The family refrigerator bears a magnet that reads only partial truth.
“We interrupt this marriage to bring you baseball season.”
It belongs to the Carlson clan, the first family of baseball at Elk Grove High School, where the coach, his wife and their two sons are the seams that bind one of the area’s must successful programs. Jeff Carlson, in his 16th season as coach, is a no-nonsense, barrel-chested sort with arms that require no sleeves. He leads a program welded through a mix of structure, creativity and cohesion.
Carlson often peers into the stands to check on his wife, Caryn, not to see if she’s watching, but to appreciate that she’s alive. Caryn is a breast cancer survivor who for the past three years has been in a wheelchair while recovering from transverse myelitis, an inflammatory disorder that affects the spinal cord. Her good spirit provides comfort to the family, including first baseman Dylan, a junior, and freshman Tanner, elevated to varsity for this playoff run.
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Fresh off the program’s eighth Sac-Joaquin Section Division I North title since 2002 under coach Carlson, the Thundering Herd zeroes in on its sixth overall section title in that span. Elk Grove faces St. Mary’s of Stockton in a best-of-three series that starts Friday at Sacramento City College.
And the rallying call, again, is Caryn.
“Caryn’s our rock, and that’s our theme here every year – rock,” Carlson said. “She’s my hero, my strength, and she inspires us all.”
And she provides comedy. About that refrigerator magnet, Caryn said, “It’s kind of true, but baseball is great for us. Jeff and I aren’t sitting hand-and-hand during games. I’m just far away to second-guess him.”
On Dylan’s walk-off hit that beat Vacaville in the D-I North playoffs, Caryn said, “That’s my son there. The Dylan who had an error earlier? That’s coach Carlson’s son.”
In the North finals win over Granite Bay, Dylan struck out five in the final two innings. He later pushed his mother in a wheelchair back to the truck in the parking lot. Carlson, known for getting thrown out of his share of games for needling umpires, has not come close to getting tossed since mid-Februrary thanks to a plan hatched by Caryn. Her husband of 15 years was not to draw the ire of umpires until Easter.
“What do you give up for Lent?” Caryn said. “Well, I didn’t want to take away beer or the TV remote, because then you have a grumpy husband, and who wants that? So this works great. I think the umpires are still baffled.”
Growing up baseball
Jeff Carlson got the itch from his father, Jim, a fixture in the 1970s and ’80s with Parkway Little League in South Sacramento. He died in 1995 from cancer, denying him a chance to meet Caryn or the boys.
“My dad ... I think about him all the time,” coach Carlson said. “I think he’d be proud of me and the boys. I feel it. He used to manicure the Little League fields we played on because he wanted the players to feel special. Great man.”
Carlson said his father was appreciated for his field maintenance.
“The nuns (at nearby Saint Charles Borromeo) would take him a beer while he mowed, and he wasn’t even Catholic,” Carlson recalled. “True story. They had his Olympia beer on ice for him.”
Carlson was an All-Metro linebacker for Christian Brothers and an All-Metro third baseman for the baseball team in the mid-1980s. As a coach, Carlson always found a way to blend sports with family, his sons either playing on his teams or watching. He won championships as the Herd varsity football co-coach with Dave Hoskins in the 2000s and last fall led the Elk Grove JV team to a 10-0 record, doubling as the defensive coordinator for the Herd’s varsity team.
“Elk Grove is so lucky to have a teacher and coach with Carlson’s energy and passion,” Herd football coach Chris Nixon said. “I don’t know of a coach in the section who puts more into what he does, and he’s one of the all-time great coaches in this area.”
Prep Hall of Fame coach Guy Anderson, who directed Cordova baseball from 1970 through this season, agreed.
“He’s one of the truly outstanding coaches this state has ever had,” Anderson said. “And you’ve got to have that special lady behind you. He has that.”
In it together
When Caryn was stricken by her spinal cord condition that left her unable to walk, her husband was ready to step away from coaching to assist her. She wouldn’t let him.
“I told him our boys need him coaching, the other boys need him to coach, and he needs to coach,” Caryn said. “I told him I’d be fine. I wanted our boys to see that you can overcome any challenge, that there’s no such thing as ‘can’t’ and there’s no reason to ever be lazy.”
A 3.9 GPA student, the 6-foot-3 Dylan has emerged as one of the area’s top players, headed to Cal State Fullerton on scholarship following his 2016 graduation. He’s batting .337 with 20 RBIs this season. Still, it’s not easy playing for your dad.
“He’s done a great job with it, handled it really well,” Herd second baseman Carlos Moseley said. “You can tell he loves playing for his dad.”
And it’s mutual. Coach Carlson said he is “beyond proud” to mentor his sons.
Said Dylan: “I know my dad is proud of me. There was pressure on me from everywhere earlier when I played here; ‘Did I belong?’ I think I do.”
The most moving “Team Carlson” moment came last week when Caryn took three steps, unassisted. She’ll also use a walker on the Elk Grove track, husband by her side.
“Mom’s amazing, and she’s held us all together,” Dylan said. “She’s our inspiration for all that she’s overcome.”
Said Caryn: “Cancer, my spine, I still I consider myself lucky and normal. I have sharp pains in my back, burning like fire, or scraping your nails down the chalkboard – auuugh! I’ve got a great husband, two great boys. I’m blessed. The boys are with their father so much, and it’s special – The Three Musketeers: Papa Bear, Brother Bear, Baby Bear, and there you have it.”