By Marty Farmer
A delightful sound repeatedly boomed off the quick bat of Fenwick junior catcher Justin Rodriguez during indoor practice at the school's venerable "old gym" last week. Rodriguez, compact and strong with all-state potential, added a little complementary trash talk with each thunderous swing, "C'mon coach, put it right in here. I'm in the zone; I'm raking the ball today!"
Rodriguez should have known better. On the ensuing pitch, the Friars' longtime head coach Dave Hogan perfectly plunked "J-Rod" (as he's affectionately known among his teammates) on his left elbow with a self-described 32-mile-per-hour curve ball. Rodriguez crumbled to the ground, offering the faux theatrics of a player writhing in pain.
"I'm going to need Tommy John [surgery], Coach," Rodriguez said.
Hogan, never one to miss an opportunity to tease one of his ballplayers (even with all-state potential) simply yelled, "Next!"
The light-hearted moment served as a microcosm of Hogan's coaching style, which has produced 711 wins in 34 seasons. In spite of that success, he's never lost sight of the immutable truth that baseball is supposed to be fun.
"I don't take myself too seriously, that's for sure," Hogan said. "The love of the game and the love of coaching these guys are there. I can tell by the response of players if my message is still getting through. It's like a teacher in a classroom. In that respect, I think I'm still okay in terms of reaching the players.
"I just love coming out to the park, the smell of the grass and keeping up the maintenance of the field. Baseball is a passion of mine that's always felt natural."
When asked how much longer he wants to keep coaching baseball at Fenwick, Hogan quips, "That's the question my wife asks me every day. Honestly, I've never thought about it too much. When March and April come around, there's a contract and I sign it. Then June 12th rolls around, and I hope all my players show up for summer baseball. Coaching these kids is rewarding for me."
In terms of IHSA history, Hogan could swiftly move inside the Top 5 with a few more productive seasons. Dave Swisegood is the winningest coach in state history with 948 victories, followed by Oak Park and River Forest High School coaching legend Jack Kaiser (892-408-6).
"I don't think any one of us on that list ever approached it like I want to be the top guy in victories," Hogan said. "If it happens, it happens. I just want to get 712, then 713 and so on. It's getting harder to accumulate these wins. Mother Nature has often been our biggest opponent."
Last season, the Friars finished 14-17, a rare losing season.
"Weather was our biggest opponent. We just couldn't get on the field," Hogan said. "We lost out on 10 games because we couldn't get on our field. Consequently, we played six home games away in the Catholic League. A few of our top pitchers were injured a few weeks. We just couldn't establish any type of momentum. Those aren't excuses, just facts."
Of course, the beauty of baseball is that every spring elicits hope of a sky's-the-limit season, even in Chicago's mercurial climate. Add the reality that Hogan combines the collective coaching optimism of Jim Valvano and Tommy Lasorda, and it's easy to see why Fenwick baseball is always on the upswing.
"I like our current group of players; I think they are ready to play and have a successful season," he said. "[Former Fenwick Athletic Director} Dan O'Brien always used to say, 'If you're going to play in the sandbox, you need to have some good toys.' We've had some really good players and coaches through the years. It's been a pretty good sandbox for me."
Players, past and present, carry reciprocal feelings.
"He's a legend," said Fenwick outfielder Bobby Hogan (no relation). "He knows when to have fun and when to be serious. He knows how to put a lineup together and always gives us great drills to improve."
Added senior pitcher Drew Smith: "Coach Hogan is awesome to play for because he always carries a positive attitude on the field, and he builds a player's confidence. He also knows the game so well."
Off the field, Hogan enjoys spending time with his wife Nancy and his kids, Eric and Amy. When he took over the head coaching position for Fenwick baseball in 1979, the family immediately settled in Oak Park and have been here ever since.
"Oak Park is a great, diverse community and we wanted to raise our kids here," he said. "The structure with baseball, the PONY leagues is excellent. And Oak Park is unique in that we have two very strong high school baseball programs."
While Fenwick more often battles Mount Carmel, St. Rita and Loyola within the rough-and-tumble Catholic League, Hogan has always relished cross-town meetings with OPRF.
"It's a natural rivalry," Hogan said. "I've always had a lot of respect for the OPRF program, Jack [Kaiser] and now [OPRF coach] Chris [Ledbetter]."
Hogan remembers one tussle with the Huskies in particular. In the 1999 OPRF Regional final, the Friars' Mike Santoro hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh and Luke Graham followed with a solo shot, propelling Fenwick to an improbable 8-7 win.
"That game was packed with fans all the way from home plate down both sidelines," Hogan said. "When Graham hit that home run, I could hear Jack [Kaiser] yelling, 'Anybody but these guys!'
"I think I've seen it all through the years. We lost a regional final to St. Ignatius 1-0 that ended on a triple play. I'm a big fan of the Three Stooges, but there have been times, unfortunately, when my infielders have looked like them on the field. Overall, we've had a lot more good times than bad. I think our players come to Fenwick to get an excellent education and be part of a good baseball program.
"People talk about Friar Pride. For me, it means even though we have a melting pot of students here, the kids support one another. Whether it's academics, athletics or other aspects of the school, these kids have their priorities straight."
The Midtown Athletic Club Athlete Feature, The Midtown Athletic Club Athlete of the Week and weekly sports calendar/scoreboard are sponsored by Midtown Athletic Club in Oak Park.