Skip Schumaker and Brian Wilson
Skip Schumaker, left, showed his true UC Santa Barbara colors when pitcher Brian Wilson ripped off his Los Angeles Dodgers jersey at Arizona following his catch that clinched their National League West championship in 2013. (Los Angeles Dodgers photo)
Mark Patton

A sports hero is sometimes best measured by his grace off the field.

Jared “Skip” Schumaker stood tall in the spotlight. He tied a UC Santa Barbara school record with 100 hits during the Gauchos’ NCAA Baseball Tournament season of 2001. He won two World Series rings with the St. Louis Cardinals and batted over .300 three times during his 11 years in Major League Baseball.

St. Louis still reveres Schumaker for his run-scoring double that beat the Philadelphia Phillies 1-0 in the decisive Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series.

That and more was recounted during his introduction last month as the new manager of the Miami Marlins. But the most revealing moment for the former Gaucho came when no cameras were rolling and no fans were watching.

The April 18, 2015, game at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium was still hours from starting and Schumaker was just months from finishing his career. He wasn’t even a Cardinal anymore.

His keen batting eye, however, spotted lifelong Cardinal fan Ashlea Kitchen across the diamond. She was sitting by herself in a wheelchair near the St. Louis dugout.

Bone cancer had spread to her lungs, making it difficult to call out to the players. But the 25-year-old mother of two still leaned forward in her chair. Schumaker could see her clinging to a baseball in her hands and a hope in her heart that one of the Cardinals would take notice.

None would even give her a glance.

The Spirit of St. Louis

Schumaker left his pregame warmups and made a beeline toward a dugout that hadn’t been his for three years.

“My daughter, Ashlea, was a huge baseball fan,” Tiffany Gamblin explained. “She got to go to the game hoping to meet the Cardinal players.

Ashlea Kitchen and Skip Schumaker

Skip Schumaker gave St. Louis Cardinals’ fan Ashlea Kitchen “a happy memory” four days before she died from bone cancer. (Gamblin family photo)

“Every one of the Cardinals passed her up. Skip wasn’t a Cardinal anymore. He was a (Cincinnati) Reds’ player. He still came over from the other side of the field and met her.”

Schumaker noticed her thin fingers as he took the baseball and signed it. She said she remembered him from his Cardinal days, but he soon shifted the conversation to her.

“He spoke of her nails,” her mother said. “She had them done with baseballs painted on them.

“She was so excited when she got home. All she talked about was meeting Skip.”

Four days later, Ashlea lost the battle she’d been waging since age 16.

“While other girls her age were going to prom and homecoming, Ashlea was in the hospital, deathly ill and fighting cancer,” her mom said. “She was a strong, determined little girl and battled her cancer like a brave soldier.

“At 18, she went into remission.”

She got married, gave birth to son Jace and daughter Adalee, and continued to cheer on her hometown Cardinals.

The cancer returned during her second pregnancy. She was forced to deliver Adalee early, on Oct. 3, 2012. She resumed her battle with several rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and even a bone marrow transplant.

She died on April 22, 2015.

Schumaker got the news in a Facebook message from her mom.

“He messaged us with his condolences,” Gamblin said. “I was making a memorial shelf for pictures and I wanted some Skip memorabilia but could not find any.

“Again, I went to Facebook for help and Skip’s wife (Lindsey) reached out to me. Skip sent me a bat, his cleats and a signed jersey.”

Ashlea’s brother made sure to go to Busch Stadium the next time the Reds came to St. Louis.

“He got to meet Skip and thank him for his kindness to my daughter and our family,” Gamblin said. “We were so grateful to Skip for taking time to meet our daughter and give her a happy memory.

“She was so brave with what she went through.”

Gamblin exchanged a few more messages with Schumaker in the days that followed. Nobody was more thrilled when Miami named him as its new manager last month.

“He is an amazing guy, so caring and so thoughtful,” she said. “To me, Skip is the definition of a hero.”

An Unsettling Position

Schumaker never saw himself that way. He considered himself just a regular ballplayer — a 5-foot-10 banjo hitter who never hit more than eight home runs in a season.

Skip Schumaker

Former UCSB star Skip Schumaker won World Series rings with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. (St. Louis Cardinals photo)

He said he was fighting for his baseball life when I caught up to him in Florida during spring training of 2009. The Cardinals had promoted a big, strong rookie named Colby Rasmus to play centerfield. They asked Schumaker to try out for second base.

Nothing was guaranteed even though he’d batted a cumulative .307 over the previous three seasons.

“I’m just going to have to wait to see what the lineup is on Opening Day,” Schumaker told me while waiting out a rain delay at Fort Myers’ Hammond Stadium. “It’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster, that’s for sure. A lot of ups and downs.

