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A Rivalry that’s Built a Relationship

By: James Middleton | West Chester University

Cotuit, MA – Monday night featured some of the longest-tenured coaches in the Cape League, Mike Roberts and Kelly Nicholson. Roberts has managed the Kettleers since 2004, this season marking his nineteenth with the club. Nicholson is on the cape for his twenty-second season, this being his eighteenth as manager. While the two face off multiple times a season, they are really good friends off the field, with the pair taking part in offseason dinners and texts about Acai bowls in the offseason.

Mike Roberts and Kelly Nicholson

"We have a friendship that every time we communicate because we both love acai bowls. When Kelly is in California, and they're walking around trying to find acai bowls, he sends them to me," said Roberts.

Every cape league season comes to a close in the middle of August, and everyone goes their separate ways. The pair of coaches keep in touch, whether that is through visits during spring training or a facility tour that Coach Roberts gave to Nicholson when he was with the Cubs.

"We keep in touch in the offseason, and when I see Mike, we try to have a meal together. When I visited Mike when he was with the Cubs, he had my wife and me over to the Cubs facility, and it's something I'll never forget," said Nicholson.

Roberts has coached longer than Nicholson, even though they have eighteen seasons as head coaches with their respective teams, but he views the Orleans skipper as a mentor.

"I think everybody coaching has a mentor, someone they look up to, and I look up to Kelly. I'm older, but that doesn't mean I can't look up to somebody that's younger because he does things with class in every aspect of what he does," said Roberts on Nicholson.

The pair of coaches share in common the fact that they are both teachers in the offseason. Coach Nicholson just finished his fortieth year of teaching at Loyola High School. Coach Roberts teaches part-time sports management at two different colleges. Not only do they teach in the school setting, but also on the field every summer.

While talking with the coaches, they spoke about a specific day in San Diego in 2009, when the two got together for dinner in the offseason.

"I tried to figure out how to stop him from running us ragged on the bases. I had the honor and privilege of having dinner with Mike, his wife Nancy, Brian, and his fiance. So we went to dinner. That's part of our relationship; we try to break bread together whenever we can," stated Nicholson on their offseason relationship.

From San Diego, Scottsdale, and Manhattan Beach, offseason dinners are a mainstay for both coaches. They even talked about a restaurant that is now closed that they visited for their dinners.

"We would go to Fonsi's, probably three or four times in seven years. I thought I was going to drown because the water used to bang up against the windows. I felt like I was a dolphin in the water inside the restaurant,” said Roberts.

Mike Roberts and Kelly Nicholson

Coach Nicholson even made the trek down to North Carolina, where Coach Roberts coached baseball from 1997 to 1998, to watch basketball and some of the greatest coaches in sports history.

"[Nicholson] loves basketball , and he used to come to Carolina to see two of the greatest coaches, John Wooden and Dean Smith. I got to sit behind Dean Smith's bench and watch him with two minutes to go, not say a word, just sit down and smile at his players. We're both teachers, and we're constantly trying to learn from great teachers, no matter what sport they're in," said Roberts.

With both coaches spending a combined forty-two seasons on Cape Cod, the big question is why they keep returning to their respective organizations.

"So we can finally beat Kelly; that's what keeps me coming back. Both of us try to keep the cleanest dugouts, and we try to do that because we want these guys to feel what it is like to play in pro baseball, and that's the atmosphere we both are trying to create," said Roberts.

"It's the relationships; it's this interaction. People ask me all the time, what's the best part of the Cape League? It's the relationships, people I've met and made relationships with, developed really special friends like Mike Roberts, and then watching these guys play every night," said Nicholson.

The matchup in Cotuit Monday night did not go Coach Nicholson and the Firebirds way, but they will have two more chances to even the series. Even though the pair may be enemies for three hours, four times a season each summer, the relationship and friendship goes much deeper than what happens on the diamond.


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