Mustangs’ friendship goes deeper than the diamond

TMU baseball players Max Maitland, left, and Aaron Shackelford, right, have been friends for over 20 years. Photo courtesy Tony Berru/TMU Athletics

By Mason Nesbitt
For The Signal

Rarely is so much history packed into so little time.

In the fifth inning of a baseball game at The Master’s University on April 6, Max Maitland laced a double to left field, breaking the school’s all-time hits record. On the ensuing pitch, Aaron Shackelford demolished a ball over the fence in right center for his 23rd home run, a new program single-season mark.

As historically significant as the plays were, they were special for another reason: Their proximity embodied the inseparable nature of the duo’s friendship.

Maitland and Shackelford have been best friends since shortly after they were born two weeks apart in 1996. Now, they’re crucial pieces of a Master’s team that will host crucial games against Arizona Christian Wednesday at 2 p.m. in the race for a Golden State Athletic Conference title – while remaining as close as ever.

“He’s like my brother,” Shackelford says.

Maitland – 12 days Shackelford’s senior – has a slightly different take on the relationship.

“He’s like a little brother to me,” he teased.

The duo’s legacy at Master’s is no joke.

Raw numbers will tell you that Shackelford is the most prolific power hitter in program history, having smashed TMU’s all-time home run record earlier this season (the mark was 34, Shackelford is at 56). The senior shortstop also set a new all-time RBI mark.

Maitland has been a model of consistency. The center fielder has hit between .315 and .340 in three of his four seasons, amassing a hit total (258) that won’t soon be surpassed.

In 2016 and 2017, he and Shackelford helped lead the Mustangs to the NAIA World Series, and each has been named All-Golden State Athletic Conference once.  

Stats, however, don’t tell the story of a friendship that was “since the beginning,” as Maitland’s mother, Pauley, puts it.  

Shackelford says he can’t remember a first memory of Maitland, much the way he can’t recall meeting his own brothers. “He was always just there,” Shackelford says.

The two families met at a small church in Murrieta, California, more than two decades ago, developing the kind of bond that meant sharing vacations and holidays.

Maitland and Shackelford celebrated their first birthdays together – snugly secured in high chairs – and continued the tradition almost every year since.

Their bond, unsurprisingly, was forged through sports.

In the backyard, they’d take turns at quarterback, pretending to be Tom Brady as he drove the New England Patriots downfield.

In the driveway, they’d play two-on-none, assuming the identities of great big men like Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki. In time, they’d lower the hoop so they could dunk like their heroes.

“To around 8 feet,” Shackelford says. “We wanted a little bit of a challenge.”

The Shackelfords and Maitlands were part of a home-school co-op in elementary school, the group gathering once a week for science and history classes. Aaron and Max hung out nearly every other day, too.  

Max Maitland, left, and Aaron Shackelford, right, first met over 20 years ago when their parents began attending church together in Murrieta, California. Courtesy photo

Yet, by all accounts they never tired of each other’s company. Whether they were playing baseball for Murrieta Valley High or delivering medical equipment to hospitals last summer for Shackelford’s dad Rod’s company, the pair has rarely spent extended time apart.   

A big reason the friendship works is that their personalities mesh.

“Shack is more gregarious,” says TMU coach Monte Brooks. “Max, he’s quiet, and until you get him in a room and kind of get him going, then he will open up.”

Another building block is a genuine desire to see the other succeed.

Shackelford’s mother, Beth, says she knows both men are competitive, but never in the sense of one-upping the other. “I’ve always felt like they were in it together,” she says.

Shackelford agrees, pointing to his second season at Master’s, when Maitland was named All-GSAC.

“I was pumped. It was never like, that’s so stupid. I should be all-league – or something like that,” Shackelford says. “My greatest dream was that we both would succeed.”

Both men have invested in that endeavor.   

Starting in their junior year at Murrieta Valley, Maitland and Shackelford were part of an accountability group that met to discuss the struggles each member faced and to pray.

“Honestly, it was the grace of God to have a friend like that,” says Beth, “so that when they’re in the fire of the world, they stood together and lived pretty upstanding high school lives and the same through college. I don’t know if they would have been that strong without each other.”

Even now, Maitland and Shackelford discuss their relationships with Christ on bus rides to games.

“We know each other’s sin bents, and we know what the other guy is going through,” Shackelford says, “so it’s easier to really want the best for each other.”

In January, Maitland served as the best man in Shackelford’s wedding. Maitland jokes that during the ceremony he was so nervous about his speech he nearly passed out.

In the end, he delivered a stand-up double if not a home run, highlighted by good-natured jokes about Shackelford’s lengthy stretching routine before bed and zealous eating habits.

“He’s the fastest eater I’ve ever seen in my life, and he eats a ton of food,” Maitland says. “That’s why he’s swole, I think.”

The pair’s relationship has changed in some ways since that day.

Obviously, they hang out less, having roomed together the previous 3 ½ years. Baseball, though, brings them together every day.  

Shackelford said he’s sad to think the season – with seven regular season games remaining (and TMU three games behind Arizona Christian for first place) – is almost over.

“We went to two World Series together. I met my wife, Brooke, while I was his roommate. He met his girlfriend while I was his roommate,” Shackelford says. “Every major event in our lives we have been together.”

Brooks, who’s seen a handful of longstanding friendships come through his program in 23 years, is confident this isn’t the end.

“You’re talking about iron sharpening iron,” he said. “It’s a trust that won’t be severed.”

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