“I knew that going into it. I’ve never played second, so everything is new.”

But nothing could spoil his love affair with baseball. He regarded the game as a relationship.

It’s why he gave up his starting shortstop position at Loyola Marymount and showed up, uninvited, at UCSB’s Caesar Uyesaka Stadium in the autumn of 1999.

“The head coach at LMU was an absolute nightmare,” Schumaker told me shortly after his Major League debut in 2005. “He’s no longer there for a reason, and I’m not afraid to say that. There are a lot of guys who left that place.

“He didn’t make baseball fun for me, and so I went to Santa Barbara.”

Finding a Home at UCSB

Chad Peschke, the Gauchos’ star second baseman, had promised his childhood friend that the grass would be greener on the UCSB side of the field. His new teammates and coaches — Bob Brontsema and Tom Myers — would treat him like family.

“It was incredible,” Schumaker said last week, more than 22 years later, during an appearance on The Jim Rome Show. “The whole experience completely changed my life.”

It came with a big risk. Brontsema offered him only the chance to compete for an outfield spot.

Skip Schumaker

Skip Schumaker led UC Santa Barbara to the 2001 NCAA Baseball Regionals by batting .400 with a school-record 100 hits. (UC Santa Barbara Athletics photo)

“He came into my office and said, ‘Coach, I want to transfer here,’” Brontesema said. “I told him, ‘We have a shortstop in Jeff Bannon.’

“We actually had a lot of quality bodies in 2000 and 2001, and so what I was really telling him was, ‘Skip, I can’t guarantee you anything here.’

“He told me, ‘My good friend, Chad Peschke, has nothing but good things to say about this place. It’s where I want to be.’”

And so Schumaker rang in the New Millennium at a new school by competing for a new position.

“Baseball ended up being fun again,” he said. “Not only was the school the right fit, but the baseball and the community were, too.

“The whole experience completely changed my life.”

He said that despite spending most of the 2000 season on the injured list. He played in only five games but made good use of the ones he sat out.

“It gave me a chance to just watch the game,” Schumaker said. “When you’re injured, you learn from a lot of guys. I wanted to mold my game around theirs. Myers taught me a lot, and so did Bronts.

“The next season, a couple of guys got hurt. Dan Kemper got hurt. I got a chance … and I ran with it.”

He hit so well that Brontsema moved him into the leadoff spot. He batted an even .400 and led the Big West Conference with 19 doubles.

In Good Company

He was the highest of the nine Gauchos drafted that season, going in the fifth round to St. Louis. Three of his teammates — Bannon, right fielder Ryan Spilborghs, and pitcher Virgil Vasquez — also made it to the majors.

Schumaker joined another UCSB alum, seven-time All-Star Michael Young, when they were both traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013.

“Spilly and Michael Young are two of my best friends still today,” Schumaker said. “That kind of tells you who they get over at Santa Barbara, the high-character guys they still recruit over there.

“Twenty, 30 years ago, they started doing that.”

Ironically, Don Mattingly, the manager he is replacing in Miami, was the manager of that 2013 Dodgers club.

Michael Young and Skip Schumaker

Former UCSB star Michael Young, top left, joined in the fun of ripping off Skip Schumaker’s jersey after his catch clinched the Los Angeles Dodgers’ National League West championship in 2013. (Los Angeles Dodgers photo)

Schumaker never considered becoming a manager when he hung up his spikes in 2015. Baseball was a relationship, but the one with Lindsey and their two young children was his priority.

He only took an operations job with the San Diego Padres because Petco Park was within driving distance of his home in Ladera Ranch in Orange County.

“I wanted to be home with my family,” Schumaker said. “I think the only time I thought this could really work is because it was close to home. I wouldn’t even consider a job that would uproot my family.

“If it was outside that hour drive, I was out.”

Schumaker worked his way up to associate manager during his six years with the Padres. The Cardinals brought him back to St. Louis as a bench coach last season when Oli Marmol was hired as their new manager.

“He’s a teacher, he understands and appreciates the fundamentals of the game, which we value here,” Marmol said of Schumaker. “The guy is super-detailed, very organized, which in that role you have to be.”

The Cardinals knew who they were getting. Schumaker had won the club’s Darryl Kile Good Guy Award in 2010, and he hadn’t changed by the time he donned Cincinnati red in 2015.

To the family of their most devoted fan, he will be that same guy in Miami, too.

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at sports@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.

Mark Patton

Mark Patton, Noozhawk Sports Columnist

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at sports@noozhawk.com. The opinions expressed are his own.