Building the Boys of Summer

The promise of morning snow is fulfilled in the afternoon, so Denning and his team are forced to practice inside, in a third-floor gym next to the Tommies’ ancient football field. I trudge up the stairs to find eight base-runners in sneakers practicing their base-stealing skills (no sliding, please) under the coach’s watchful eyes. He barks instructions mixed with exhortations mixed with inspirational messages. (“Ya wanna be an average player or do ya wanna be a good player?”)

It’s been years since I’ve sniffed the sweet smell of jock camaraderie, but this seems like the real thing. Denning’s got them flying from drill to drill with the help of a couple of assistants. After running bases, they grab their gloves and the gym echoes with the sound of leather on leather. Then a little infield practice, hard grounders bouncing across the court. Next, they grab their bats and start peppering the walls and ceiling of the gym with whiffle-ball line drives, pop-ups, and grounders. Finally, four pitchers kneel on bases and throw bunting practice in close quarters.

Denning points out a young pitcher flinging strikes toward bunting teammates nearby. He was signed by the Brewers in 1999, and pitched well, but gave it up. “He thought he wasn’t being treated right and quit,” he says. “I think he should’ve stuck it out.”

The practice winds down, and I seek out the former Brewer. His name’s Chris Olean, and it turns out he’s not just another pitcher, but the team’s pitching coach. Denning was right about the problem with the Brewers, Olean tells me. He was drafted in the 17th round and knew something was up as soon as he showed up at spring training. Even though he was pitching better than guys drafted higher than he, it was clear where the team’s interest lay. The million-dollar draft choices were going to get the best shot, not the St. Thomas kid. “That’s when you find out how much they’ve invested in you.”

Still, he stuck it out for two years, climbing to the Midwest League, where in his last start he pitched a one-hit shutout (“An almost-perfect game,” he recalls), only to find himself back on the bench when his next start was scheduled. Shipped out to Stockton for a stint as a reliever yielded more of the same. “That’s when I shut it down.”

I mumble something about every boy’s dream of playing in the majors.

He shrugs. “I came back and Dennis called me up. He needed a new pitching coach.”

He says this with such obvious joy, this still-young man with the two-day growth of beard and the Astros cap, that I can’t help wondering if I’m being set up. Maybe Denning does have a PR flunkie. But I go there anyway. “What’s Dennis got that the Brewers haven’t?”

He shifts his stance slightly and testifies like the prodigal son he is. “I’ve learned a lot from him,” he says. “I think what he has that nobody else has is he just makes you want to play for him.”

It’s not what I would call an epiphany, but for just the briefest moment standing there in my winter jacket talking with one of the boys of summer, I get a glimpse—just a glimpse—of what Dennis Denning has been living his life to accomplish. Maybe it’s not about Cy Young awards, MVP trophies, and a plaque with your name on it in Cooperstown. Maybe it’s just a higher calling.

Paul Molitor was a Brewer too, I suddenly recall, and a student of Denning’s. And though he’s destined for the Hall of Fame, he now spends his days teaching Minnesota Twins players the finer points of the game he loves. And now Chris Olean, former Brewer, follows the same path. “I really want to coach now,” he says. “This is fun.” Something tells me it might have been what their old coach had in mind from the beginning.

Craig Cox is executive editor of Utne magazine and editor of The Minneapolis Observer.

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