Safe at Home

Photo: Megan Nadolski

BARRY CRADDOCK SITS AT A DESK IN HIS CRAMPED office in the athletic department. Posted on the walls are photos of Denison baseball players, certificates for team awards and a map of the United States with pins representing the homes of recruits and current team members. There’s a knickknack on his desk—a baseball on a pedestal above an aphorism: “If you don’t pick up the ball and run with it…somebody else will.” A few books are on a shelf, one conspicuously displayed. It’s a bestseller on leadership, “Good to Great.”

The 34-year-old baseball coach snaps open a can of Mountain Dew and takes a slug. It’s his second high-test soda within the hour, and it’s not quite 9 a.m. Talk about jump-starting your day.

Actually, it’s not a bad metaphor to describe Craddock’s impact on the Denison baseball team. Check out these stats since his arrival before the 2000 season: Three straight North Coast Athletic Conference West Division titles. He’s won more games (138) in six years than in the previous 10. Nearly 40 players have been named to the All-North Coast Athletic Conference team, 13 to the NCAA all-Region squad and six as All-Americans.

This is a guy who was hired as the head coach when he was only 27 years old–not much older than the students on the team. But if Craddock is anything, it’s organized and disciplined. He learned the game as a player and an assistant coach at the College of Wooster, an annual Division III powerhouse. “Ninety percent of what we do and how we do it comes from my college experiences at Wooster,” he says.

There is a Wooster Way of doing things and, in his first year at Denison, Craddock came to instill some of that philosophy to a group of guys who, in his words, were blasé about practice. They weren’t exactly the Bad News Bears, but, as Craddock says, “I had to teach them how to catch a ball.” He pauses for emphasis. “I had to teach them how to swing a bat.”

As athletic director Larry Scheiderer recalls, “In the summer of 1999 when Barry was hired, Denison University had just made the commitment to move from a part-time baseball coach to hiring a full-time coach for the baseball program. The athletic department was looking for someone who had college coaching experience and displayed the energy and insight to advance our baseball program. We felt we saw that ability in Coach Craddock. Barry had a good understanding of what was needed. He was excited about the opportunity to be a head coach.”

When Denison hired Craddock, Aaron Molloy ‘00 was a senior member of the team. He and Craddock clearly remember their first meeting. Molloy called him “Barry.” Craddock quickly corrected him: “You might want to try ‘Coach’ with that.” There was no hint of a smile. Craddock recalls, “I was as non-buddy as you could possibly be.” Molloy says, “To this day I call him ‘Coach.’”

Craddock (center) didn’t exactly get a warm reception when he first arrived from Wooster. But a streak of three divisional titles beginning in 2003 assured his players that he is the right man for the job.

At the first team gathering, Molloy says he knew times were changing. Craddock was serious, talking about doing things the right way–not the almost right way–and speaking in detail on working toward winning championships. “They looked at me like I had two heads,” Craddock says.

But the team that had collected nine victories the previous season won 15 games in Craddock’s first year. Molloy says, “He gave us the confidence even if we didn’t have the talent.” Says Craddock’s mentor, Wooster coach Tim Pettorini, “He has brought intensity and credibility” to the program. Craddock sees that first season differently. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he says. “I was the only coach, doing everything.”

Here’s the fast-forward version of Craddock’s 34 years: He grew up in the small town of Rittman just outside of Akron, raised by working-class parents. After graduating from high school in 1990, he went to Wooster to earn a degree in math and play baseball as a left-handed pitcher. “He was a battler,” says Pettorini, who ended the 2006 season with a 799-303 record over 24 years, with 11 NCAC titles and 16 NCAA Tournament appearances. “He didn’t have the greatest stuff, but he competed extremely hard.” When his college days ended, Craddock spent time in Columbus looking for work as an actuarial or a business consultant, but then went back to Rittman. He wanted to coach baseball. “I love the game,” he says. “I missed it terribly.” So he became an unpaid assistant at Wooster for two years before going full-time for a whole $6,000 a year. (He lived at home for a while and also did other work for the college.) Four years later, he headed to Granville.

