Hardly a day goes by that Bryce Denton doesn’t think about something his dad would have told him about his game that night.
This Sunday, Father’s Day, won’t be any different.
It also won’t be any different for the Cardinals’ minor league outfielder than any of the other days since Feb. 4, 2014, when his father, Denny, died at the age of 52.
Denton was 16 at the time, a junior at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tenn. It was 16 months before he would become the Cardinals’ second-round pick in the 2015 draft, a reality which Denton knows would probably have been one of the proudest moments of his dad’s life.
Baseball, and specifically the Cardinals, was the bond that united not only father and son, but the father with all four boys in the Denton family, including Bryce’s older brother Chase and younger brothers Zane and Myles.
That bond has never gone away, because every time Denton steps on the field, as he will on Sunday for the Peoria Chiefs in their game in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Denton feels his dad’s presence.
“He would be stoked,” Denton said. “I know he would. I know he would be blowing me up about not hitting better so far in my career.”
Learning the game
Walter “Denny” Denton was a pilot, first for seven years in the Air Force and then commercially for 23 years for American Airlines. Because of his job he was able to attend baseball games all over the country, and his favorite team was the Cardinals. He passed that love down to his sons.
“That’s the only thing I can remember on the television, Cardinals’ games, rooting for them,” Bryce Denton said. “We went to Busch every year.”
Some of Denton’s earliest memories of his father are of him throwing “splash balls” to he and Chase in the family’s living room, which they would try to hit with a back scratcher. By the time Bryce was 4 he was playing T ball and his dad was already looking for ways to help him develop his skills.
“He was borderline crazy with it growing up,” Denton said. “I remember my mom was so mad at him because he would take the last penny to buy a video camera. When I was like 5 years old he was videotaping every at-bat. We would go home after the game and sit in the living room and he would show it on the TV and tell me what I did wrong.
“He would rarely show the good ones, thinking about it, just the bad ones. ‘Here’s what you need to fix.’ I think that has carried over and is why I always think I could do better. I can have a good day and still think it wasn’t good enough. On bad days I demand better. I really appreciate it now, all of the time and energy he spent.”
While Denton enjoyed watching himself on video, he and his brothers were not as thrilled about their dad’s insistence on practicing not only hitting but fielding and throwing.
“It was like four days a week after school we would get a snack and get in the car,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of free time or spending weekends at a friend’s house or hanging out. We were going to the field and practicing.
“I can’t tell you how many times at least one of us was crying for something at the field. It wasn’t ever like he was throwing balls at us but it was like ‘you are not going to be finished until you catch 10 and throw 10 perfect across the field.’ If you messed up you had to start over. I remember that stuff clear as day. He made us sit down and watch all the Tom Emanski videos. That aggravated us because we thought it was boring bur I look back now and know it was good material.”
Denton has another memory from when he was 12, playing in a weekend tournament.
“I had a bad final day,” he said. “I got out and threw my helmet on the ground. We won the game and the tournament and I had a good weekend but he just lit me up about that. He said, ‘Never think you are bigger than this game. Play the game the right way. I don’t care what you do on the field; you are going to run, you are going to have respect and you are not going to yell at umpires or show up your teammates.’ You see some of that kind of stuff today and that’s not the way I was taught to play.”
More lessons came in the batting cage, or during other drills, as Denton got older and moved into the upper levels of Little League. After hitting a lot of home runs on smaller fields, he struggled with the adjustment playing on bigger fields, when fly balls which had gone over the fence now were routine outs.
His dad said Denton had developed “home run-it is.” “He loved home runs, but he told me to hit line drives,” Denton said. “I will never forget that stuff.
“I remember we would be in the cage and he was throwing and I would hit a couple of balls and he would say, ‘Why are you falling in love with the shortstop?’”
The father spent as much time with Denton’s brothers as he did with Bryce, offering the same type of advice. Chase is four years older than Bryce, while Bryce is three years older than Zane and six years older than Myles.
Denton knows one of his father’s best memories was going to Williamsport, Pa., and watching Zane play for the Nashville team in the Little League World Series in 2013. His dad was cheering when Zane, who will be a senior in high school next year and ranks as a top prospect, hit a grand slam.
