Dan Durkin shines as MSU baseball's 'Natural Leader'
When senior second baseman Dan Durkin takes the field, he wears the same Spartan uniform the rest of his teammates don — with one slight exception.
A green “C” is patched above the Spartans script on his jersey, distinguishing him as the first team captain since the 2014 season.
Rallying behind Durkin
Durkin has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches for his consistent work on and off the field, head coach Jake Boss Jr. said. Durkin is a brother on a team of best friends, a role model for underclassmen and the living embodiment to the culture Boss has worked for more than a decade to create.
“When he opens his mouth and says something it means a lot to the rest of his teammates because of the way he conducts himself,” said Boss, who is now in his 11th season at the helm of the Spartans.
Boss, reluctant to name captains in recent years, was approached by a number of players at the beginning of the season to favor Durkin as the team’s figurehead. With nearly a general consensus to name Durkin a captain, Boss said he knew his second baseman was the man to get behind to help the Spartans achieve their goals.
“I didn’t name him captain, it was more at the insistence of our players,” Boss said. “I guess I’m not the smartest guy, but I am smart enough to listen to my guys. They were insistent on it and I thought it was a great idea when they came to me about it.”
Durkin’s journey to leadership has been a process in the making since he first stepped foot in East Lansing nearly four years ago. Durkin, a native of Tinley Park, Ill., wears the captain’s patch with honor — because for him it’s personal.
“It means a lot to be the first one to wear that ‘C’ on your chest,” Durkin said. “I have to give credit to my teammates for bringing it up to coach. It’s probably the biggest honor I’ve ever had, and I didn’t really expect it. I’m just trying to lead by example and represent the Spartans.”
Defying the skeptics
Boss set the bar high for Durkin, a three-year letter winner at Victor J. Andrew High School and a two-time captain, in hopes of a player who would thrive sooner rather than later. As a senior, Durkin hit .430 with 40 RBIs and batted a school record .523 as a junior.
In his freshman year, Durkin had to face the growing pains of producing at the college level. In 23 games, Durkin hit .228 on 13 hits with little power. Durkin’s uncultivated eye paired with a lack of patience in the batter’s box led to 18 strikeouts and just six walks.
Durkin’s struggles carried over to his sophomore campaign and his playing time regressed as a result. After starting in 15 games in 2014, Durkin started eight in 2015 and played in 16. His plate appearances were nearly cut in half from 57 to 34 and for the second-straight year he tallied more strikeouts than hits.
The problem was he was always out in front. His swing wasn’t working and after tireless work with coaches, Durkin was left to his own vices to fix the problem.
“His career here has kind of been up and down,” Boss said. “He had a tough freshman year. He didn’t play a whole lot, if at all, really his sophomore year. We tried to change some things with him and with his swing and it just wasn’t working so we kind of let him go. We finally got out of the way and let him go and he figured it out.”
Determined to get himself out of the rut, Durkin took swings before and after practice. Before games Durkin comes to the field early with teammates to get in more reps before getting food, only to come back for more cuts before the start of a game.
“We asked him to do some things that weren’t natural for him and were really tough for him to grasp and figure out,” Boss said. “We stuck to it longer than we should have and I think it really hurt him early on in his career here. To his credit, he kept working and that’s something we really appreciated. He was frustrated he wasn’t playing and things weren’t going well but he never threw in the towel.”
Durkin finally broke out last season and became an All-Big Ten First Team honoree. Durkin started all 56 games and hit .324 in 207 at-bats. Durkin’s power surged almost exponentially to the tune of nine doubles and six home runs after previously only hit three doubles in his first two seasons.
The trend continues this season. Through 27 games as of April 8, Durkin was hitting .297 and was third on the team with 33 hits and second on the team with 13 extra base hits.
“I’ll take Dan Durkin in a big spot over anybody in the country because of his knack for the game,” Boss said. “He may not be the fastest guy, he may not have the strongest arm, but that’s the guy who I would like to have up at the end of the ballgame.”
Senior reliever and Durkin’s roommate Joe Mockbee said Durkin’s work ethic has rubbed off on the rest of the team and he credits the second baseman for the reason the team is hitting a conference-best .300 as a team.
“D never takes a play off,” Mockbee said with a smirk. “He’s always giving 100 percent, whether that’s in the field, hitting, on the bases or even in the dugout. He’s always helping everyone else out with talking about what the pitchers are throwing and always engaged in everything that he does baseball-wise and off the field.”
A rare honor
Boss did away with yearly captains in 2014 in part because not every captain fit the bill for Boss’ leadership standard. As Boss built tenure, he saw some captains were unable to take control of a locker room or lead by example on the field.
That’s where Durkin is different from the rest.
“We did captains when I first got here and then we kind of left it up to our players to vote,” Boss said. “Some of them were reluctant leaders, and I feel like that was a problem. It’s the type of thing you can’t be uncomfortable with. We had guys who were elected captain who didn’t play a whole lot, and that’s something where I feel like you have to be on the field.”
This season already has seen high and low points through the first two series of Big Ten play for the Spartans. MSU swept Illinois to open the conference slate and Durkin finished the weekend 3-for-15, smacked a pair of home runs and helped the Spartans bombard the Illini for 41 runs during the weekend.
MSU’s fortunes came to a screeching halt shortly after, losing a season-worst five straight games to Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan in midweek contests, and a sweep at home against Minnesota.
Though four of the five losses during the skid were decided by a run, it was Durkin’s leadership that kept the morale high and translated into back-to-back wins against Fresno State.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a weight, but it’s my job to make sure everything is back to normal,” Durkin said before the start of the Fresno series. “These guys don’t put pressure on me to be like that, but I’ll take it into my hands and get things back on the right track.”
Unlike other Spartans who have come and gone under Boss, Durkin has been able to distinguish himself as the new standard for leadership in Boss’s program.
With the regular season officially in full swing, Boss said he believes Durkin is the man to help bring MSU to its first Big Ten title since 2011.
“He takes care of his business off the field,” Boss said. “He’s a guy who is able to hold guys accountable. He does it the right way and he’s kind of the guy who rallies the troops so to speak and his personality is that of a natural leader.”
The clock is ticking for Durkin. It’s his last chance to leave a lasting impression in the record books, but Durkin’s greatest accomplishment for the Spartans, however, has been elevating the team’s chemistry to new levels.
Durkin said the key to being a successful leader stems with being a genuine person.
“I treat every guy like they’re important because every guy on this team is important,” he said. “You’re just as good as your weakest guy, so I just want everyone going out there, playing their hardest and doing everything the right way.”
Through his production and personable nature, Durkin has earned his worth as one of the premier middle infielders in the conference.
“Dan has probably been one of my best friends ever since we got here four years ago, which seems like a year ago,” Mockbee said. “He’s always there to lighten the mood or be serious whenever he needs to be serious. He definitely gets the guys going and ready to play every weekend and weekday.”
Mockbee said he even knew he would be a leader all along.
“D is a born leader,” Mockbee said. “He was even one of our leaders freshman year right when we got here. He was always talking, always being positive with everyone around. I think like everyone else that leadership just evolves each year because you get more comfortable with the people around you.”
When Durkin takes the field against Notre Dame on Tuesday, it will be another midweek effort to make a bid at an NCAA Tournament berth. It’s a cause Durkin can get behind proudly because he knows the rest of the team will get behind him.
“He’ll always be a guy I’ll give 100 percent for because I know he gives 100 percent for me,” Mockbee said.