Jeff Kilgard’s massive personality filled rooms and enveloped entire baseball diamonds.
The air will fill with hoots, hollers and heckles tonight at 7 at Saldivar Field in Bettendorf during the Veto League Night Game Showcase, but without Kilgard’s booming voice rising above the din, something will be missing.
It has been 53 days since Kilgard, 35, died in his sleep at his family home in Coal Valley, Illinois, and for many in the league, it has been 53 days and nights of remembrance, and 53 days and nights of thoughts and prayers for his family — especially his wife, Shelby, and 7-year-old son, Mason.
Jeff Kilgard was born Dec. 23, 1981, to Joyce and Bill Kilgard. The Coal Valley native took a fervent interest in baseball early on.
As a fan, he cheered high and jeered low for the ever-frustrating Chicago Cubs.
As a player, he pursued fun but harbored a competitive spirit.
Kilgard was playing “Senior League” baseball with me during our freshman and sophomore years at Moline High School when we both saw the end of our playing career before us. The value we brought to Coach Mike Carroll’s ragtag squad of no-namers wouldn’t carry us onto any high school or American Legion ball club.
With the help of an original few, Veto League Baseball was formed in 1998, but it wasn’t until a year later that the VLB really began to take shape with the addition of Kiel Engstrom, Scott Ellefritz and, of course, Jeff Kilgard.
Kilgard. Kildude. Duder. No. 31 became a fixture on the field, known as much for his jovial nature before the game’s first pitch as his willingness to argue one of our self-governed rulings to the bitter end, once actually leaving the field in disgust.
But no matter the size of the grievance, there he would be the next day, thundering a boisterous introduction to whomever pulled into the parking lot next: “Hey! Barton’s here!”
Kilgard loved the VLB. He complained about missing our game the day of his wedding — even showing up with Shelby to Veteran’s Park hours before their vows just to say hello.
He donated hours of time and plenty of money to keep the league in order. Kilgard was our league accountant early on and arranged jersey purchases and sales. He wrote the first VLB rulebook and helped maintain statistics. Two months before his death, he had completely updated our website, collecting all of our archived stories, highlights and game notes from a long-ignored folder on my hard drive.
During night games, he volunteered to bring concession food and drinks. During regular season games, he filled a water cooler for everyone to share. And when Josh Paul or I were out for the weekend, he stepped up to deliver the equipment and organize the game, and he stayed late to rake the field and to make sure all of the forgotten foul balls were gathered.
During the game, between the lines, it was usually about winning. Kilgard’s 537 career games played ranks second all time. His .443 batting average is respectable, his seven home runs commendable and his seven triples surprising.
But far more than his offensive statistics, Kilgard loved that players hated his pitching — “fast” for Veto League standards, and just as wild as our throws to bases. He knew how many strikeouts he had at the end of the game — even if he was pitching against his own team.
To say Kilgard will be missed feels trite. He leaves an enormous crater in the center of our league, and more heartbreakingly, at the center of a gigantic circle of friends and family.
During the eulogy portion of his funeral, his sister, Amber Kilgard, told the story of how Jeff pulled up to her house, windows down, bursting with euphoria over the Cubs’ first World Series title in 109 years, blaring “Go Cubs Go” into the wee hours of the night, demanding they go have a celebratory drink.
Chris, Jeff’s friend through video gaming, told of how Jeff made all the arrangements for their video game campouts and gatherings, making sure the group had a safe place to be themselves.
A Rock Island Arsenal work friend spoke of Jeff helping the man bridge a generation gap between his son and him. Jeff suggested they play video games together, and he pointed him to the Nintendo GameCube as an option. Gaming became a nightly bonding tradition — a simple gesture with significant meaning.
Tonight, Veto League Baseball will celebrate Jeff Kilgard and Josh Smith, who also died unexpectedly on April 15.
Our thoughts are forever with the families and friends of both men who will always be in our hearts.
If you have a memory of Jeff Kilgard you wish to share, I encourage you to add your thoughts in the comment section.