by Eric Oslund
Former Elk River head baseball coach Dick Hales, whose name now marks where the Elks play their home games, surely impacted many people over his lifetime, a majority of whom were his players. But there is one in particular who credits his old coach for the path his life has taken.
Sonny Hilyar, a native of Zimmerman and Elk River High School graduate, will be inducted into the Hamel Baseball Hall of Fame and says it wouldn’t have been possible if not for Coach Hales.
“I got polio back in 1961 and dealt with many physical limitations growing up but was always determined to play baseball,” Hilyar stated. “In 1974 I needed to have back surgery due to scoliosis and was put in a body cast for nine months. In the fall of my freshman year it was too much and I dropped out of school. Dick Hales would not allow me to give up. He encouraged me to get back in school and do whatever I could do to get back on the baseball field.”
The future hall of famer credits that support from Hales, and encouraging words from former Elk River football coach Terry McLean in helping with his recovery. And by the time spring rolled around, Hilyar was healed and ready to play baseball.
He would pitch for the Elks all four years of his high school career, and then decided to stick around and help out his old coach after graduating.
“After my high school career I started helping Dick coach the Elk River Legion baseball team and took that over for him,” he said. “After Dick retired from coaching I was an assistant high school coach with Tim Wick, and also managed the Elk River and Rogers amateur baseball teams.”
Then in 1986 former New York Yankee catcher Johnny Blanchard, who was managing the Hamel Hawks at the time, asked Hilyar if he would like to take over his position.
He said it was a tough decision to leave his hometown and all his high school baseball buddies, but he eventually made the decision to move to Hamel in 1988 and manage the Hawks. He managed that team for 15 years and won the Amateur Baseball World Series in 1993, and the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Championship in 1997.
Hilyar said he had the pleasure to manage several former Gophers, and a few players that played professional baseball in the minor leagues for the Twins. And totaled over 600 wins when combining his time in Elk River, Rogers and Hamel.
If not for the encouragement Hales had given him early on in his life, Hilyar may not have reached this point or accomplished the things he had. And now, as he prepares for his enshrinement, he wants to make sure his old coach and mentor knows how thankful he truly is, even if he is no longer around.
“Coach Hales and I spent a lot of time talking baseball and I thank him for being a great coach and mentor to me,” Hilyar said.
“Dick passed several years ago and I really did not have a chance to thank him for all he did for me.”