It’s the feeling you get when you haven’t seen your loved ones for just long enough. It’s the invisible line you cross when you’re just far enough away from home. It starts in the pit of your stomach- an aching, longing, lingering sensation. For some, it’s called being homesick. For others, it’s loneliness. But it happens every once in awhile to all of us. In baseball, well, it’s just called life.
John “T-Bone” Shelby Jr. has been living ‘the life’ in Major League Baseball since he was a first-round pick in 1977. The former big-leaguer of 11 years and current Milwaukee Brewers coach could very well sing his own version of Johnny Cash’s I’ve been everywhere, having played or coached for teams in Albuquerque, Bakersfield, Baltimore, Bluefield, Butte, Charlotte, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Pawtucket, Pittsburgh, Rochester, San Antonio, Savannah and Toledo, just to name a few.
He has faced some elite competition through the years, but his challenges were not just limited to the daily grind at the ballpark; along with his wife, Trina, he’s raised a family of six children: John T. III (26), Jeremy (24), Justin (22), Tiara (19), Javon (16), and Jaren (14).
“Being in the major leagues requires a lot of sacrifice; you have to really be serious about it,” said John. “If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t have fun. You don’t want to have any regrets, because it’s going to take up a big part of your life.”
The bright lights of the big leagues can blind some people, who might think that it’s all bells and whistles in ‘The Show.’
“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of hours you spend away from family,” John added. “It’s challenging, but you have to have a good support base. I never bring my game home. It can be frustrating, you’re not always successful, there’s a lot of failure in the game. If you let it get to you, you’re not going to be successful.”
John and Trina have already reaped rewards from their diligence: eldest son John T. III was a standout at the University of Kentucky and currently plays in the Tampa Bay Rays system. Jeremy, who played at Grambling State, was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and is now pursuing a career in music as a Christian rap artist. Javon recently committed to play at the University of Kentucky.
“The biggest reward is seeing them working out their dreams,” Trina said. “Looking back at when they were little boys, pitching up balls, oranges, apples- whatever they found- and playing in the backyard fussing, they were always so passionate about baseball. Wherever it takes them, it doesn’t matter, just as long as they can touch and feel their dreams.”
Six children. Yes, amidst all the hoopla of an MLB career, the Shelby’s have also put together an impressive lineup of their own. John admits that letting his sons find their own path on the winding road of baseball “is a good thing,” but it doesn’t come easy.
“I haven’t been around my boys long enough to see what it’s like being their coach, so I don’t know what it’s like. What we do in the offseason when I work with them and talk to them, I hope and pray that it takes them through the season,” John said. “T. is 26 and I don’t know if I’ve seen him play 10 times. I maybe saw Jeremy play five times. I got to see Jaren play two years ago for the first time in the Cal Ripken World Series. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Javon play. I am thankful, though, that I get to be with my boys in the offseason, and that Trina knows what she’s talking about,” he emphasized with a smile.
Aside from being well-informed, Trina has been able to find a way to get her children to every practice, game, showcase and tournament along the way.
“I think that every human being has a destiny. Just being married to my childhood sweetheart (John T. and Trina met when they were 14) and knowing God gave me the grace to accept His destiny is great. I just knew, because of my faith, that this is what we are destined to do.”
In a world where parents are faced with the challenge of watching their children play a game of failure, how does mom do it, anyway? Trina insists that having fun is paramount.
“We don’t know where their careers are going to go, but if you allow them to have a good time and don’t be so serious you can do it. Baseball may not be their destiny, but it’s just a game. I see parents put pressure on their children and maybe it’ll work out, but they just need to relax, calm down, and just have fun.”
“We’ve never forced anything,” Trina added. “If their 100% isn’t good enough, feel good about it. Don’t labor over anxiety or failure, because there’s nothing you can do about it. The rest is left up to fate, or favor, or whatever God has planned.”
Jeremy, who just released his first album Food for the Soul, conveys the same message in the song titled Take it in:
Mama told me it was all good,
It was time to grow up, and I knew I would,
It was time to show up, and I understood,
Now I’m gonna reach the world ’cause she knew I could.
John T. III, known by many as simply ‘T.,’ recently finished his sixth season in the minors. While acknowledging that being away from family is a challenge, T. discovered that “absence truly does make the heart grow fonder. You find a different kind of love for the people you’re away from during the season.”
T. also gets a lot of confidence from his old man; “having someone that’s ‘been there, done that’ is huge. A lot of people don’t know what it takes, so to hear from someone that’s been in it- that’s still in it- is awesome.”Dad concurs: “I’ve played, I’m still coaching, I know what it’s like, and I know what they’re going through. I can relate to them and I don’t put any pressure on them, they chose baseball. Whatever they want to do, I support them. I want them to have fun. If they decide not to play sports, it’s not the end of the world.”
T. reveals that his secret to success is due, in large part, to speed dial on the cell phone.
“There’s always somebody to call, there’s always somebody there, somebody literally right around the corner, just a phone call away. We have a strong family backbone, and the separation has made us stronger, because we don’t take everything for granted.”
John says that the closeness of his family was a choice they made a long time ago.
“Trina and I have always been close. We’ve put in our hearts that we’re going to be a close family. I could always call home and talk to everybody. When I was in California, sometimes I would be up until 3:30 a.m. just to say good morning. We’re close because we choose to be close.”
Being present at occasions of all kinds is another Shelby family priority, John said. “If there’s an event, we’re showing up. We always show up, and we’re going to support each other. That’s just the way it is.”
While their intimacy and presence are no joking matters, another key component to the Shelby equation for success is.
“We laugh,” T. said with a large, infectious smile. “We have fun. We laugh at each other, we laugh with others. That’s one thing that’s always been in our family, it keeps us close. No one’s ever mad, because somebody’s going to be on you, that’s just the way it is.”
Dad agrees. “We never let our children fight. Whenever they would start, we would make them stand in the middle of the room and just hug each other, look at each other. Before you know it, everyone’s laughing.”
Some would say the Shelby family has it all. Others would consider the time they’ve spent apart and think again. It’s undeniable, though, that they deserve every ounce of the immense respect they’ve earned in the baseball community. Through the rollercoaster ride that our national pastime takes us on every spring and summer, there’s one thing that every Shelby will always have.