Jim Penders is UConn baseball. He is likely too modest to say so, but consider that prior to being named head coach in 2004, the Vernon native was both a player and assistant coach for the Huskies, the former beginning back in 1991. Of course, before he ever donned a uniform, the Penders, whose father played for the Huskies and coached high school baseball in state, found himself at many a UConn game as a member in the crowd growing up.
Penders has been at the helm for quite some time now, 16 years, and is closing in on becoming the program’s winningest all-time coach. He has produced numerous pros, but arguably more importantly he has sent off a lot of young men with fond memories and strong connections from their time playing for him.
Some may not have surmised that about Penders, considering the stoic and measured manner in which he leads the Huskies. But, former players swear he has great relationships with all his guys and the way he conducts his program has molded not only some quality young baseball players, but some fine young men.
“Coach Penders is a great man,” says Zac Susi, who was a catcher for the Huskies from 2016-2018 and is now playing for the Greensboro Grasshoppers after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 10th round of the 2018 MLB Draft. “I remember my freshman season we would practice blocking the ball and I would look up too early to see the runners. He would always be yelling, ‘You’re exposing your neck! You’re exposing your neck!’”
Penders would know. A former catcher himself, he still currently coordinates the backstop development for UConn on top of his managerial duties.
“I was still a young guy, so I didn’t really listen and kind of kept going with it,” Susi said. “Then we had a preseason practice in the Tolland bubble, and one bounced on the ground and it caught me right in the neck. I was down for like two minutes and I remember looking down the third base line and he was just laughing because he had told me so many times. It bruised my neck and I was talking with a sore throat for the next two weeks. He said to me, ‘I’m going to have to tie a rope from your mask to your shin guards to keep that head down.’ He was always doing stuff like that. Looking out for me before I was looking out for myself. I owe him a lot.”
Susi isn’t the only former UConn catcher to sing his praises. Max McDowell, who was drafted out of UConn in 2015 by the Milwaukee Brewers and is currently in AA with the Biloxi Shuckers, knows Penders knew what was best.
“His passion for catching was undeniable and he challenged us every day,” said McDowell. “If you could catch Coach Pender fast balls from 10 feet away, while he stood on a bucket, then you could catch anything.”
Right now, Penders is in Greenville, South Carolina for a series against ECU, chasing down the win record held by his mentor, and frequent home game supporter, Andy Baylock. The Pirates are ranked No. 12 nationally and are a perennial power in the American Athletic Conference. It seems like a challenging spot to make hay, but Husky hijinks have overcome the Pirates before, with the stolid Penders at the center of it.
“I don’t know if people know this but Coach Penders is a big Frank Sinatra fan. Every Sunday at the J.O.C. there’s Sinatra over the speakers,” said P.J. Poulin, who is pitching for the Class A Asheville Tourists after being drafted by the Colorado Rockies last year. “So, we said to Coach, ‘if we beat ECU, will you sing Sinatra to everyone?’ He said, ‘yeah, sure, but sweep first.’ We ended up sweeping them, so afterwards he got on the bus and he sang ‘That’s Life.’”
“If you know Coach Penders at all, he’s a cool and collected guy. Plus, it [the sweep] was at ECU which I don’t think we’d done since we had been in the American. It was a really cool moment; he really got the bus fired up after that and I don’t think that’s a side people really know about him,” says Poulin.
It is unknown if he has any tricks up his sleeve for this series, or the remainder of the season, but like sweeping ECU at ECU, the Huskies have a chance to do something special with their amalgamation of talent this year.
Penders has already done something special. Turned Storrs into the current baseball capital of New England. While they just missed out in 2017, the Huskies have been to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and 2018, and a reputable finish will send them there again. The team is churning out MLB draft picks, Cape Cod Baseball League stars and winning records year after year.
If you ask him or his players, they would tell you there is more to UConn baseball than just winning. A recent profile in the Hartford Courant claimed not too long ago Penders not too long ago turned down an overture from an agent about moving to a Power Five job, indicating he Bleeds Blue. Susi, a Southington native whose own father is a Nutmeg ball coach, chose to stay home and play for the Huskies in part because of Penders’ commitment to this community. He was incredibly sincere over the phone about what Penders means to him. So is McDowell.
“Going to play for Coach Penders was the best decision of my life,” McDowell said. “What an unbelievable Coach and leader. I’m grateful for what he’s taught me on and off the field and am not surprised at his continued success as UConn.”
Penders is only 47. If it is up to fans and those in his network, UConn baseball will continue to thrive for a long time under his leadership. At the same time, the amount of respect and appreciation he has accumulated promises support if he were to move on to a high-level opportunity. This season will be the final one at J.O. Christian Field, and hopefully the upgraded facilities on the way will position the program for future success. As long as Penders is around, one can be confident they will be on the right path.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.