Sunday brunch: Season to remember
UT-Tyler baseball team carries tribute all the way to a title

Dallas Morning News

June 26, 2005

His first day starting up the baseball program at UT-Tyler, James Vilade got a message to meet with a member of the faculty.

"We have one thing in common," Eddie Almand said, introducing himself. "I love baseball, and you love baseball."

And so set the foundation of a beautiful friendship.

"Eddie," Vilade said, "was a rock for me."

They might have seemed opposites. A bear of a man, Vilade grew up in New Jersey, played baseball at Baylor and coached at the University of Dallas and Oral Roberts.

Eddie was an East Texas boy. Diagnosed early with juvenile diabetes, he played baseball until his love for it no longer made up for size or talent.
Despite their differences, Eddie and Vilade hit it off right away. Probably didn't hurt that both were Yankees fans.

A psychology professor popular for his personal approach, Eddie served no official capacity with the baseball program Vilade built from scratch two years ago, but UT-Tyler had no bigger supporter.

Eddie never missed a game. Hardly a practice. His son, E.H., was even the batboy.

"Eddie thought he was Don Zimmer to James' Joe Torre," said Eddie's wife, Elaine.

How close were they? Eddie called Vilade "Brother," and soon it was a mutual term of endearment.

And the baseball? An NCAA Division III school, UT-Tyler went 24-13 in its first season. Eddie told Vilade he couldn't wait to see the players dogpile on the field, celebrating a conference title.

But Eddie's diabetes clouded any long-term goals: six surgeries to correct deteriorating vision alone, a host of other complications and a kidney and pancreas transplant.

He developed pneumonia last fall. Realizing his time was short, even at 46, he put his affairs in order.

Told his wife, Elaine, that he wanted members of UT-Tyler's baseball team to act as his pallbearers.

And he asked Vilade a favor on behalf of E.H.

"Teach him to play baseball," Eddie said, "and treat him like a brother."

Vilade was on his new baseball field last fall when a call came from Elaine: Eddie was gone, dead of a heart attack on the way out the door to his class.
Eddie taught his family and friends and students many lessons, Vilade said. His optimism, the way he carried himself. In turn, they honored his life by following his instructions to the end.

But only to a point. Only six players could serve as pallbearers, and Vilade had to make the call.

"Hardest lineup I ever had to make out," he said after a long pause.

Eddie got another wish, too. The UT-Tyler players dedicated the season to him, stitched his initials in their caps and won the East Division of the American Southwest Conference with a 30-7 record.

A "magical year," Vilade called it.

Bittersweet, too.

"I'm not sure if second-year teams are supposed to win championships," Vilade said, "and I'm not sure if 14-year-olds are supposed to lose their dads."

Still, promises are kept, especially between brothers. At E.H.'s junior high graduation, Vilade showed up with team members.

And after his team won the title, the coach drove alone to a Tyler cemetery. Pulled out a special memento from a magical season, scribbled "We did it," and placed it next to Eddie's headstone.

Game ball.




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