How late Detroit Lions OL Frank Gallagher made a bigger difference on the diamond

Detroit Free Press

Father’s Day 2021.

A day for baseball. A soft, warm, fuzzy day filled with long hugs and Hallmark cards — at least, for some families.

Not this one.

This was the day a certain father and certain son were hoping to beat the crap out of each other.

Sean Gallagher was coaching the 18u Michigan Bulls travel baseball team in a local tournament, and his father Frank Gallagher was coaching another Bulls team on the other side of the bracket.

Even though Frank, a former Detroit Lions lineman, was weak and sick, fighting cancer.

They were hoping to meet in the championship. Hoping to beat each other, hoping for family bragging rights.

“We lost in the semifinals, like 3-2 to a really freaking good Josh Birnberg team, the DBacks Elite,” Sean said.

Sean laughed and I laughed, because we both knew the backstory. Heck, we had lived it together. Years ago, Birnberg and my son Jake played travel baseball together, and we played countless games against the Bulls. Against the Gallaghers. And for the record, I hated losing to the Bulls.

A few years later, my younger son Nick ended up playing for the Bulls. For the Gallaghers.

Travel baseball, in Michigan, has a way of coming full circle.

“I was like, oh, this sucks, it would have been so cool to coach against my dad on Father’s Day,” Sean said.

Yeah, it’s a tough, competitive family.

Frank Gallagher is legendary figure in travel baseball in Michigan. He started the Bulls in 1996 as a way to coach his son. But that single team grew into a massive organization — they had almost 25 teams last summer with players ranging in age from 8 to 18. They have their own facility, the Bullpen Baseball Academy in Novi, with batting cages, pitching mounds and a workout area — not just for their teams but anyone who wants lessons or to train.

I used to go there with both my sons.

On any given day in the Bullpen, you would see little kids, teenagers and high school teams mixing with college players or pros. Frank and Sean were always around. They have coached thousands of players from across Michigan, putting hundreds into college baseball and at least 50 into pro ball.

Many knew that Frank was sick. He wasn’t hiding it.

After losing in the semifinals, Sean went to the championship game as a spectator; it turned into a blessing in disguise.

“I didn’t have to coach against him,” Sean said. “I was able to be in the dugout with him and hang out on Father’s Day. That was probably one of the last games, you know? He ended up winning the championship.”

Frank sat in a chair in the dugout and coached the same way he always did — he was a tough, old-school manager with a soft heart.

“It was freaking awesome,” Sean said.

A tragic loss

The cancer spread from Frank Gallagher’s kidneys to his brain.

He held on through Thanksgiving Day; once a Lion, always a Lion, always there on Thanksgiving, whether good or bad.

He died the next day, on Nov. 26, at the age of 78.

On Black Friday. Which was the mood of travel baseball after his passing.

Sean didn’t need to put out an obituary. Didn’t put a post on Facebook.

Because the news spread quickly, and the Gallaghers were overwhelmed by the text messages and social media posts from former players, coaches and the entire baseball community.

“It’s not your typical, ‘Hey, so sorry for your loss,” Sean said. “It’s, ‘So sorry for your loss. Here’s all the things that your dad meant to me.’

“He had a really big impact. There’s even some texts that we’ve got that say, ‘Your dad saved my life.’ It’s even like that far.”

Gallagher played both football and baseball at North Carolina and he borrowed that Carolina blue as the main team color for all of the Bulls uniforms.

He was a Tar Heel until the day he died.

Gallagher played six seasons for the Detroit Lions (1967-72) and finished with the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings; he was a starting guard for the Vikings in Super Bowl VIII.

His body was beat to heck from playing in the NFL, and he was in constant pain. But he kept coaching. Kept winning championships.

“He was a tough frickin’ son of a (gun), man,” Sean said. “But he just cared about all these kids. It was about helping give people opportunities, whether it’s making their freakin’ varsity team or going on to professional baseball.”

Frank started the Bullpen with Jeff Jones, who would become the Tigers pitching coach; Bruce Fields, a former Tiger who became the team’s hitting coach; and Kenny Howell, a former big league pitcher and pitching coach.

After playing college ball, Sean moved into the family business and worked alongside his father at the Bullpen for 16 years.

“It was awesome,” Sean said. “I’m just super thankful for that. People just don’t get to do that. You are father and son and you butt heads and you argue about crap but it was awesome. You know what I mean? I’m so lucky, so blessed.”

‘What youth baseball should be’

Anthony Tomey might have been Frank’s favorite player, not counting his own son.

“I loved Frank,” Tomey said. “Frank was the man. He was pretty much my second dad.”

Tomey was on the original Bulls team in 1996.

After playing for Frank, Tomey played at Novi Detroit Catholic Central and won the state baseball title in 1999.

He pitched at Eastern Michigan and was drafted by the Tigers in the 30th round of the 2003 draft. He spent six years in the minors, climbing as far as Triple-A.

“Frank epitomizes what youth baseball should be,” Tomey said. “He dedicated his life to baseball, to helping these kids, not to make money. It was all for the kids, for the program. I think he got so much joy out of that.”

After Tomey retired from baseball, he became a businessman, and now owns 50 Jimmy Johns sandwich shops in metro Detroit.

“The last time I saw Frank, bless his soul, I was at the Bullpen,” Tomey said. “I brought my 4-year-old son to the Bullpen, and Frank took him and he was hitting with him at 78 years old. That was just literally all he cares about, helping these kids and training these kids. And that’s a huge thing.”

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A tribute to Frank

For the last three summers,  Juan Carlos Sanchez, the baseball coach at Detroit Western, coached a team with Frank.

“Frank had a real tough exterior, real soft interior,” Sanchez said. “Just an old-school guy. I could appreciate how hard he coached him. But within the same breath, you would hear him say, ‘Hey, good job.’

“He would really coach them up and show a softer side. He was a rare bird.”

They would walk into a tournament and Frank always knew somebody — a coach or umpire or former player. Frank scouted for the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers. But his biggest love was coaching.

At the end of the season, Frank’s final Bulls team wore jerseys with the No. 68 on their backs. The number Frank wore with the Lions.

“It was a tribute to him,” Sanchez said.

A well-deserved tribute to this former Lion.

To a dad who turned a team into a massive organization.

A guy who helped get hundreds into college baseball.

A coach who impacted thousands across Michigan.

But make no mistake. Don’t get mushy about this. Don’t get sentimental or sappy. Frank wouldn’t want that.

He was one tough son of a (gun).

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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