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Longtime Duluth East baseball coach Rudolph retires

John Rudolph

John Rudolph coached his first baseball game when he was 12 years old. Forty-five years later, he may have coached his last.

Rudolph is departing the Duluth East dugout, his final hurrah coming in last week’s Section 7AAA finals, where the Greyhounds’ spirited postseason run fell agonizingly short of the state tournament.

Elk River rallied past East 3-2 on Thursday to secure the section crown — and send Rudolph into baseball retirement.

“That last game was tough on him,” senior Jake Turner said. “We really wanted to get to state, knowing it was his last year.”

The silver lining: Now the 57-year-old and soon-to-be grandpa can focus on his family.

“As I age, my life’s changing. Any day now, my first grandchild will be here,” Rudolph said Saturday. “It’s getting harder and harder to just keep going, especially with everything else I’m missing out on. The sacrifice has gotten to the point that there are things I don’t want to sacrifice anymore.”

The father of three said he missed too much when his two oldest children — Josh and Kaitlyn — were seniors in high school. And with his youngest child, Roni, having just completed her junior year at East, Rudolph said he didn’t want to miss any more milestones while stashed away on a baseball diamond.

And he’s ready for a vacation.

“Since I started coaching high school baseball, we haven’t taken a family vacation,” said Rudolph, who also has worked tirelessly in the summer to strengthen the Lake Park VFW baseball program, a direct feeder system for the high school team. “That’s got to change.”

Rudolph was an assistant with the Greyhounds in 2000 before replacing former coach Wayne Opsahl in 2001. He held the perch for 14 seasons, leading East to a pair of state tournaments.

Asked his career record Saturday, Rudolph scoffed.

“No clue,” he said. “A lot of coaches know right down to the exact win; I have no idea. I’ve thought about it a couple times — I could probably research it and maybe figure it out — but it’s about the boys and not the wins and losses.”

A biology and chemistry teacher at East, Rudolph told his athletic director, Shawn Roed, at the end of the 2013 campaign that this spring would be his final go-round with the Greyhounds. Nobody, though, really believed Rudolph, a baseball lifer who looks most comfortable in a uniform and on a field.

His players knew going into the section playoffs that elimination would spell the end of their coach’s tenure. And they stayed alive until the very end, going 4-2 in the postseason. As their run progressed, a few of the players adopted a “DoingItForJohn” Twitter hashtag.

“It just made us want it for him so much, and not really for ourselves,” senior Chris Olson said.

Suddenly, Rudolph is the ex-Greyhounds coach, a reality that had its fair share of skeptics in recent months.

“They didn’t believe me,” he said. “They said ‘there’s no way,’ because I’ve been coaching baseball way too long, not just East, but I’ve been around baseball way too long that people thought I’d never give it up.”

Rudolph said Greyhounds coaching icon Bill Cortez always told him he’d know when it was time to walk away. That time arrived this spring, and Rudolph is content with his decision.

“I’ve been comfortable with that,” he said. “I’ll miss baseball, but I’m still going to be around.”

Rudolph does have one final coaching responsibility — the North team in the laid-back Minnesota High School Baseball All-Star Series.