Connecticut's First Family Of Baseball

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Thursday was laundry day for Jim and Joan Penders. And then there was the matter of getting to Walgreen's to extend some medications.

"Hey, when you get to our age," Joan said, laughing. "But we are all charted out through Monday. We've got our hotel reserved. Everything. Now we've just got to allow the ball teams to decide our future."

As they sat in their hotel room in North Carolina late Thursday afternoon, the parents of UConn baseball coach Jim Penders weren't sure if they'd be able to get to the Huskies' NCAA regional opener at 5:30 p.m. Friday against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

It's not for lack of effort. It's because their second son, Rob, was coaching St. Edward's of Austin, Texas, against Minnesota State Thursday night deep into the NCAA Division II World Series in Cary, N.C. The possibilities in these double-elimination tournaments are many. You throw in tired arms, tireless resolve and a rain delay or two and the possibilities are crazy.

"Crazy," Jim Penders Sr. said, "but good crazy."

"And as much as we think we're extraordinary, we can't be in two places at once," Joan said.

She was joking. Joan Penders is one the nicest, most humble ladies around Connecticut athletics. She's also matron of one of the state's great baseball families. And sometimes that means crazy springs eternal.

"It seems like every two years," she said, "the Penders family goes on baseball overload."

In 2011, her oldest son, James Francis, took UConn into the super regional against national champion South Carolina. It was an extraordinary run by the Huskies, yet one his parents couldn't make because Joan's husband, James Edward, had coached East Catholic into the state championship against East Hampton. Rob had flown up from Texas and tried without success to get his parents to leave immediately afterward, to skip watching UConn's first game on television and join him on an overnight drive to South Carolina for Game 2 between the Huskies and Gamecocks.

The weekend would end in defeat for both East Catholic and UConn, but, in truth, there never is a final out for the Penders family. There is only time before the next pitch. When Jim Sr., 70, decided to retire in February 2012, he left with 600 wins, four state titles and a 1996 National High School coach of the year award. He also left us with this quote, "My dad [James William] coached at Stratford from 1931-68 [also four state titles], so we've had a Jim Penders-coached team in Connecticut for 80 consecutive years."

He knew that number would grow with the youngest Jim at Storrs. It's up to 82 years now. What he and Joan and everybody else didn't know was that UConn would become the first eighth seed to win a Big East tournament on Sunday. Penders said the other day he had never been more down as UConn coach than a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly they can't lose.

"I don't think any of us expected the wonderful surprise of the Big East championship," Joan said.

Jim and Joan had driven from their Vernon home to North Carolina on Friday. They watched the UConn games on computer.

"We came to see Rob, who we don't get to see often," Joan said. "His family, the grandkids, it's great. We watched the UConn championship against Notre Dame Sunday on television in our hotel room. Rob's game wasn't until later.

"Just like two years ago, we so wished we could have been in two places at once."

St. Edward's would beat Grand Canyon 1-0 that night when Rob called for a double-steal with runners on first and third and the pitcher threw over to first base. It was a set play Rob's team hadn't practiced since January. It worked.

St. Edward's fell to powerful Tampa on Tuesday before rebounding for a 9-5 elimination victory over Grand Canyon Wednesday when senior closer A.J. Rataic came on the seventh inning and earned his 11th save. Rataic played for Jim Sr. at East Catholic.

"A.J. actually holds the highest batting average in one year at East Catholic [.508], although he hasn't swung a bat in five years," Jim Sr. said. "Rob would like to think he had the old record and he did hit over .400 for a career, but it was Frank Cipolla [now athletic director at East Hartford]."

In a freak set of circumstances, the Penders family barely missed an impromptu reunion Wednesday in Winston-Salem. UConn's flight to Raleigh-Durham was canceled, so the Huskies ended up landing late and practicing at Wake Forest. Rob was Wake's senior captain in the mid-1990s.

"Jimmy emailed us they were delayed five hours," Joan said. "We would have loved an opportunity to see Wake Forest again and UConn practice, but it was the same time St. Edward's was playing. It's all so fast and furious.

"Through it all, the boys are cheering like crazy for each other."

Joan's dad, Sal Cholko, coached Stratford to the Little League World Series championship game in 1963. Jim's dad coached Jim, Bill and Tom, a long-time college basketball coach, at Stratford High. Jim and Tom went on to play for UConn on the 1965 World Series team. Joan, in fact, met Jim after he had been struck by a life-threatening pitch to the temple against Maryland in 1963.

The game has worked through their blood, through the generations. Jim, the UConn coach, likes to say there are two fields in Connecticut named after Jim Penders and neither is named after him.

"Is Rob as competitive as Jimmy? Yes," Joan said. "As far as personalities, it's a bit different. It's the classic second-born vs. first-born. You know that deal."

"The most difficult thing was when Rob went from short to pitch and Jimmy was catching," Jim Sr. said. "They'd argue over what pitch they were going to throw. I had to go out from time to time and play policeman. They were so competitive. Growing up, Rob wasn't as diplomatic as Jimmy. He knew he was right. Jimmy had more tact. But they were both so team-oriented, loved the team."

Joan said as they watched the UConn victory over Notre Dame on television they were transported back to 1994 and the Huskies' last Big East baseball title. She thought afterward how young Jim captained that team and how close he had been to Mike Galati and others.

"It hit us how our lives have intersected with so many people," Joan said.

Galati, as The Courant's Dom Amore wrote in a terrific piece the other day, has primary sclerosing cholangitis and Penders wants to donate part of his liver to his former teammate. They should know next week if they are a match. Mom and dad obviously knew the story before the public did.

"I had no doubt he would step up to the plate," Joan said. "Mike and his family are so wonderful, how do you say no to that? I don't envision Jimmy would say no to anybody in need. But it's especially moving when it's a teammate and such a great kid."

"That's Jimmy," dad said. "He'll be really upset if he won't be able to do this. I think he was put on this earth to help others."

And with that mom and dad waited and cheered. St. Edward's was one of the four remaining teams in the World Series. And as they sat there, wishing UConn would have played in the Raleigh regional, not knowing if they drive the 220 miles from Cary to Blacksburg on Friday morning, Joan called it both frustrating and wonderful.

"But the wonderfulness is much more important than the frustrating part," she said. "Thank God, there's usually a year between all the excitement."

At 9:39 p.m, Jim and Joan Penders got their answer. As a terrific St. Edward's season ended with a 6-5 loss, they would be on the road for Blacksburg after breakfast. Another day, another son, and another huge game for Connecticut's great baseball family.

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