BY COREY BROCK
MLB.COM / @FOLLOWTHEPADRES
BOSTON -- Wheaton College baseball coach Eric Podbelski knew he had a good one in Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia the first time he saw him, even if he was far from a finished product when he first arrived at the Division III school located in Norton, Mass.
"Chris came to us a very good athlete. He needed to get stronger and continue to play and figure things out," Podbelski said. "Chris was a shortstop, as many team's best athletes are. Shortstops, I believe, are born, not made -- and he didn't look like a shortstop.
"His toolset best fit the outfield. It was simple to see."
So Podbelski moved Denorfia into the outfield, where he stuck. He's been there ever since and now, at age 32, Denorfia has not only found a niche with the Padres, but appears to be getting better with age.
If you ask Denorfia for a list of coaches who have influenced him, Podbelski is at the top of that list.
"How he cares about baseball and treating guys the right way... He's a pretty special coach," Denorfia said.
It all started for Denorfia at Wheaton, a school that doesn't give athletic scholarships. Denorfia arrived there in 1999 when the school was one year removed from starting and had played a junior varsity schedule for one season.
Denorfia, who is the school's leader in career hits (264) from 1999-2002, needed some refinement once he arrived at Wheaton, and not just a move to the outfield. Podbelski helped him with his swing, too.
"Like a lot of kids coming out of high school, Chris was very pull happy and didn't do well with offspeed pitches," Podbelski said. "He had some holes in his swing, though he made up for it by being as good as he was. He needed to become a little more of a complete hitter."
One of Podbelski's favorite stories about Denorfia came during his senior season, at a time when some professional baseball scouts were starting to take interest in him.
"It's kind of your classic, small college story," Podbelski said. "As a senior, Chris was beginning to garner interest from Major League scouts. The scouts had called me one day before a mid-week game to say they were coming to see Chris. But Chris had a senior seminar that he couldn't get out of. He called to say that he would be late to the park.
"So Chris shows up to the park, he's out of breath, he's tucking in his jersey and heads to the cage to get loose. We insert him in the game after it started and he hits a home run to center field and then a triple to right-center. That always sticks out in my mind."
Podbelski is proud of what Denorfia has accomplished and that he still stops by the school and keeps in contact with those who knew him back when.
"Like all the people here at Wheaton, everyone takes a great deal in pride that someone like Chris, from a small college, has made it," said Podbelski, who has been the coach at Wheaton College since 1996. "He wasn't a high pick in the Draft. But he does everything pretty well, has a great makeup, loves to play baseball and is competitive and determined. His makeup and intangibles have allowed him to carve a Major League career."
Denorfia, who grew up in Connecticut and still makes his home there, considers himself the lucky one, for all that he learned while at Wheaton College.
"It's something special what coach Podbelski has done there," Denorfia says. "Two years before I went there, it was a JV program. When I left, it was a powerhouse. What he's able to do with no money … what he's selling is very impressive. It's very easy to buy into."