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In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's Sports section. Blade sports writer Steve Junga talked with former University of Toledo baseball coach Stan Sanders.
Some say life is all about timing, and former University of Toledo baseball coach Stan Sanders can attest to that.
The path he took from his native Philadelphia to Miami to Ohio University and finally to Toledo was dotted with strokes of good fortune, and included meeting plenty of baseball savvy people.
This path led to a 22-year record of 534-447-3 as Rockets coach from 1970-1992, with one year (1982) on leave as a scout for the New York Yankees.
The journey started in Philadelphia, where Sanders was born Stanley Cocciolone on Aug. 12, 1939. After his parents divorced, Stan moved to Miami with his mother and took her maiden name, Sanders.
While in Philadelphia, Sanders developed a love for baseball through the hometown Phillies and often attended games with his uncle. He carried this love for the Phillies to Miami, where he soon adapted to life there via baseball with his new neighborhood pals. One of those pals in his teen years was future college coaching hall of famer Skip Bertman, whose LSU teams would win five College World Series titles.
In high school at Miami Tech, Sanders was a modestly talented pitcher on an average team. He entered the U.S. Army after graduation, serving three years.
Post-Army, Sanders signed a minor-league contract with the Phillies in 1959. After uneventful stints at Jackson City, Tenn. (1960) and Elmira, N.Y. (1961), Sanders enrolled at Miami Dade Junior College in 1961, and became an assistant coach under future college hall of fame coach Demie Mainieri. His next stop was in town at the University of Miami under famous coach, Ron Fraser, who led the Hurricanes to two CWS titles.
After getting his bachrlor's degree at Miami, Sanders took a graduate assistant's position under a fourth hall of fame coach, Bob Wren, at Ohio University. While with the Bobcats, Sanders recruited future major-league Hall of Fame player Mike Schmidt. After four years, Sanders was hired for the 1970 season.
Upon his retirement in 1992, Sanders was the winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history. Forty-six of his players reached the professional level, including six major leaguers. He was inducted into the UT athletic Hall of Fame in 1998.
"I HAD A COUSIN [in Philadelphia] who was older and was a pretty good baseball player. He was a shortstop. We would go to this blacktop in back of the school and have games there. I would get on a trolley and take it to this sporting goods store. All of the Phillies' pictures were in there. I would just go down there and stare at those pictures. I idolized those guys.
"I remember listening to Dick Sisler's [National League 1950 pennant clinching] home run on the radio down in Florida. [Phillies hall of fame pitcher] Robin Roberts was my idol, and one of my great thrills later when I was coaching at Toledo was that we got to play against his team when he became the coach at the University of South Florida. We played them on a few spring trips."
"MY FIRST EXPERIENCE with playing baseball was when I was 8 years old and starting in a Little League in Miami. We had Flamingo Park, a minor-league park nearby, and there was a gentleman who almost lived there. We would have bats and balls there on weekends. We'd go out, bring our orange juice and stay there all day and play games. One of the guys was Skip Bertman.
"In high school I remember going down to play Key West. Boog Powell was their first baseman and the shortstop was George Mira, who went on to be a quarterback for Miami."
"THE PHILLIES SCOUT came to see me pitch and I remember I was pumped up. This was going to be my chance. I don't know if the [opposing] team was that bad or what, but I struck out 10 guys and had a shutout. They only offered me $500, but I just wanted to sign my name to a contract. I reported to Jackson City and I didn't pitch that much.
"I was pitching one night in Bluefield, W.Va., and they had a player named Sam Bowen, who went to the big leagues and hit a lot of home runs. Well, he hit a home run off me that left the park in West Virginia and it landed in Virginia. This was in the Sporting News. There was a [border] line out there, and the ball crossed that line. It went about 500 feet. That was clue No. 1 that I wasn't much of a pitcher. I had a good curve ball but I couldn't break a pane of glass. The scout who signed me should've gotten fired."
"MAINIERI WAS super organized when it came to practices. Ron Fraser was an innovator and a tremendous fund-raiser. Bob Wren was the best baseball coach, pro or nonpro, I've ever been around. He had it all. He had the organization, he had been a pretty good player himself, and he ran a good practice. He would incorporate the game at all times, plus he was a disciplinarian."
"WE WON EIGHT games my first year at Toledo. The second year we were the first college team ever to go to Italy and play. The reason I did that was to try to get the community and the state to know that we had a college baseball team in Toledo. It was a great trip, it got a lot of publicity, and we were 7-0 over there. We were playing little town teams, but people didn't have to know that. We didn't get too much better that second year, but the third year we started taking off and we had some great teams.
"Toledo had not beaten Ohio U. in something like 20 years and, that third year, on our field, we beat them 2-1. You wouldn't find a better competitor than Bob Wren, but I truly believe that he was happier than I was that we won."
"IN 1976 WE WERE 33-11. On our spring trip we went down and beat Clemson three out of three games and they were in the top 10. Then we beat Georgia. That's when we started to put it together. We had some good teams. That's about the time, I think, that the administration should have helped our program a little more, and it elected not to. We could have taken it to another level.
"It was disappointing never winning a MAC championship, and for some reason it's never happened at Toledo. We're like the Chicago Cubs, I guess. I still go watch almost every home game."
"WE HAD A TON of good players at OU, but of course the most famous was Mike Schmidt. I recruited him out of Dayton. He could do it all. At Toledo, if you were evaluating a player like the scouts do, the best we had was Tom Marsh. He had those five tools as much as anybody. Lenny Matuszek was very good, and we had some great pitchers, like Roger Coe, Mike Rachuba, Stan Clarke, A.J. Sager, Neal Mersch and Mike Tippenhauer.
"There are several people who are admired for what they have done or what they are doing - Bob Nichols, Frank Lauterbur, Don Kotnik, Jack Murphy, Dan Simrell, Gary Pinkel, Frank Gilhooley, Tim Selgo, Jim Leyland, the Toledo Mud Hens, and all my former baseball players. These are all reasons I've stayed in Toledo."