Off the field, the father stressed getting good grades and staying out of trouble to his boys. When there was an issue, he reacted.
“He broke a couple of Playstations when we were growing up because he thought we were distracted by it and not doing what we need to get done,” Denton said.
It was late January in 2014 and Denton said goodbye to his dad as he left for school in the morning. By that afternoon, Denny Denton was in the hospital. Blood clots had formed in his legs and cut off oxygen to his heart. He was on life support for 12 days before he died.
Bryce’s support in dealing with his grief came from his brothers, and baseball.
“I couldn’t imagine (going through that) being an only child,” he said. “We were heartbroken and sad, but baseball has always been my way to get away from everything. It was just a couple of weeks until the season started so there were things to do. I was never that popular in school and didn’t really have much of a social life. I always knew I was going to get hit some homers and have fun on the field.”
Denton did that well enough during his junior and senior seasons in high school, when he also pitched, to receive a scholarship from nearby Vanderbilt, annually one of the top college programs in the country.
As the 2015 draft approached, Denton thought that he was going to college. He still thought that a couple of days before the draft when he received an unexpected invitation to come to St. Louis and participate in the Cardinals’ pre-draft workout at Busch Stadium.
“My agent had told me it probably wasn’t the strongest possibility (of being drafted by the Cardinals) because there was more interest from other teams,” Denton said.
So getting to take batting practice – even hitting a home run – and shagging flies at Busch was a day Denton would never forget because of all the times he has been there as a fan, with his father, watching games from the stands.
Not knowing what to expect during the draft, he sat down to watch it on television. He was wearing a Cardinals hat.
“I wore it the whole night,” he said. “It was really unintentional. The only cool hats I had were Cardinals hats besides my high school hats.”
Denton was watching when he heard his name announced as the 66th overall pick, going to the Cardinals. “It was unreal,” he said.
Later that night, he posted a message on Twitter.
“Dreams are possible,” Denton said. “I was a Cardinals’ fan because of my dad. I can’t imagine how proud of me he is right now. This was him.”
Progressing through the system
The first two years of Denton’s pro career were spent in rookie ball, one in the Gulf Coast League and one in Johnson City. He moved up to Peoria last year, but had to undergo an appendectomy at the start of the season which left him weak. He moved to State College, where he regained his strength and put together a solid season, especially considering he still was only 19 years old.
Denton is back in Peoria this season, where he will go into this weekend’s series with a .246 average, 2 homers and 19 RBIs through 54 games.
“This is a much higher level of competition, and you can’t really prepare for it,” Denton said. “It’s a learning process. I feel like I am getting better every day. I want to focus on the process. The game speeds up and the competition heats up and you have to concentrate on slowing it down.
“You can always improve on everything. I really haven’t used much of my power yet. I am starting to drive the ball. I’m still only 20, which is easily forgotten sometimes.”
Denton’s manager, Chris Swauger, can see the progress. He can also see Denton’s dedication and desire to improve and he knows where that comes from.
“He may be the hardest working guy on the team,” Swauger said. “You have to make sure it’s always guided in the right direction. You have to steer all of that focus and energy onto the right things.”
Even without ever having met Denny Denton, Swauger sees the father’s influence and guidance on his son.
“Bryce goes back and studies video of the last series,” Swauger said. “That’s just the kind of guy he is. He eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. He takes it with him everywhere.
“Age is on his side. There is a huge difference between the upper level and lower level guys (in the farm system) and at this level it’s always a process of getting them to figure out what they do well and how to repeat it.”
At least for Denton, that includes thinking back to what his father would be telling him.
“He would just be telling me to get after it every day to get better,” Denton said. “He would tell me to stop hitting groundballs to the shortstop, stop striking out. I know that, and that frustrates me. He would be sitting out there, behind right field or left field, and he would find a way to park his car and yell or honk his horn when I messed up.”
Denton finds solace in the fact that now, from his current vantage point, Denny Denton is not only watching Bryce play, but keeping an eye on Chase, Zane and Myles at the same time.
“We used to be frustrated at times because all four of us played and he could only be at one place at one time,” Denton said. “It was rare he could even watch us at the same complex, even if we were on separate fields.
“Now he can watch all four of us at the same time. I know he’s smiling down.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains