Two competing ideals of college sports play tug of war every day across the country.
At one end of the rope, you have the sensational prospects who use college sports as a stepping stone to the pros. Education may be important to these athletes, but playing professionally is the end goal.
On the other side, you have the guys who thirst for the opportunity to continue their playing career as long as possible. They may not have the talent to play at the highest level, but they’re willing to work extremely hard to get all that they can out of their ability.
That game of tug of war might as well be played over second base at Ray Fisher Stadium by Anthony Toth and Derek Dennis.
No one could have expected second baseman Anthony Toth to be a starting infielder and team captain for the Wolverines. The Lorain, Ohio, native was lightly recruited out of high school, where he didn’t start until his senior year. His prospects for collegiate ball weren’t looking good until a Michigan assistant coach saw him at a showcase in Ohio and invited him to a winter camp in Ann Arbor.
“I wasn’t going to go because I grew up an Ohio State fan,” Toth said. “So the last place I thought to go was Michigan. Coach wrote me a couple letters and wanted me at camp. I came to camp, and he offered me a walk-on spot, so I took it.”
Although he was happy to be playing college baseball, Toth wasn’t exactly a prized recruit his freshman year.
“He had to work from the bottom up,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “He was pretty much, on the 35-man roster, probably the 34th or 35th man.”
Toth beat the odds to see playing time his freshman year and then start his redshirt sophomore and junior years. The fifth-year senior was named a team captain this season.
“He worked himself into being captain of the team which says a tremendous amount about him, his work ethic, his desire and his competitiveness,” Maloney said.
It was a different story for the shortstop.
“Derek, on the other hand, comes from all the accolades,” Maloney said. “We competed for Derek, who could have went anywhere in the country. He could have called up anybody and they would have taken him in a heartbeat.”
Dennis, the shortstop who grew up in Ohio but moved to Ada, Mich. when he was 7, took a different route to Ann Arbor.
He was drafted out of high school by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 10th round of the MLB draft and has the tools for a professional career. He’s 6-foot-3, has quick hands and the type of range that makes scouts drool. He passed up a $750,000 offer from Tampa Bay to come to Michigan.
“I knew that I wasn’t really ready to play pro ball, and I figured that college would be a good experience,” Dennis said. “In the end, I knew I wanted to be close to home and playing for Coach Maloney was my top choice.”
As much as Toth and Dennis may come from different acclaim, they have been perfect complements to each other in their time as Michigan’s double-play combination.
When Dennis came to Ann Arbor, Toth had been the starting shortstop the previous year. But there was no controversy in moving Toth to second base for the 2010 season.
“You’ve got a pro prospect playing shortstop, so that wasn’t a very difficult decision when you’ve got a talent like Derek Dennis,” Maloney said. “Anthony’s a very good college infielder and certainly an outstanding second baseman.”
Dennis and Toth wasted little time getting acclimated to being Michigan’s new double-play tandem. The two worked during practice and put in time together — on their own — to get the timing and cohesion that a middle infield combination needs. They took ground balls after practice, worked on double-play balls and got used to eachother’s throws.
It wasn’t all serious. To keep the mood light, they goofed around, showed some flash and had fun with it.
Dennis credits Toth with helping him develop as a shortstop in his first year.
“He told me a lot of little pointers that I’d never known about like reading the ball off the bat and double-play stuff that he had experienced the year before,” Dennis said. “I think he’s the best second baseman in the league.”
Maloney also had to make a point to adjust his coaching style to cater to each player’s personalities.
“One, you have to motivate in a certain way. Another person you have to motivate in a different way,” Maloney said. “I think that’s for everybody on the team. The coaches that have success in their careers have the ability to find which buttons to push to motivate those guys.”
Dennis and Toth grew even closer after being paired as road roommates last season. According to Toth, it is a Michigan tradition for the starting second baseman and shortstop to room together to develop unity between the two positions.
“I think Anthony’s helped Derek a lot in keeping him grounded, and I think Derek brings some flash that probably has helped Anthony out,” Maloney said.
That season, Toth hit .309 while Dennis batted .267 en route to Michigan’s second-place finish in the Big Ten.
