At 19, faced with the possibility of not being able to play baseball for the summer, Dan Duquette struck out on his own. He created a semipro team to represent his hometown.
Duquette corralled players, drummed up sponsors and even dragged the ballfield. He went door-to-door in the mill town of Dalton, Mass. (pop. 6,500), begging donations for bats, balls and travel costs. He persuaded the owner of the local bar, The Hard Hat, to buy uniforms. And he organized a 30-game schedule for his team, the Collegians, an adventurous slate that encompassed a four-state area.
"We played ball in that summer of 1977, pretty much due to Dan's initiative," said Paul Hermanski, a longtime friend and Dalton native. "He's the only one who could have put that stuff together."
Duquette's challenge now is more formidable. He takes over as lead executive for an Orioles team that hasn't had a winner in 14 years. There are questions about the club's ability to scout and develop players. Duquette, 53, who won acclaim for doing those things well as general manager in Montreal and Boston, also forged a reputation for being aloof, arrogant and smug. But those who've known him, from his youth in Dalton, to his college years at Amherst, to his early days in baseball, say he is keen, focused and driven to be the best at the only job he ever sought — running a big league team.
"When I saw that the Orioles were interviewing Dan, I told my wife, 'He's the guy,'" said Frank Kolarek, of Catonsville, who was a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983 when Duquette was breaking into baseball there. "He had a passion for the game, from top to bottom.
"He's game-tested. He's rejuvenated, after being away for 10 years. Somebody's got to turn the Orioles around. Right now, Dan's hair is still dark. Let's see what it looks like next year."
Staying in the game
Dalton is a picturesque village nestled in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts. The Appalachian Trail runs through town; so does a path to pro ball. Jeff Reardon and Turk Wendell, both former major league relief pitchers, grew up there, as did a kid who wanted dearly to make the bigs but who just didn't have the goods.
"Dan had heart and desire, everything but ability," said Reardon, a four-time All-Star with a World Series ring. He and Duquette lived two streets apart and were battery mates all through Little League.
"Dan was a good catcher who worked hard but was always in the background," Reardon said. "You could tell he loved baseball and would find a way to stick."
While in Catholic grammar school, Duquette finagled a job as batboy for the Wahconah High team.
"The varsity bus would pick us up at St. Agnes Church before away games," said Mike Rivers, the other batboy and son of the Wahconah coach. "It was a big deal because we got to leave school early and ride with the big kids."
Duquette thrived in high school, where he captained both the baseball and football teams despite a lack of talent.
"There were better, flashier athletes in his class, but Dan was, well, cerebral," said Rivers, who still lives in Dalton. "I hit in front of him, and he'd say, 'If you do this, then I'll do that.'
"He was always a step ahead, always looking for the edge. If he sensed a pitcher had rabbit ears, he'd turn to the bench and say, 'Let's get on this guy.'"
At Amherst, though his playing time dwindled, Duquette's obsession with baseball did not.
"On Thursdays, I'd be staggering out to breakfast and 'Dalton Dan' would have already gone downtown to get The Sporting News, the minute it hit the stores," said Tommy Bourque, his college roommate. "He loved soaking up the nuances of the game.
"Amherst used to travel to Florida to play in the spring, and while the other players would hit the beach in their spare time, Dan would find the closest minor league field and go watch a game."
Baseball seemed to fit Duquette like a glove, Amherst teammate Mike Ryan said.
"I wanted to go to the beach, in Florida, but Dan dragged me instead to the Cincinnati Reds' training complex," said Ryan, now an executive for ESPN. "There I was, looking at all of these nameless minor league pitchers, while Dan assessed their mechanics, and the action they had, or didn't have, on their fastballs.
"Me? All I saw was smoke."
As a sophomore, Duquette approached his college coach with an odd request.
"When big league scouts attend our games, is it OK if I talk to them about their jobs?" he asked.
Bill Thurston shrugged, nodded.
"No one had ever asked before," said Thurston, who coached Amherst for 44 years.
One of those scouts was Len Merullo, of the Chicago Cubs.
"I remember our conversation," said Merullo, 94. "I asked Dan, 'Are you crazy? You're getting a degree from Amherst, and you want to be a scout?' But he didn't back down."
On the field, Duquette, a singles hitter, had one flash of fame. Late in a lopsided victory over Springfield, he hit his only home run, a moon shot that left the park and landed 450 feet from home plate.
"He hit it perfect," Bourque said. "Then Dan takes off with a home-run trot that made it look like he'd done it 20 times before. Meanwhile, we're all on the bench, dying, just watching him [strut].
"Rounding third base, he shakes the coach's hand, then turns to us and yells, for all to hear, 'That was a f— — BOMB!"
His college teammates said Duquette does have a funny bone despite the deadpan persona that prevailed during much of his time in Boston (1994-2002).
"Dan has a wry sense of humor, but he's no extrovert," Ryan said. "He's a Bruce Springsteen fan, though he's not the type of guy who'll sit on the couch and tell you that."
Bourque said he hopes Duquette loosens up in Baltimore.
"Dan got very autocratic and businesslike in Boston," his old fraternity brother said. "I told him that to hear him talk, well, I might as well be reading the business page."
Once, in college, Duquette and Bourque hatched a bizarre frat house contest: All their Delta Epsilon brothers would meet at the airport. There, they'd draw lots, with the loser being hustled aboard a plane to some Godforsaken place — in this case, Butte, Mont. — with nothing but the clothes on his back and a driver's license to find his way home.
"Gradually, guys were eliminated, but Dan made it to the final three," said Bourque, now a Cubs scout. "He was sweating bullets, but a guy named Newton finally lost. It took him a week to get home, just ahead of a blizzard."
Likewise, friends said, Duquette's natty, button-down appearance belies a gritty streak within. A three-year starter in football, he had 11 unassisted tackles to lead Amherst to victory over Williams, its archrival, in his senior year.
"Dan was one of the hardest-hitting linebackers who ever played there," Ryan said. "He made himself good, knowing where to be on the field."
"He was old-school, a hard-nosed kid," said Thurston, also the assistant football coach. "Dan wouldn't think twice about sticking his nose into someone else's letters."
For years, in Dalton, college kids home for the holidays played football on Thanksgiving morning at Pine Grove Park. Duquette kindled the fire.
"Dan brought some of his Amherst friends, and we played a game of tackle, 11-on-11, without equipment," Hermanski said. "The goal was to go home in one piece."
But football didn't strike Duquette's fancy. During Homecoming Weekend his senior year, he sought out Bob Brown, then the Orioles' public relations director and an Amherst alum.
"Dan told me of his interest in baseball, so I put him in touch with [Milwaukee general manager] Harry Dalton," said Brown. Dalton had been the Orioles' GM.
"Apparently, he impressed Harry enough that he hired him," Brown said.
That's one story. But there's another, said Dave Jauss, one of Duquette's college chums and a former bench coach with the Orioles:
"Dan [nagged] Harry so often, about a job, that Dalton got him into baseball just to keep him from phoning."