed. I want to take what I've learned and pass it along. That's always been a part of me."
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PHOTOS (Top) Brent Gates appears on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in 1989 and makes a pitching change during this spring’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team. (Below) Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players. (National team photos courtesy of USA Baseball.)