Building the Boys of Summer

There’s no tarp on the ball field at Cretin and Grand, though snow sprinkles the brownish grass and the morning promises more. A white portable fence arcs in awkward sections from the right to leftfield foul lines, where orange foul poles stand uncertainly against a wicked northwest wind. For a clueless pilgrim seeking the heart of American small-college baseball, it’s all a bit underwhelming.

I’ve crossed the river on this early April morning in search of everything that is pure and wholesome in the world of college sports, a place where students go to school to learn, and where they play ball for fun. It’s a world completely foreign to followers of March Madness and the Bowl Championship Series, recruiting wars, and academic scandals. Casual readers of the sports pages would know little of this universe, but hardcore fans may get an occasional glimpse, as some of us did last fall when the Johnnies of St. Johns University played for the Division III football championship, or in 2001 when the University of St. Thomas baseball team beat Marietta (Ohio) 8-4 to become only the second Minnesota team to claim a national college baseball championship (the Golden Gophers did it in 1965).

But I’m not here at McCarthy Gym to rehash past glory. I’m looking for edification—enlightenment even—on the sticky subject of college athletics. I want to know what can be done to unravel the tightening knot of money, media, and malfeasance that plagues major college sports. And Tommies baseball coach Dennis Denning may be one of the only guys in town with an answer that makes any sense.

Dennis Denning stands at the front desk in corduroys and a sweatshirt. He extends his hand—a fleshy, gnarled mitt that betrays a lifetime of foul tips and bad hops—and shows me to his office. I notice the framed and autographed photos on the wall of the cramped room, and the stocky, white-haired coach describes some of the more notable of the batch: Tommies alum Buzz Hannahan in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform (“Three for five in his first spring training game this year”); Twins farmhand Jake Mauer (“Only four errors last year at Quad Cities”); son Wes wearing the Montreal Expos colors (“He’s a St. Paul cop now and doing great”). I remark innocently on the potential of Jake’s brother Joe Mauer, the Cretin-Derham Hall phenom whom the Twins drafted out of high school, and Denning launches into a detailed explanation of Joe’s batting stance and swing—neglecting only to mention that the young Twins catcher may have picked up some tips at Denning’s long-running summer baseball camps.

Before we can get to the exploits of his other star pupils, guys like Paul Molitor, Chris Wienke, and Steve Walsh, the phone rings, and Denning is quickly pulled into what seems to be an emergency academic counseling session. “Yeah, OK, uh-huh…Well, if you drop it, you’ll be ineligible, you know…” he says. The conversation ends with instructions on where to get help. He hangs up and describes the forlorn player on the other end of the line as a junior varsity player having trouble with chemistry. “A lot of these kids come here after getting real good grades in high school, but they’re not prepared for how hard it is here,” he explains.

It turns out that Denning’s job at St. Thomas extends far beyond running a baseball program that has become a perennial NCAA Division III powerhouse. He’s in charge of programming at the gym, acts as an informal academic counselor, and even does a little groundskeeping on the diamond outside. “It’s like running a park and rec center,” he says.

No administrative assistants, no PR flunkies, no sycophantic boosters. It is a small-budget operation in a conference full of small-budget operations. “Our facilities are terrible,” he says, almost apologetically. “The worst facilities in the MIAC.” And yet, Denning’s baseball team can boast a national championship, two second-place finishes, and NCAA tournament berths in seven straight seasons.

“His team consistently improves throughout the year,” says Concordia College baseball coach Bucky Burgau. “Along with getting very good players, Dennis is a very good teacher of all phases of the game.”

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