The nuns who supervised recess at St. Paul’s St. Francis grade school on West Seventh Street were the first to see it, 47 years ago.
When the third-graders stormed the playground for the daily kick ball game, one player stood out as the take-charge kid. There was Dennis Denning, age 9 going on 25, advising his teammates where to go and what to do. Always looking to give his team its best chance to win, he preached nonstop chatter, nonstop hustle and teamwork.
A Minnesota treasure, Denning starts his 25th season as a head baseball coach in 2002. Now in his fifth decade affiliated with baseball, he’s still telling young people where to go and what to do. Still offering tips for success. Still giving his players their best chance to win.
"Dennis is the best there is at any level that I’ve ever seen,’’ said St. Thomas athletic director Steve Fritz, who hired him away from Cretin-Derham Hall’s renowned high school program nearly eight years ago. "He understands his players and understands the game. We knew we were getting someone special when we hired him, but even I didn’t think he could do what he’s done so soon."
Since Denning traded his white and purple Cretin-Derham Hall cap for the gray and purple cap of St. Thomas in July 1994, the Tommie baseball program has soared to amazing heights. With six consecutive NCAA Division III playoff berths and NCAA runner-up finishes in 1999 and 2000, Denning and his players put St. Thomas baseball on the map. By earning a seventh NCAA playoff berth and winning the national championship last May, Denning put St. Thomas on the marquee:
• The Tommies’ 8-4 victory over Marietta (Ohio) in last May’s NCAA title game let them cap an amazing 10-2 run through the rugged postseason schedule and gain bragging rights over 349 other Division III teams.
• St. Thomas, the lone MIAC team ever to play in the college baseball World Series, also became just the second Minnesota university or college to win a national baseball crown, joining the Minnesota Gophers, who last accomplished the feat in 1965.
• Denning was chosen National Coach of the Year in NCAA Division III.
• A St. Thomas championship banner is hanging in the NCAA’s Hall of Champions in Indianapolis.
There soon will be a Tommie hat, jersey and team photo on display in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to recognize the 2001 championship.
Few upper Midwest teams experience national success in baseball — especially Division III teams with modest facilities and no athletic scholarships. Yet in seven seasons at St. Thomas, Denning’s teams have won 79 percent of their games (85 percent in conference play) — the third-best record in Division III in that span — with MIAC regular-season or postseason championships in each of the last six seasons. They’ve swept 50 MIAC doubleheaders. They’ve posted a New York Yankee-like postseason record of 31-9 since 1998.
The late Mike Augustin, longtime sportswriter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, was among Denning’s many admirers. "Augie" saw enough of Denning’s baseball savvy in 17 seasons at Cretin to make these predictions upon his 1994 hiring at St. Thomas: Denning would have the Tommies in the College World Series within five years, and he would lead St. Thomas to a national championship.
From his perch in heaven, Augie watched Denning’s fifth Tommie team make MIAC history by reaching the College World Series, then last May saw part two of his prophecy come to pass.
How has Denning done it? Colleagues and players credit the coach’s consistent, simple philosophies, uncanny common sense, passion for the game and blue-collar work ethic.
"He’s definitely a competitor. He doesn’t like to lose," said St. Thomas softball coach John Tschida, one of Denning’s baseball alumni from Cretin who himself coached St. Mary’s University to an NCAA softball championship in 2000. "One of his nicknames is the ‘Silver Fox.’ He plays dumb, but he’s extremely smart. He’s the type of guy who may not know computers, but he has a Ph.D. in common sense. He just has a great grasp on how to handle situations. As a coach he’s able to keep things simple, and that’s the art of a great teacher. It’s not how much you know but how well you’re able to relay that information."
Ryan Benson, who concluded his St. Thomas career as a member of the Tommies’ 2001 championship team, said Denning is a stickler for details.
"I think of Coach Denning as an old-school coach," Benson said. "He makes you polish your shoes before games, and we all wear our uniform pants and socks the same way. He asks you to hustle on and off the field, and to run out every ground ball. If you’re slacking off, he sees that. He pays attention to a lot of little things."
St. Thomas football coach Don Roney, an assistant under Denning from 1994 to 2000, said his colleague has a knack for getting his players to relax and play well in big games.
"He’s extremely competitive in everything he does," Roney said. "I would never, ever bet against him in a tournament. I think the players gain confidence from his attitude. His players seem like they never play tight."
People who know baseball say Denning could be working in the major leagues or would be successful as a Division I coach. But Denning seems to be in his element teaching the game in his hometown. For 10 years, he ran summer baseball leagues at Cretin. Since coming to St. Thomas in 1994, he’s continued the summer program for youths and conducted extensive high school clinics. He said it’s another way of giving back to a sport that has been good to him. Kids such as Joe Mauer, the No. 1 player picked in the 2001 amateur draft by the Minnesota Twins, got their first taste for organized baseball in his Cretin summer clinics.
Over the years, Denning turned down offers to coach with the Kansas City Royals organization and at college scholarship programs, preferring to stay near his roots, alongside his wife of 32 years, Nancy; grown children Heather, a teacher; Wes, a St. Paul policeman; and Jamie, who works at American Express. A new joy in his life is 2-year-old grandson Logan.
"I like my job," Denning said. "How many people really have a job they like?" The coach says proudly he’s never missed a day of work to illness in his 30-plus years as a teacher and coach.
Denning recently splurged, trading in his 13-year-old Ford Aerostar for a 7-year-old Dodge Caravan. That speaks volumes about the modest, efficient man, the son of a machinist, who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood on West Seventh Steet.
"He can do things on a limited budget," Tschida said. "He’s like a junkyard dog. He hangs on to things and says, ‘We can use that at the field.’ I remember over at Cretin cutting out small sections of turf with a butter knife."
