Most kids who grow up in St. Paul are introduced to baseball at an early age. The most fortunate young players have learned the fundamentals of the game and a few life lessons from a master: University of St. Thomas coach Dennis Denning.
Denning, who turned 65 last week, announced his retirement on Tuesday after 15 seasons at St. Thomas. His teams won NCAA Division III championships in 2001 and 2009 and finished as runners-up in 1999 and 2000.
Before taking the St. Thomas job, Denning won six state championships at Cretin-Derham Hall High School. He coached hundreds of players in his popular summer camps, including a promising young catcher named Joe Mauer, whose brother Jake later won All-America honors while playing for Denning at St. Thomas. Denning also coached Paul Molitor when the Major League Hall of Famer was in grade school.
Although he could have left for higher-profile jobs in college or pro baseball, Denning stayed in St. Paul, where he was a starter on the 1962 Cretin High state championship team. The city and its young people benefited from that loyalty.
Friends and players say Denning never emphasized winning national championships at St. Thomas. He talked more about improving, playing the game the right way, and representing the school and sport with respect.
He shared those same values with players at his clinics and camps. When recruiting, he put education before baseball, telling prospective student-athletes that education was the No. 1 reason to choose St. Thomas.
A highlight of Denning's career was his team's 2000 trip to Havana, Cuba, where St. Thomas became only the third American pro or collegiate team to play after Fidel Castro came into power.
Denning deserves a break from the rigors of running a college baseball program, but we hope his retirement won't take him completely away from the diamonds of St. Paul.