MASON, Ohio — Life was never like this raising money for a U.S. senator.
The baseball coach for Connecticut has an interesting story to tell, starting with his team. Jim Penders’ Huskies blanked Georgetown 4-0 in their Big East tournament opener Thursday, and that makes 44 wins. As of Thursday afternoon, only Tennessee had more in the nation. This stifling of the Hoya bats was not out of character for a pitching staff with an earned run average of 3.42. As of Thursday afternoon, only Tennessee and Southern Mississippi had lower.
They’d been hanging around the polls most of the season but took a ratings hit against the same Georgetown team in the ugly last weekend of the regular season, when they were shellacked 13-2 and then walked-off twice. That’s not exactly rolling into the postseason, and required some psychological damage control from the coaching staff. "We got hit in the mouth by these guys last weekend and didn’t respond," Penders was saying. "It took us four or five days to put the guys back together again."
In under a week, the Huskies went from allowing the Hoyas 33 runs in three games to a shutout. Ace Austin Peterson had been mashed for nine earned runs in 5.1 innings in that sweep. Thursday, he gave up four hits in seven innings.
This is Connecticut remember, stuck up there in the college baseball frozen tundra of New England. But it is also the program that has appeared in seven of the past 11 NCAA tournaments, and pushed Oklahoma State to the maximum games in the 2019 regional, and advanced to the regional final in 2018 and knocked off Clemson in 2011 to get to the super regional. The Huskies keep poking their noses into the national picture. "It’s tough to get respect in the Northeast," Peterson said. "But it’s awesome to do it. Once we can, we can run with it."
Such is the creation of Penders, who bleeds UConn blue. He played there in the 1990s, then was an assistant, and now has been head coach for 19 seasons. His father Jim and uncle Tom both played on the 1965 Huskies College World Series team.
"It gets old. Every Thanksgiving, every Christmas Eve, I get to hear about how my dad and my uncle went to Omaha with their team and I haven’t been yet," he said. "So it’s extra motivation to get back there, not only for our players but my father and my uncle. They’re getting up there. I’ve got to get them back to Omaha before it’s too late."
Connecticut has been to the College World Series five times, but the last was 1979. To return is the dream of this UConn lifer.
"I basically grew up on the campus," Penders said. "You hear Connecticut and you think of hedge funds, you think of the elite, you think of second homes, you think of really nice suburbs. The university of that state is the exact polar opposite. It was made by farmers to make better farmers. In a very urban state, it’s a very rustic rural setting. It's really about being a farmer every day at our place. It's about getting up earlier than everybody else, outworking your opponent, not being afraid to get your hands dirty.
"I’m really proud to be wearing that uniform and always will be."
Sounds as if he was meant to be there. But what about 1994-96? That was when Jim Penders, political science major, decided to go hunting for an intern job in Washington D.C. He interviewed with a man who happened to be a big baseball fan — “I didn’t know much about politics. I spent most of the time talking Joe Morgan and the Big Red Machine and he loved that.” — and the next thing Penders knew, he had been assigned as a fundraiser for Iowa senator Tom Harkin.
“I had a chance to work for a really good man and there aren’t enough of them in DC anymore,” he said. Besides, he helped put on a couple of fundraisers in the boxes of Orioles owner Peter Angelos and the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner. Perfect for a baseball guy.
But the appeal didn’t last long. He heard the siren call of coaching.
"I saw the sausage being made and it didn’t taste as good after about two years," Penders said. "I think I found my calling just a little bit later than most. I didn’t feel like I could make as big a difference inside the Beltway as I could inside a dugout. That’s why I’m here."
To see how well it’s worked out, note the Huskies’ success. This season, for instance. Six different UConn hitters have at least 41 RBI. Then there’s the glittering earned run average, which Penders credit to pitching coach Josh MacDonald and deft recruiting. "If they’re bulldogs, their stuff might be a hair short for the SEC, a hair short for the Pac-12, but we want to hop on those guys that are ultra-competitive and are going to thrive in our environment," Penders said.
The 44 wins are only four off the school record, which represents a swift reloading after losing six all-Big East players from last season. "It’s a brand new team," Penders said. "To see the guys buying in . . . I’ve been around a long time and I have a deep appreciation of the history. I try not to bore them with it. But 44 wins is 44 wins."
So Jim Penders has built a steady winner in the snow.
"We try not to even think about it or talk about it," he said of the trials of being a northern team. "Because the second you give in to weather, you’re beat. In a lot of ways I think we have an advantage being from the Northeast and not from the mid-Atlantic. If we’re from Virginia or Maryland or North Carolina, we’re probably staying at home trying to play in sub-freezing in the first weeks like a lot of those teams do."
They don’t even think of attempting such a thing in Storrs. The Weather Channel is too depressing. Instead, Connecticut played 17 of its first 18 games in California or Florida and ran up 18,906 travel miles this season. Impressive, but in 2017, it was 29,925. Not that April games in Connecticut can’t get frosty, but Penders sees that as training to his potential draft picks. "If they really want to be big leaguers they have to learn what it’s going to be like in Target Field or Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium," he said.
Still, it can’t be easy.
"It’s actually easier than you’d expect because there’s not much to do in Storrs," Peterson said. "Baseball is all we’ve got."
Baseball is enough, including for the head coach. At least since he stopped hitting up people for campaign donations.