Getting called up to “The Show” is every minor league baseball player’s dream. Gordon Eakin, a standout shortstop at the University of Utah, waited three years for his phone to ring while he played single-A ball in the Oakland A’s farm system.

The career-changing call he longed for since childhood never came, but a life-changing call did.

It was from Larry H. Miller. The Utah Jazz owner also sponsored an internationally respected fast-pitch softball team and he wanted Eakin on his roster. What Eakin didn’t realize was how determined Miller was to make it happen. Calling him a “game-changer” in Eakin’s life is an underserving understatement, and it all began with a simple pitch.

The phone call

“Gordon, have you ever considered softball?” Miller asked.

Softball? This wasn’t a call up, it was a call down.

“I told him no. Not interested. I’m a baseball player,” Eakin said.

Miller persisted. “Just come give it a try?”

Gail Miller looks at a poster of her late husband, Larry H. Miller, at the end of a dedication ceremony during which the Cottonwood Regional Softball Complex is renamed in honor of Larry H. Miller at the softball complex in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 1, 2010. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Eakin was on a different roster at the time — as a construction worker building a school in Dubois, Wyoming. Months earlier, he and 77 other players and staff in the A’s organization were unceremoniously cut from the roster as Oakland’s new ownership cleaned house.

Trapped in self-misery, Eakin grabbed a job that took him to the middle of nowhere.

“I thought life was over,” he said. “I returned from baseball and went to work for Davidson Construction. I had no experience in construction. I don’t even know why they hired me.”

Miller didn’t know Eakin personally, but he knew of his athletic ability, and he tracked down his phone number.

“Larry is a very persistent man and he kept after me and in one discussion, he said the right thing, “Just come down and play with us and we’ll let you pitch and bat fourth.” I always thought it would be cool to pitch, so I said, OK.”

Eakin quickly realized the stereotype that “softball is for girls” was incorrect. Softball is for athletes, men and women.

“I couldn’t hit a changeup if my life depended on it,” he said. “But I fell in love with the competitiveness and speed of the game.”

In no time, the lifelong hardball player went soft. He was hooked. There was just one problem. Miller’s team played 120 games each summer and Eakin had a new job that wouldn’t accommodate. This didn’t sit well with Miller and a second call was made.

The second call

Selling for Ivory Homes in Sandy required a lot of weekend work. The high number of “open houses” Eakin had to attend threatened to end his softball playing days.

“Larry called and asked me to come in and see him,” Eakin said. “I went in, and he offered me a job in his car business so it would be easier for me to take time for the games.”

“One minute I’m being scolded by my bosses for underperforming at a job I wasn’t sure how to perform, to the next minute, getting a call from Larry (the boss of the bosses) asking if I was ready to go play softball?” — BYU softball coach Gordon Eakin

This began a turn of events that Eakin was no more prepared for than if he were asked to pilot a 747 in a thunderstorm.

First, Miller hired him as a finance manager at the Larry H. Miller Toyota store in Murray, despite Eakin having no background in finance. “It was scary,” Eakin said. “Then, he sent me to his Honda store in Salt Lake to be a leasing manager. I didn’t know anything about leasing.”

This unusual tutelage led to some awkward moments.

“One minute I’m being scolded by my bosses for underperforming at a job I wasn’t sure how to perform, to the next minute, getting a call from Larry (the boss of the bosses) asking if I was ready to go play softball?”

With finance and leasing behind him, Miller named Eakin the general sales manager at his used car supermarket in the Auto Mall in Sandy and then to the same position at Stockton-to-Malone Honda. “I didn’t have any idea how to do it,” Eakin said “I was petrified. I’d never sold a single car and I didn’t know anything about the service department.”

All the while, the softball team flourished.           

The house call

Sunday afternoon, 1992.

“Larry asked if he could come over and talk to both of us,” said Barbi Eakin, Gordon’s wife.

Gordon had been watching Miller closely and determined his sense of direction and spiritual confidence were fruits of his faith — and he wanted the same.

“Being newly married with young kids and feeling a little lost, I looked up to Larry as a role model,” Gordon said. “I became interested in going to church, but I didn’t feel worthy to go.”

Sundays growing up in Holladay were holidays for the Eakins. While members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attending services was never a priority and Gordon grew up outside of regular activity and that continued with his own family.

Miller arrived at their Sandy home and was invited in.

“Larry sat in our living room for five to six hours that day and was a missionary to us,” Gordon said. “He assured us that we were worthy to go to church and that it was the right thing to do. That visit is one of my greatest memories with Larry.”

Gordon and Barbi met at a dance in 1983.

“I wondered why he wasn’t dancing so I asked his friend, why isn’t he dancing?” Barbi said. “He said, ‘You will need to ask him yourself.’ So, I did.”

Turns out, Eakin was recovering from knee surgery to repair a softball injury.

“She was quite the dancer, and I was a wallflower,” Gordon recalled. “I didn’t want to dance but she was such a cutie that I went out there and moved my hands a little and my feet once or twice, and we went from there.”

The two were married a year later. Barbi received two diamonds — one around her finger and a softball diamond around her life.

“Larry was trying to prepare me to be successful in business and be a good father. He was doing everything he could to help me.” — BYU softball coach Gordon Eakin

“I knew from the night I met him that he was a ballplayer,” she said. “I grew up at the ballpark. I was a bat girl for my brother’s teams, so it just works out for both of us. We love it.”

