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A courageous coach’s courage lives on long after his death

Mike Fennell put down the cheeseburger he’d been munching on and removed his beige Jimmy V Foundation baseball cap. He dragged his right hand across a head rendered bald by numerous chemotherapy sessions.

“You want a positive, well, I’ll give you one,’’ the former McQuaid Jesuit baseball coach said, grinning impishly during that lunch interview back in January 2002. “Over the last year or so, I’ve been able to save a ton of money on haircuts.”

We both laughed lustily. That he could laugh—and make others laugh—while facing death told you everything you needed to know about him.

Mike would die from inoperable non-smoker’s lung cancer at age 42 four months later. But as I wrote in his obituary: “Mike Fennell’s body died. His spirit didn’t. It will live on in all of us who were privileged to have known him. For as long as we draw a breath, we will remember Mike’s self-deprecating sense of humor, his strapping presence, his deep religious faith and his unbridled passion for his family and for the game that helped define him—the game of baseball.”

Saturday night, Fennell will be inducted into McQuaid’s Hall of Fame. It’s an honor well-deserved and long overdue. He will be recognized for coaching the Knights to two sectional championships, a top-25 national ranking in a USA Today high school baseball poll and a 203-41 record. But the former Fairport High School standout and New York Yankees farmhand also will be recognized for things that can’t be measured by won-loss records and batting averages. Yes, he groomed exceptional ballplayers, but he also molded exceptional young men.

“He was like a second dad to me,’’ said Matt Dryer, a 1998 McQuaid graduate who played three seasons of varsity baseball under Fennell. “I remember interviewing him about his professional career with the Yankees for an English class project, and when I was done, I asked if he thought I could become a pro, too. He said, ‘Absolutely, if you’re willing to work at it.’ I’ll never forget that. Yes, my parents had told me that, too. But coming from Mike was more impactful because it was coming from a guy who had actually fulfilled that dream. That was a turning point in my life.”

Dryer, 37, remembers how Fennell helped him get a scholarship to collegiate baseball powerhouse Miami. After his career with the Hurricanes ended, Dryer played eight seasons of professional baseball. For the past eight years, he has operated Diamond Pro Baseball in East Rochester, where he is following Fennell’s lead by helping others realize their dreams.

“Coach was always there for me,’’ Dryer said. “When it was time for me to return to Miami after Thanksgiving or Christmas break, he’d insist on taking me to the airport and give me pep talks along the way. It just showed me how much he cared. There’s a slogan at McQuaid about being a man for others. Well, Coach lived that motto.”

Dryer and his teammates loved hearing about Fennell’s fun-loving times as a Yankees minor-league catcher and major-league bullpen coach. They especially enjoyed the stories about him rooming with Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway when they were teammates with the Oneonta Yankees and how a practical joke resulted in Mike being pictured on Bob Geren’s 1989 Topps Yankees baseball card.

“He was a big guy with a larger-than-life personality,’’ Dryer said. “And he had enough stories to fill a book. We learned so much from him.”

Fennell’s greatest lessons were taught while he was dying. His players were shaken after learning of his cancer diagnosis on Election Day 2000. Before practices began the following March, Hector Urena gathered his teammates at his house and they all shaved their heads in a show of solidarity for their coach, who had lost his hair during treatments. Fennell was moved to tears when he showed up for the Knights’ first practice. “We just wanted to let him know that he wasn’t alone,” Urena said.

As their once brawny, broad-shouldered coach slowly withered before their eyes, he wound up becoming an even bigger figure in their lives.

“Coach would have to miss some practices, but he would always come back, even when he was really weak,’’ said Urena, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who owns two McDonald’s franchises in the Rochester area. “He had always preached mental toughness to us, and he practiced it better than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Fennell’s courage inspired his players to give their best. “We didn’t want to let him down,’’ Urena said. “Everybody hustled. Everybody did what they were supposed to do. We were super focused. We were on a mission for Coach.’’

That team capped its season with a 3-1 victory vs. Irondequoit in the Section V finals at Frontier Field. Though weak and wobbly from his latest chemo treatment, a frail Fennell showed up in uniform to coach that day. When it was time to accept the trophy, he refused to use his walker. He hooked the arms of two of his players and made his way slowly to the awards table near homeplate. In 45 years of covering sports, I’ve never witnessed a more memorable walk in a ballpark.

“I’ll never forget the sacrifices Coach Fennell made for us,’’ Urena said. “He was dealing with so much, and he had a young family and a full-time job (away from McQuaid), and, yet, he still took the time to be our baseball coach and teach us about life. To me, that’s the greatest gift he gave us: he gave us the gift of his time.”

At a time when Mike was running out of time, he went out of his way to speak to other cancer patients. He made them laugh and implored them to not go gentle into that good night.

“We were lucky to have him in our lives,’’ Urena said, choking back tears. “I just wished we had him longer.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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