After the 2010 season, Toth had a chat with Maloney about whether he would stay for his fifth year. Toth let him know that he would love the opportunity to play in the Cape Cod Baseball League — the premier summer playground for amateur baseball. Maloney had connections with the Wareham Gatemen of the CCBL and was able to get Toth and Dennis on the team.
Almost every American major leaguer who went to college has played in the Massachusetts league. The 10-team wooden bat league represents the beauty of amateur sports. The idyllic fields are barely high school quality, and fans sit on the lawns down the outfield lines eating hot dogs and lobster rolls as pink sunsets color the summer sky. The league does without the tired presence of jumbotrons, artificial noise and gimmicky promotions.
But the popular vacation spot pulls in the best college players from around the country every summer. Players stay with host families, and many hold jobs during the day — before their games — to pay the rent.
“Everyone that ever has gone there (that I’ve coached) has really enjoyed their experience, and they’ve relished it for the rest of their lives,” Maloney said. “Not too many guys get that opportunity, so to send two of them to get that experience, it’s great.”
Toth and Dennis roomed together with a host family who lived 20 minutes from the field.
“We had a great host family with some dogs, a pool—,” Dennis said.
“And no air conditioning,” Toth chimed in.
“That was pretty bad,” Dennis said. “But it was a nice situation.”
The Gatemen were comprised of players from across the country, including guys from Indiana, Harvard, Texas, Vanderbilt, Duke, TCU, Maine, Elon and Georgia Tech. Dennis described the team as a goofy group of guys, but said that they got along well.
The real revelation was in the caliber of play.
“It’s unlike anything you’ll ever see in college baseball,” Toth said. “Even guys that were coming out of the bullpen were some schools’ Friday night guys, which are their best guys. It’s definitely where you go to improve and that’s where you really learn how to hit.”
Although Dennis and Toth hit under .300 for the Gatemen, who finished 19-24-1, playing at that level of competition helped them develop their offensive abilities. When the Wolverines played their fall game against the Ontario Blue Jays, Toth said that the pitches looked like beach balls after hitting against some of the best pitching in the country during the summer.
With two guys spending so much time together, a relationship can go in one of two directions. Luckily for Toth and Dennis, things went in a good direction.
“We’re pretty close,” Toth said. “We were roommates last year on the road at Michigan and then going out to summer ball together, we got closer and bonded more because it was just him and I a lot. And this year, we’re really comfortable acting like 5 year olds around each other.”
Specifically, comedian Brian Regan’s work is fodder for much of their fun.
But just as quickly as Toth and Dennis came together last year, they will abruptly part ways at the end of the season when Toth graduates.
Toth wants to continue his baseball career. He said he would jump at the opportunity to play professionally if he is drafted this summer, but if that doesn’t happen, he wants to play ball in Italy. He has family living there, and his ability to get dual-citizenship makes it a lot easier to get on a team.
If that doesn’t work out, he’ll have to leave the sport behind.
“Choice No. 3 is hit the real world,” Toth said. “I’m a sport management major, and right now I’m looking to go into real estate investment.”
Dennis also has his sights set on the bright lights.
“I’d love to play professional baseball,” he said. “I’ve just heard great things from people who have made it there. So it’s been a goal of mine and a dream.”
Although Dennis is only a sophomore, he is eligible to be drafted again this year because his 21st birthday is within 45 days of the draft. He said that although playing in the pros is his end goal, he hasn’t given much thought about when he wants to sign that contract. Both Wolverine middle infielders could conceivably be gone at the end of the year.
While the two are considering their futures, they have to remain focused on the current task — turning the Wolverines’ season around.
Michigan has fallen flat in the first half of the season, going 6-16 in its non-conference games. While Dennis is batting .280 and leads the team with a .407 on-base percentage, Toth has struggled offensively recently and his average stands at .244.
“It’s funny because with how poorly we’ve been doing, we can still end this weekend and be first place in the Big Ten,” Toth said. “We still want to win a Big Ten championship because that goal is still very real and very right in front of us.”
There will be no winner in this game of tug of war.
Sooner or later, with each side pulling with all its might, the threads of rope will start to tear. Dennis and his professional pedigree will be yanking at one end. Toth — his underdog charm and indomitable spirit — will be pulling at the other.
Eventually the rope will break. The game of tug of war between Dennis and Toth will end at the season’s conclusion. What’s left to see, is just how long the two can make it last.