Nine years after their wedding and 12 months after Miller’s Sunday afternoon house call, Gordon, Barbi and their three children were sealed together in the Salt Lake Temple on April 29, 1993.

It became quite clear to Eakin that Miller was building more than an employee and a shortstop — he was building a man.

“Larry was trying to prepare me to be successful in business and be a good father,” Eakin said. “He was doing everything he could to help me.”

Eakin’s last assignment was in Miller’s business development center. It was there, in 2000, that he received another life-changing phone call from BYU’s Elaine Michaelis. The women’s athletic director was looking for a priesthood holder with enough experience to coach women’s softball and she wondered if Eakin knew of anybody.

The BYU call

“She must have caught me on a bad day in the car business. It’s a tough business to be in and I struggled being away from my family as much as the job required,” Eakin said. “I gave her two or three names of candidates before jokingly saying, or maybe me? She shot right back asking if I would do it? I told her no. I had never even considered coaching.”

BYU softball coach Gordon Eakin talks to players during the NCAA regional game at the Dumke Family Softball Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 19, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Michaelis persisted. The Cougars were transitioning its softball program into a Division I sport and she wanted Eakin on board. But unlike Miller, all she had to offer was a vision, as opposed to a variety of dealership jobs and a starting spot on his softball team.

“I told him he had the opportunity to influence the young women and share his great knowledge of the sport,” Michaelis said. “I knew he had it in him, it was just a matter of opening up the doors.”

Eakin committed his consideration, but he first had to win the approval of two people — Barbi and Larry.

“Barbi thought I was crazy. We were making good money in the car business,” Eakin said. “Larry, in his true friendship, said ‘I think you would be great at it and if that makes you happy, I support it 100%.’ Because he had such a passion for softball, I think he knew that once I got into it, not only would I be good at it, I would also love it.”

Eakin agreed to visit campus and meet with Michaelis. Two weeks later he was on the staff. Over the next three years, on a salary that paid 40% less than his job with Miller, the Eakins burned through their savings and Gordon worked side jobs as a hitting coach to make ends meet.

“That was a struggle, and it lasted too long, but we made it,” Barbi said. “Although I supported him, I thought he was crazy.”

Eakin was named head coach in 2003 and received a bump in pay. He is now in his 20th season and has 743 career victories. The Cougars have won 12 consecutive conference championships and earned 16 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.

“Gordon has a wealth of experience in the world of softball,” said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. “He has had a great string of conference championships put together with some premier collegiate players. He is indeed a softball aficionado.”

Along the way, Eakin has received nine conference coach of the Year honors and his program has turned out 22 All-Americans, with sophomore Violet Zavodnik on track to be his 23rd. Zavodnik powered BYU’s (22-7) three-game sweep of future Big 12 foe Iowa State over the weekend with three home runs and nine RBI.

BYU’s Violet Zavodnik fields a ball during game against Iowa State in Provo on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Says coach Gordon Eakin of his prized outfielder, “She is an All-American waiting to happen.” | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“She is an All-American waiting to happen,” he said with an energy to his voice that indicates no signing of a waning interest, even after two decades on the job. “Coaching through the different generations has changed, but the really good players are very much the same. The great ones have always been very coachable. I coach the heck out of (Zavodnik) because she wants to be coached.”

Michaelis retired from BYU in 2004, a year after Eakin took the reins of the program. His success is no surprise to her.

“I could tell his main concern was with the young women and that’s what I wanted in a coach,” she said. “I wanted someone who cared about his players, aside from being a great coach.”

Turns out, selling cars and selling a softball program isn’t so different.

“I think sales is about finding that human connection. It’s about making sure people (or recruits) know you care about them,” Eakin said. “It’s the secret sauce to being successful — to be able to connect with a human being on a personal level where they know you have their best interest in mind.”

Softball’s call

When Larry Miller made that first softball pitch to Eakin in 1983, it was about playing and winning games for Larry H. Miller Toyota, but it turned out to be so much more.

Even today, 13 years after Miller’s death, Eakin still feels his presence and he’s still winning softball games — only he’s doing it as a head coach, with college kids, in a stadium named after Miller’s first love — his wife Gail. 

Fans take in the game as BYU and Iowa State play softball at Gail Miller Field in Provo on Saturday, March 26, 2022. BYU won 11-7. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Millers joined Sy and Betty Kimball to build a new baseball/softball complex at BYU. They broke ground in 2000, the same year Eakin joined the Cougars staff. The baseball facility was named after Larry, the press box after the Kimballs and the softball facility was named Gail Miller Field.

BYU christened the stadium by splitting a doubleheader against New Mexico on April 20, 2001. The Cougars are now 239-52 at home and an impressive 130-30 in conference games.

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“Softball is addicting. It’s faster than baseball. You just fall in love with it,” Eakin said. “Larry gave me that chance to fall in love with it. Barbi and I, and our family’s entire life, has been shaped around softball and it’s been a fabulous life.”

Eakin never got his call up to play in the big leagues, but the series of calls he did receive gave him a life bigger than he ever imagined. It even put him in the Hall of Fame — the Utah Softball Hall of Fame in 1998.

To his credit, when the phone rang 39 years ago in Dubois, Wyoming, Eakin not only answered it, but he was wise enough to listen to the voice on the other end of the line, who asked — “Gordon, have you ever considered softball?”

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.

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