He worked hard at recruiting better ball players and then taught them about fundamentals and striving to improve. Things started to click fairly quickly. But before the good times began to roll, there were a couple of tipping points–events that, in Craddock’s mind, could have sent the program headed in a different direction. The first was in 2002, when some team members didn’t want to buy into the Craddock Way. He stood his ground, running the risk of other players siding against him. They didn’t. And then in 2003, the team started out 0-3 and was on the verge of a fourth loss. It was the kind of start that can send teams into long funks and make coaches pace the floor at 2 a.m. even more than they do already. And then Brian Regan ‘04 hit a walk-off home run with two outs for a win. Quicker than a fastball on the outside corner, the Big Red ripped off eight consecutive wins and for the first time in school history defeated Wooster. What followed were those three straight division titles.

Yet, Denison has not won an NCAC title or qualified for the NCAA tournament. You can tell it burns Craddock just to talk about it. Particularly after what happened last year. The short story can be reduced to two words: One strike. You read those words in the baseball PR material, hear Craddock say them. They were used as a motivational tool for this year’s team.

Ask Craddock about the one strike and his face hardens a bit. He tells the story with a mix of disappointment and frustration. Here’s the scene: Denison vs. arch nemesis Wooster playing in the NCAC championship, and Craddock (the student) was this close to defeating Pettorini (the teacher). It was the last at-bat for Wooster, trailing by three runs, 9-6. There were two on, two outs and two strikes. In Craddock’s words, the next pitch was about waist high, over the plate. Game over. Except the ump called it ball four. The next batter quickly got two strikes on him. Again, Denison needed just one more strike–but it never arrived. Before you knew it, a Wooster batter drove the ball over the fence for a grand slam, an 11-9 victory, the NCAC championship and a NCAA bid. All that Denison walked away with was a bad memory. “It’s still pretty raw,” Craddock says.

About the game, Pettorini cracks a joke, saying: “He’s young, he’ll bounce back.” Then he shifts his tone. “It’s more stressful for me,” he says. “I care a lot about Barry” and the other former Wooster players and assistants who are now coaching elsewhere. He says he and Craddock really didn’t talk afterward. “But then before I left for the tournament,” he says, “he called to wish me good luck. That speaks volumes about the kind of person he is.”

This year was about getting past that memory–and to the promised land of Divison III baseball. There were high hopes going into the season, with Denison returning its top two pitchers–senior Dallas Puskar of Mayfield Heights, Ohio, and sophomore J.D. Wyborny of Walnut Creek, Calif.,–as well as senior first baseman Lee Fischer of Gahanna, Ohio, a conference player of the year candidate, and senior catcher and co-captain A.J. Jezierski of El Cajon, Calif.

And the Big Red got off to a good start, returning from its spring break trip with nine wins in 11 games. The remainder of the season was a roller coaster ride, resulting in a 25-15 record and the third most victories for a season in Denison baseball history. But alas, Denison did not qualify for the playoffs, deferring in a tie-breaker to Wittenberg. Needless to say, Craddock and his team were disappointed. “We’re at a point where we expect to get in the tournament every year. We expect to win championships, and we just didn’t get it done this year. Sure, it was a successful season, but just not what we expect,” says Craddock who is already looking forward to next year. He had a stellar recruiting year and will add 13 new names to his returning roster of 12 in 2007.

At the beginning of the season, the players compile and sign a goals sheet. Many items are listed, including such desired attributes as hustle, intensity, commitment, enthusiasm, integrity and loyalty.

Then there’s a phrase, complete with a colorful adjective, about what Denison would like to do to Wooster. A copy of the agenda sits prominently in Craddock’s office.

Ray Paprocki is editor of Columbus Monthly and the author of A Columbus State of Mind (PublishAmerica).

Home Turf Routing

FOR DECADES, THE HALLOWED DEEDS FIELD/ Piper Stadium has been the site of many a heated contest in football, track and field, and the occasional lacrosse match. But such activity has a way of taking its toll on the ground beneath, so this summer Denison University is applying some much-needed cosmetic surgery to the facility. The $2.9 million renovation will include artificial sports turf (suitable for soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey as well as football), a new Olympic-size, all-weather track, new visitor stands, modified home stands, a new restroom and concession stand building on field level, a new sound system, and new lighting. Work is expected to be complete by the Sept. 9 football home opener, under the lights, against Case Western Reserve University.

Published November 2010