Winning baseball coach puts players first

Will Sanborn

As a player, Will Sanborn practiced patience at home plate, like the baseball Hall-of-Famer he admired. He appreciated Wade Boggs' tendency to swing only at perfect pitches - and shared his determination to get on base.

But Sanborn, coach of the Saint Joseph's College top-ranked baseball team, holds up a very different role model than Boggs as his all-time hero.

Rupert "Rupe" Johnson is hardly a household name for most Americans. From 1925 to 1961, he served as principal, math and science teacher, and baseball and basketball coach for Standish High School in Sanborn's hometown. He also owned a shop in Sebago Lake Village where he crafted wooden baseball bats on a custom lathe.

"He was an institution in the town of Standish," says Sanborn while interviewed in the press box overlooking the perfectly manicured Saint Joseph's baseball field on a brisk fall morning. "I think that was my initial goal - to be a high school coach."

That professional aim may not have materialized in a literal sense. But in many ways, Sanborn's life mirrors that of Johnson - a Maine man of character whose unquenchable work ethic elevated the aspirations of countless young people, say his colleagues.

"(Sanborn is) a guy you'd want your own kid to play for - he's a gentleman and a great family man," says University of Southern Maine baseball coach Ed Flaherty. "There's a lot of lessons that are learned when you play a sport-the hard work, the camaraderie, the teamwork, the handling of adversity. The way (Sanborn) goes about his business is unselfish. He's just a good guy."

Creating a team in his own image

Morning dew shines on the lush grass of the Saint Joseph's infield. It's before 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning, more than two hours before the scheduled exhibition game between the Saint Joseph's Monks and the Saint Anselm Hawks. In matching, royal-blue jerseys, 16 of the Monks players have taken the field. Arranged in two lines, they hurl baseballs back and forth with military precision.

This early morning warm-up hints at the rigors of the team's conditioning and ongoing training. Sanborn is a highly organized, energetic coach who orchestrates practices down to the minute, say his players.

"We have a philosophy that you come to practice to get better every day. You want to leave a better player than when you came in," says Sanborn, who speaks in a measured, soft-spoken tone. With a square jaw, ruddy cheeks, close-cropped gray hair, and blue eyes, Sanborn has athletic good looks.

As a player himself at Saint Joseph's in the mid-1980s, Sanborn worked hard to hone his skills. His coach, Jim Graffam, recalls entering the gym about 11:30 one night after returning from a basketball game. He found outfielder Sanborn there with then-girlfriend, Lynn Brown. Lynn, who recently celebrated her 19th wedding anniversary with Sanborn, was feeding baseballs into the pitching machine for Will to hit.

"He was very team-driven - he didn't want to let his teammates down," says Graffam, who now serves as athletic director and head coach for baseball and basketball at the College of Saint Joseph in Rutland, Vt. "There isn't a person who has ever known Willy that would ever say anything bad about him. He's humble and hardworking and he's made that program into the image of himself."

That image includes an unwavering commitment to his players, says Graffam and others. They offer the example of Charlie Furbush, a 6-foot, 5-inch Saint Joseph's sophomore from South Portland who pitched for the Hyannis Mets during last summer's session of the Cape Cod Baseball League. Sanborn was instrumental in getting him a tryout for that team, says Furbush. The league is a renowned showcase for college talent that's served as a stepping stone to the pros for many, including Boston Red Sox players Jason Varitek and Kevin Millar.

By summer's end, the left-handed Furbush was recruited by about 20 Division I colleges, including North Carolina State and University of New Orleans - and many wondered if Sanborn would lose his ace pitcher. Furbush ultimately decided to return to Saint Joseph's.

"He's doing what's best for the kid - not for Will Sanborn," says Larry Mahaney, for whom the Monk's baseball diamond is named. "St. Joe's is lucky to have Will. He has a strong work ethic - laziness is not in his vocabulary. He's well respected in the fraternity of baseball coaches... He was just named conference coach of the year. He deserves all the accolades he gets."

In his 12th year as head baseball coach, Sanborn has led the Monks to New England championships five times and earned three Maine Atlantic Conference titles, making him the winningest baseball coach in the College's history.

Part of a larger family

Each winter, Monks baseball players participate in conditioning sessions of long-distance running, sprints, and weightlifting, says Steve Osborne '01. In clock-work-style practices, players use repetitive drills to fine-tune their ability to run bases, bunt, or field the ball, he adds. But that is not all. By spring, teammates wield snow shovels.

Around the third week of March, the snow pack covering the entire field generally shows little evidence of melting. Last year, players measured it at more than 28 inches - nearly as high as the fence surrounding the outfield. Rather than finding an alternate home field in, say, North Carolina, players break out the snow shovels.

"(Sanborn) was always there shoveling with us," says Osborne, who was signed with a New York Yankees minor league team following his senior year. "He was awesome, the best coach I ever played for."

The baseball team didn't have a stellar reputation when Osborne started with the Monks, however. Players were known for partying and trouble-making. Discipline was therefore one of Sanborn's top priorities by the late '90s. Some players didn't appreciate the crackdown.

"He was handed over a team that didn't share his values," says Jamie Smyth '92, St. Joe's softball and golf coach. "I've known Will a long time and I know he's hard on his players. He demands a lot of his players on and off the field. There are kids that prefer not to deal with that." Players in that category tended to transfer to other schools, while the ones who remained share a commitment to common ideals, says Smyth.

Members of the current team participate in events organized by the school's campus ministry, such as escorting senior citizens to a "senior prom" or raking leaves for elderly community members. The players also join in prayer led by the College chaplain, Fr. John Tokaz, before home games. Fr. Tokaz has worked closely with Sanborn for eight years and says of him, "He is a man who strives to bring out the best in his players by giving them the best of himself."

Team members pitch in to help with Sanborn's other decades-long commitment - upgrading the baseball field.

"Right now it's one of the best baseball fields at any small college in the country," says Mahaney. "(Sanborn) does a lot of the physical labor. That field is not in the condition that it's in by accident."

It's also no accident that players sometimes feel like members of Sanborn's own immediate family. He invites the team to his home for lasagna dinners and - at least in Osborne's case - attends players' weddings. His wife, daughter, and his own parents go to most home games. His 14-year-old son, Lincoln, practices with the Monks.

"He's one of the nicest guys I know," says Furbush. "On the field or off the field, he'll really help you out."

by Michele Pavitt