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Jack Copeland for | April 21, 2014

Denorfia found the small-school experience

Chris Denorfia Chris Denorfia still ranks among the top 10 in numerous Wheaton (Mass.) categories.

Chris Denorfia learned a lot at Wheaton (Mass.).

He double-majored at the school, studying international relations and Hispanic studies.

Recruited to play baseball for a team in only its second season of varsity play, he took his coach’s advice to switch from shortstop to the outfield, thus learning how to adapt to a new role.

Denorfia learned he could play a lot of roles. He still ranks among the top 10 Lyons in numerous categories -- including batting average (.403), doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases -- 12 years after his graduation at what has become a powerful Division III program. He led Wheaton to its first three Division III Baseball Championship appearances, including playing in the regional final during his senior year, and was inducted last year into the new athletics hall of fame.

Notably, he also learned to take nothing for granted but to believe in dreams, and his biggest dream came true in September 2005, when he celebrated his Major League Baseball debut with the Cincinnati Reds by blasting a home run for his first hit.

Denorfia recently began his fifth season as an outfielder in the San Diego, providing the game-winning hit in the Padres’ nationally televised home opener March 30 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But playing Major League Baseball wasn’t foremost in Denorfia’s thoughts when he enrolled at Wheaton in 1998-99.

“I went to Wheaton because it was a good school,” he told the Boston Globe in 2011, during a Padres series in Boston against the Red Sox. “Baseball was a secondary thing, really.”

However, Wheaton coach Eric Podbelski knew Denorfia had aspirations to play professionally even before arriving on campus, and wasn’t surprised when he began attracting interest from scouts.

“He’s a once-in-a-great-while kind of guy and that speaks volumes about him,” Podbelski told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008, after Denorfia was traded from Cincinnati to the Oakland A’s as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery.

“He was truly looking for the small-school experience and education, and he defied the odds to get to the major leagues," he said.

That “small-school experience” has been a motivator for Denorfia. Podbeski started the program as a junior varsity club before the Lyons played their first varsity schedule in 1998.

“Playing at Wheaton, we were always the new guy, the smaller school,” Denorfia told the Wheaton Quarterly, the college’s alumni magazine, in 2005. “I’ve learned to play with a chip on my shoulder because there’s always something to prove. I think that’s a good quality to have when you’re playing baseball, as it helps you not lose your hunger.”

He is a popular player in San Diego, readily taking advantage of opportunities to interact with fans -- including 30 English as a Second Language program enrollees who listened to Denorfia read children’s books at a local library last spring. Afterward, Denorfia took time to chat individually with many of the ESL students and autograph photos.

Denorfia learned a lot at Wheaton, and his success in professional baseball serves as a lesson for many other talented ballplayers who choose to compete in Division III.

“We’ve got to believe, too, just like the players at the big schools," Denorfia explained in his 2008 interview in the Chronicle.