EASTON — On July 4, 1966, a 24-year-old Red Sox minor league catcher met a local bank teller named Patricia Markunas for their first date.
He drove her across the road from Ernie Shore field, where the Winston-Salem Red Sox played, and parked at the local fairgrounds. As the fireworks illuminated the sky above their heads, he felt compelled to utter a warning.
“Baseball and marriage do not go together,” he told her. “And I’m married to baseball.”
Two months later, he proposed.
Fifty-five years later, Patricia DeFelice sat in the bleachers of Lou Gorman Field at Stonehill College as a relentless wind bore down on her husband as he paced the third-base coaches box; a man whose relentless dedication to his craft has shaped Bentley baseball for the past 54 years.
On Sunday, nine days shy of his 80th birthday, Bob DeFelice slowly walked from that third-base box into the dugout following the 1,868th, and final, game of his career as the only baseball coach Bentley has ever known. For six years he’s been the longest-tenured college baseball coach in the country.
“Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Patricia said. “He loves the game and he loves teaching it. He doesn’t know how to stop.”
On the morning of his final game, DeFelice was out of the house before his wife woke, just as he has been every day for the past five-plus decades. He’s usually not home until after 7 at night. He spent 29 years as Bentley’s athletic director, helmed Winthrop football for 17 seasons, and founded the Eastern Football Conference. He’s won 848 games, been inducted into nine halls of fame, and presided over two national championships as athletic director.
But most importantly, “he’s the heart and soul of Bentley baseball,” said Bob Johnson, who played shortstop for DeFelice from 1980-84.
“It’s unbelievable,” said senior catcher Charlie Auditore. “Words can’t describe. Fifty-four years? I don’t think there’s anything you can say.”
Before he called his first informational meeting at Bentley in 1968, DeFelice already had lived a unique sporting life. He graduated from Boston College in 1963 and coached football at Christopher Columbus High School for three years before entering the Red Sox minor league system in 1965. He reached Double-A Pittsfield before hanging up his playing cleats. In 1968, Bentley athletic director Al Shields called and asked if he was interested in helming the school’s first baseball team.
In the spring of 1969, Bentley made its debut, playing 12 of 13 games on the road and one “home” game, at Brandeis. Practices were held in the gymnasium at Waltham High, where players struggled to differentiate the baseball lines from the basketball and volleyball markings.
“There’s prospects and suspects,” said Garry Keil, captain of that inaugural team. “We were all suspects.”
A year later, DeFelice took over the Winthrop football team, leading them to a 101-65-2 record, a 33-game winning streak, and two Eastern Mass. championships. In 1991, he succeeded Shields as Bentley’s second athletic director, leading the charge to improve the school’s facilities, including the Robert DeFelice baseball field in 2002 (complete with his statue out front), a major renovation of the Dana Athletic Center in 2006, and the construction of Bentley Arena in 2018.
“A big reason why I wanted to be a part of Bentley athletics is because of what Coach DeFelice has done,” said Vaughn Williams, who became the school’s third athletic director in 2020. “He’s hired great coaches. What he’s done with the facilities is beautiful. It’s a great foundation. I don’t know if I can ever match that legacy he had. It gives me something to work for.”
But the hearty Bentley supporters braving the tenacious wind Sunday afternoon weren’t discussing DeFelice’s accomplishments. They were talking about the relationships he cultivated.
“Outside of my parents, he’s one of the main people who molded me,” said Mike Hill, an assistant coach and former player who will take the reins from DeFelice next season.
DeFelice’s hard-nosed, no-frills style was intimidating for incoming freshmen — many will not forget the large vein that pulsates in his forehead when he becomes heated — but he won them over with his genuineness.
“He’s tough on you and it might seem like he’s against you, but there’s nobody in the world who has your back more than Coach,” said senior center fielder Kyle Halloran.
“He takes pride in mentoring boys to become men,” added Ron Bright, who played for DeFelice from 1987-90 and whose son, Cory, is now a junior infielder. “He taught me that character is what you do when no one is looking. Thirty-two years later and that’s still in my head.”
The pillars of DeFelice’s life have always been athletics, family, and faith. He and Patricia have four children and seven grandchildren. He usually attends mass at St. Michael the Archangel Parish, but if it isn’t early enough, he’ll find a 5 a.m. service on the commute from his home in Winthrop to his office in Waltham.
DeFelice, who attended spring training with a young Carl Yastrzemski, is also known for his expansive knowledge of the game.
“You thought you knew a lot about baseball until you played for someone who really knew a lot about baseball,” said Joe Majkut, Bentley’s shortstop from 1970-73.
While DeFelice’s final game resulted in a 4-1 loss that wrapped up a 17-25 campaign, he walked off the field with a wry grin on his face.
“I’ve got almost 1,000 losses, so it was just another one,” he laughed. “It’s been a long time. At some point in time it has to end. This was a good group to end with. They really overcame a lot of stuff. I feel good about it.”
So what’s next for the nearly octogenarian?
“I have no idea,” he chuckled. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I haven’t gotten there yet. Tomorrow, that will be a good question.”
Patricia offered that maybe they’ll plan a road trip to visit every Major League ballpark. But for a man who has spent the last five-plus decades taking life one day at a time, that’s quite the commitment.
“People ask ‘Are you going to feel sad?’ Of course I am. You’re leaving something you love,” he said. “It’s been a big part of my life and it’s been great for me. But I’m not going to disappear.”
He paused, another smile curling his lips: “And I’m a terrible golfer.”