Denning’s first formal coaching jobs came as a sixth-grader as he directed teams in parks and rec programs. In high school, he worked four nights a week from 6:30 to 11 as a pinsetter at a bowling alley, earning $7 a night. An admitted gym rat, Denning said he wasn’t blessed with exceptional speed and size. Friends say he made up for that with desire and heady play.
"He wasn’t the fastest guy and couldn’t jump the highest," Tschida said. "He just was a competitor who tried to eliminate mistakes and make good decisions."
In fact, Denning said he was cut from every sport at Cretin High until his senior year, when he made the varsity baseball team and was the starting second baseman on the 1962 state championship squad.
"I can empathize with the kid who doesn’t get all the honors," Denning said.
Denning was among seven players on that 1962 Cretin team that went on to play either pro baseball or hockey, joining Jack Dale, Bob and Rick Paradise, and St. Thomas alums Dick Wash-burn, Steve Schmid and Jim McDonald.
Denning came to St. Thomas for college but received just 16 at-bats for the Tommies as a freshman. His hustle and versatility helped him emerge as a college star during the next two seasons. He signed a pro contract with the Baltimore Orioles after his junior year. (His brother Pat also played pro baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.)
"I had my first workout in Aberdeen, and they asked me what position I played," Denning said. "I was signed as a catcher, but I looked out on the field and saw six guys who were catchers, five shortstops, four second-basemen and one guy at third base. So I told them I was a third- baseman."
Denning played three different infield positions as he climbed the Orioles’ ladder. He was slated to play in Class AAA for the Orioles’ Rochester team, but a wrist injury ended his career. He played rookie ball with the Aberdeen Pheasants, played in the Midwest League with the Appleton Foxes, and later played with the Miami Marlins, where legendary pitcher Satchel Paige was his teammate for one game. Among the prominent baseball coaches he learned from were Cal Ripken Sr., Joe Altobelli, George Bamberger, Jim Frey and Billy DeMars.
Denning also played in one of the longest games in pro baseball history — a 29-inning game. His Marlins scored a 4-3 win over the St. Petersburg Cardinals, whose coach was a fellow named Sparky Anderson. Denning played every inning and had 15 at-bats. The game ended at 3 a.m.
Besides all the friendships and great experiences he gained in the Orioles’ organization, Denning points to another benefit of his pro career. His prized cabin near Hudson, Wis., was purchased 35 years ago for a mere $7,500, in large part with his $5,000 pro signing bonus. "I like to tell people the Orioles bought me a cabin as a bonus to get me to sign," he jokes.
In 17 years at Cretin-Derham Hall, Denning’s Raider teams won six state championships and compiled a 378-76 record. His summer youth VFW teams were just as dominant. More than 30 of his former students and players from his teaching and coaching career have played professionally, including 2000 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, Steve Walsh in the NFL, and baseball legend Paul Molitor.
Tommie grads still playing in pro baseball include All-Americans Jake Mauer with the Twins’ organization and Buzz Hannahan in the Phillies’ minor leagues. Jake Mauer received a lot of publicity last summer as "Joe’s brother." Many were quick to say the Twins drafted Jake as a short-term move to help them sign Joe and to have him look out for their million-dollar investment. After a slow start at the plate last summer with the Twins’ rookie team, Jake raised his profile as he led the Twins’ Instructional League team in hitting this fall.
"The Twins give a written test of fundamentals and game situations, and Jake told me he only missed one answer, and it was because he misunderstood the question," Denning said. Denning added that the Twins instructor singled out the fundamentally sound Mauer and a former UCLA player, who fared poorly on the test, to make a point. "Just because you played in a big-time scholarship program, doesn’t mean anything at the pro level," Denning said. "You have to perform. You have to understand the game."
When Denning meets with recruits, he doesn’t talk about winning championships or how much playing time they’ll get. He talks first about academics and getting a job when they graduate, and later about baseball.
"We look for leaders — guys who are positive and enthusiastic, team players and good listeners," Denning said. "Those are the same traits you need when you go out and interview for a job. And the most important reason you come to St. Thomas isn’t baseball, but preparing to get a good job when you’re done."
Baseball is a sport in which even the top pro players make outs in two out of three at-bats. Denning thinks it’s a great laboratory to teach character, teamwork and attitude.
"I’m a baseball guy," Denning said. "I like all the experiences you get out of the game, good and bad. So much of the time you experience failure. It’s very easy to blame others when you fail. Successful people don’t blame others but instead learn to carry themselves well."
Baseball is a good sport "to develop listening skills," according to Denning. "In our society today," he explains, "people are so impatient and lack concentration skills. Baseball demands patience and staying alert. You might not get a ball hit your way for five innings, then have three balls in a row hit at you. You have to be ready."
Denning’s Cretin and St. Thomas teams have boasted many talented players and team achievements. Yet ask the coach what accomplishments he’s most proud of and he’ll talk about an endless list of former players who improved, were team players, respected the game, and achieved success in their adult lives.
One such player was Cretin’s Mark Wagner.
"Mark was a right-handed pitcher in eighth grade," Denning recalls, "but he hurt his shoulder and couldn’t throw and got cut in ninth grade. He went out that winter in his garage and taught himself to throw left-handed. One of Mark’s friends told me about that, and when I heard that, I said, ‘That kid makes the B squad roster.’ He eventually made our varsity and was the starting right-fielder on our state championship team. I told him about a summer job opportunity as an umpire in St. Paul, and he was a natural."
Wagner stayed with umpiring. "Now he’s one of the best umpires in the major leagues," Denning says proudly.
Sending guys to the major leagues. Preparing his summer campers for Little League. A focus on academics and careers that’s right out of the Ivy League. You might say Dennis Denning is in a league of his own.