After 32 years, tour of duty for Navy's 'Baseball Duff' coming to a close COLLEGE BASEBALL

May 01, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

The phone rings in the crowded little office in the Naval Academy Athletic Association building and the voice answers, "Baseball Duff."

The name rings as true as "Basketball Jones." Joe Duff has been synonymous with Navy baseball during the past 32 seasons, winning 591 of the 930 games he has coached.

"Anyone who hangs around long enough and has a few talented players can pick up 500 victories," said Duff, 69, who will not strive to reach the 600-win milestone.

Barring an unlikely at-large Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament bid for his 17-14 Mids, he will call it quits after this weekend. Navy plays tonight against Bowie State at Memorial Stadium and at home tomorrow afternoon against Catholic University. Duff will be replaced by assistant Bob MacDonald.

"It's just the right time to quit," said Duff, who will stay at the academy as MacDonald's "adviser" and junior varsity coach. "When you're 69, you just don't have the concentration you need for this job."

Duff, who starred in basketball and baseball at West Virginia in the late '40s, has done more than make do since replacing Max Bishop, a Hall of Fame Philadelphia A's infielder, as Navy coach in 1962.

He served a nine-year apprenticeship under Bishop and doubled as an assistant basketball coach to Ben Carnevale, another Hall of Famer.

"How many guys are fortunate enough to learn the business from a pair of Hall of Famers?" Duff said. "Max and Ben were both perceptive, innovative coaches, strong on organization. But they also taught me never to take yourself too seriously. The players come first."

Duff thinks several of his players could have made it in the major leagues, including two Heisman Trophy winners, halfback Joe Bellino and quarterback Roger Staubach.

"I coached Bellino as a plebe and then later with the varsity," Duff said. "Joe was a marvelous catcher until he tore his shoulder catching a pass in the 1961 Orange Bowl.

"He was a definite pro prospect. One day, playing against Delaware, he hit a tape-measure home run. Well, word got back to Bob Carpenter of the Phillies, who was also one of Delaware's benefactors.

"The next day," Duff said, "I got a call from Charley Eckman, the former NBA coach and referee who also scouted this area for the Phillies. Charley screams, 'I thought we were friends, Joe. Why didn't you tell me about Bellino?' "

Staubach -- who won varsity letters in football, basketball and baseball -- was a rifle-armed, .300-hitting center fielder in the mid-'60s.

But baseball ranks behind football, lacrosse and basketball in the pecking order of Navy sports. Duff learned that lesson well one season when his baseball team faced an emergency.

"I had a young center fielder who ran like a deer, but was kind of reckless," he said. "One day, he runs full steam into my left fielder chasing a fly, loses a few teeth and breaks the left fielder's jaw.

"So now I'm down to just two outfielders, with a couple of crucial games left on our schedule. Staubach is going through spring drills with the football team, and I figure I can borrow him for a couple of days. I pleaded my case with [football coach] Wayne Hardin. He gave me a queer look and snapped, 'Don't you know we're still making up our depth chart?' "

Duff himself once harbored big-league ambitions. He was offered several minor-league contracts after attracting pro scouts as an outfielder in prep school in his hometown of Cranford, N.J. But that was in 1942, and Duff enlisted in the Marines, seeing action in the South Pacific.

"I was lucky to get to play some baseball against big-leaguers like Johnny Mize and Gene Woodling who toured the Pacific islands," he said. "I think that convinced me a 150-pound outfielder didn't have a chance to make it big.

In 1945, he was nominated for Officers Training School in Quantico, Va.

"They flew two of my Marine buddies home and I shipped back, making a million stops. By the time I got to Quantico, we'd dropped the A-bomb. They told me I could stay on in the reserves or be discharged, and I was happy to get out.

"My buddies opted for the reserves, and both were killed in the Korean War. Someone up there was looking after me."

Watching his former students sent off to battle became one of the toughest parts of Duff's job at the academy.

"Several great kids I coached got killed during the Vietnam war," he said. "A left-hander named David Carlson and Rick Crayton, a catcher, got killed in 'copter crashes, and Curt Avore, a first baseman, was shot serving as a supply officer."

A number of his players return to the academy as instructors, commandants or just to visit and reminisce.

"Joe had a doghouse we called the 'Gulag,' " said Steve Weiman of Bowie, who pitched for the Mids in the late '80s. "It was like a leper colony. You got sent to practice on the upper field for not following instructions, until you worked your way back into his good graces.

"Off the field, he always offered with advice," Weiman said. "On the field, he was extremely intense. One spring, he left me in the 'Gulag' for 15 days, but that was enough time to learn to throw a slider, and then he took me back."

Duff remembers joking when he arrived at the academy in 1953 that almost everyone on the Navy lacrosse team was "all-something-or-other."

"It seemed if you could carry the ball down the field without dropping it, you were a lacrosse All-American," he said. "But now I can say, in my heart, every kid I coached in baseball here for over 30 years was an all-star."

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