Building the Boys of Summer

I didn’t need to remind him that his old friend Charlie Lau wound up becoming a legendary hitting coach, often credited with helping a guy named George Brett earn his way into Cooperstown. Lau is probably not driving an eight-year-old mini-van and trying not to worry about retirement. But if Denning regrets walking away from pro ball, he’s not about to admit it. “I’ll always wonder what might’ve happened. I know I would’ve done a nice job if I had taken that opportunity,” he says. “Still, I’m fortunate. How many people get to do what they love?”

Denning hasn’t missed a day of work in more than 30 years. In that time, he’s developed some theories. One of the great challenges for a coach at the college level, he explains, is helping kids deal with the reality of their limitations. Every year, he gets about 1,000 new inquiries from high school players considering his program. More than 100 kids try out every spring for the team, and about 50 make the squad. Most of these kids have at one time or another harbored fantasies of playing pro ball. But Denning knows that only a handful have the physical skills to compete at that level, and maybe only one of those will be disciplined enough to take full advantage of his gifts. So, he greets every potential freshman with the same message: “If you’re coming here just for baseball, don’t come.”

Denning sells his recruits on the opportunities they will have to get a great education and play some ball on the side, but he also wants them to look at life after baseball. “I only want to get guys with the right perspective,” he says. “All our kids graduate and they get good jobs, too.”

But to say there’s no emphasis on athletics at St. Thomas, says St. Olaf baseball coach Matt McDonald, is to paint a slightly deceptive picture. McDonald, whose team has won the MIAC regular season title each of the last three years only to lose to the Tommies in the tournament, calls Denning a “great person and baseball coach,” but argues that the St. Thomas program may be the closest thing to a baseball factory in the MIAC. “When you combine his ability with a school that has made the institutional decision that they want to win in athletics, the result is an outstanding baseball program,” he says.

Concordia’s Bucky Burgau agrees, admitting that Denning has his priorities straight, but adds that the Tommies’ coach doesn’t have to look too far to get the best players. “Dennis believes in the total education of his players,” he says. “He gets good players because of his reputation and that of St. Thomas. If I were a good player and couldn’t go to the University of Minnesota, I would go to St. Thomas.”

It’s not that Denning isn’t going to encourage those players with the skills and drive to follow their dreams. He’s helped to launch a number of pro baseball careers, as the pictures on his wall attest. But he’s played in the pros himself, and though he says he loved the four years he spent in the minor leagues, he isn’t afraid to let his young dreamers know that it’s not always everything it’s cracked up to be. “Playing pro sports is overrated. Minor leaguers are making about 800 bucks a month. You can make more working at McDonald’s,” he says. “There are a whole lot of other things that are way more important.”

That could be a tough sell to a poor kid with a sweet jump shot or 4.3 speed and no apparent prospects beyond the NBA or NFL. To that kid, an athletic scholarship is maybe his only ticket to the good life. A couple of shining years on the college court or gridiron, while slogging through just enough classes to stay eligible, and the bling-bling is just over the horizon. Enough guys have done it to make it a viable plan. And there are always enough schools willing to bid for their services.

“Major college sports are out of whack,” Denning says. And the only way to fix them is to focus on academics over athletics. “The University of Cincinnati hasn’t graduated a basketball player in, what, 15 years? You should have a rule that if a kid doesn’t graduate, you lose one scholarship.”

Or maybe give up athletic scholarships altogether. What if every Division I school operated like St. Thomas, or St. John’s, where typically about 95 percent of the kids graduate? The Ivy League schools have long been without them, and though they’re not reeling in the TV money, they don’t seem to need it. Like the MIAC schools, they have no need for 100,000-seat stadiums, multi-million-dollar corporate sponsorships, celebrity coaches, and semi-pro players. They simply compete with other like-minded schools, their players go to class, graduate, and get jobs in the real world. Would it be so bad to watch those games, root for those teams?

Those who couldn’t qualify academically, but were blessed with the skills and discipline of a pro athlete, could jump right to baseball’s minor leagues, or to NBA and NFL development leagues, rather than appropriating our colleges for that purpose.

I confess to Denning that I’m particularly worried about the future of amateur baseball. It’s seldom now that I notice young kids playing pickup baseball down at the park in the summer. I tell him how the summers of my youth were mostly spent with friends on rough-hewn diamonds, imagining ourselves to be Mantle or Mays or Aaron or Aparacio. And I wonder if today’s kids are doing the same with Sosa or Bonds. He assures me they are.

He says, “The camps here in the summer are always filled up. And organized ball has never been healthier. Fifteen years ago, there were six amateur teams in St. Paul. Today there are 20.”

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