At a young 36 years old, Mike Gambino looks like a baseball player. Sitting at his desk wearing a maroon-and-gold Eagles baseball cap and a grey Boston College sweatshirt, it’s not hard to picture Gambino fielding grounders in the infield or taking at bats for the Eagles-the player is still very much a part of the coach.
Gambino the manager has struggled far harder than Gambino the Birdballer ever did, though.
Fourteen years ago, Gambino finished his college baseball career in Chestnut Hill. After 166 starts in the middle infield, a career batting average of .313, and first-team All Big East, All-New England and All-Northeast region honors his senior year, he graduated and headed for the Red Sox minor league system.
Fast forward to 2010. After stints scouting for Detroit and coaching at Virginia Tech, Gambino was chosen as the new head coach of the BC baseball team. Charged with a daunting rebuilding assignment, he knew it would be a difficult challenge, one that would take time-his goal was long-term program success, not short-term team accomplishment.
History has shown that time is a commodity coaches can scant afford, and after three years, 51 wins, and 106 losses, many on the outside have lost faith in Gambino’s vision and the end game. Last year’s seemingly endless downward spiral led to calls for his job and spawned frustrated pleas for an intervention to stop the program’s bleeding.
Yet after three seasons with very little to show for his effort and even less to celebrate, Gambino sits in his office filled with confidence. As frigid, rain-sopped snow pounded Alumni Stadium outside his window, he smiled, unable to contain his enthusiasm for the season ahead and the team he’s built. Gambino hasn’t lost faith.
“I don’t-I sort of want to be cautious about sounding too optimistic, but I love where this team is right now,” Gambino said last week. “I love our leadership, I love how the boys are working, I love our depth. This is a year that I’ve sort of been looking toward really even since I took over, knowing it was going to be a rebuild, and knowing it was going to take a couple years, and also knowing the character of what is now our senior class.”
Gambino’s vision for success is based around character and hard work, both in baseball and life. He’s built the core of his team around those ideals-his three captains, center fielder Tom Bourdon, infielder John Hennessy, and pitcher Eric Stevens have been through the ACC wringer over the past few seasons but espouse nothing but faith in the system, the team, and belief in what unrelenting effort can bring.
In his first season as head coach, Gambino brought the No. 8 jersey back into BC baseball. Before losing his battle with Hodgkin’s disease in the summer of 2000, Peter “Sonny” Nictakis-a two-year captain-had worn No. 8, and Gambino began a tradition of giving Sonny’s number to the player who best exemplified the spirit of BC baseball and handled adversity well. Returning as a captain, Bourdon is wearing Sonny’s number for the Eagles this season.
“To see the number of votes he got last year [for captain] as a junior was unbelievable,” Gambino said. “And then [he] did it again this year. The team also has a say in who wears No. 8, and to see how many votes he got for that, it’s amazing to see.”
Bourdon, Hennessy, and Stevens are the official ambassadors of Gambino’s team, but in the face of early adversity, the widespread accountability Gambino has worked to build into his squad is becoming apparent. In the first weekend of regular-season play, senior catcher Nate LaPointe blew out his knee. With the starting catcher’s job thrown into question, LaPointe abandoned any allowances of self-pity and shifted immediately into a player-manager role.
On Wednesday night at practice in the bubble, Travis Ferrick, a newly established utility man, Nick Sciortino, a high school short stop turned catcher, and Stephen Sauter, a sophomore catcher, took rep after rep from behind the plate, simulating a throw down to second. LaPointe stood on crutches a few feet away, watching on, offering criticism, advice, and encouragement.
“For a kid that got some not-so-great news that his season’s over-at best his season is over, at worst his career might be over, and we’re still kind of waiting on that-and to completely put himself on the back burner and say, ‘Well, now what can I do to help the team?’-his leadership has grown since that injury,” Gambino said. “Our three captains are guys that we know lead and we know are great leaders, and Nate has jumped right in there as well.”
As practice wound down and everyone else cleared the field, Ferrick stuck around for extra reps from assistant coach Scott Friedholm as LaPointe watched on. Again and again he took the flip from Friedholm, hopped out of his stance, tossed his mask, and gunned the ball to second. At one point, after hurling a ball that trailed to the right, Ferrick yelled “thank you,” and motioned as if to wrap it up. It was a simple moment but a strangely telling one. Friedholm fired back “you’re not done yet,” and without a complaint or grimace-with only a chuckle, Ferrick yelled, “I was just saying thank you,” and dropped back into the stance to go back to work.
Gambino has had teams filled with character and hard workers before, but this Birdball edition is somehow different: There’s a new level of togetherness, a feeling of levity and focus, and a willingness to work being felt by the coaches and players. So far, BC has shown an ability to win, but has lost games in a frustrating fashion as well. During the first weekend of games, BC went down to Santa Clara early but fought back for the comeback win.
“We didn’t play great in the first couple of innings [of the Santa Clara game],” Gambino said. “In the past, you could just feel it in the past, when things went wrong like that it might have just gone away.”
This past weekend, that resilience was missing. BC went 1-2 in its series against Stetson, failing twice in comeback bids against the Hatters.
Gambino’s teams have had character and lost before. They’ve worked hard and lost before, too. At the end of a season, a team isn’t judged on its camaraderie-it’s remembered by its record. Whether success is the result of clubhouse chemistry and character or new talent, in the end, success-or lack of it-is what defines a season, and so far it’s been up and down for the Eagles.
While BC has a somewhat intangible and overwhelming feeling of togetherness, this team does have three visible things that have been sorely lacking in the past: depth, talent, and confidence.
Last year, Birdball was an extremely young team. BC dropped a lot of games and lost Bourdon to a hand injury for the last third of the season. The Eagles started the season losing early and often, at one point suffering 15 losses in a row. The coaches and team leaders couldn’t pull it together, and there was too much youth and not enough depth to right the ship.
“I told my staff when we took the job, year three was going to be our hardest,” Gambino said. “We knew what the roster was going to be, we knew how young we were going to be, we knew all those things.”
Reflecting on last season, Gambino said one of his mistakes was failing to truly prepare such a young team for how hard the ACC schedule would be. BC finished a dismal 4-25 in conference play, with all four of those victories coming at the end of the season when his team was seasoned by relentless play and lessons of defeat.
“For a group of kids who haven’t lost a lot of baseball games in their lives-all those freshmen and sophomores coming in-for them to realize that if you’re 15-15 in our conference then you’re a top-10 if not top-15 team,” Gambino said. “You might get swept on a weekend. You don’t want to, but you might get swept.”
By the end of the season, though, Gambino said the team was able to look ahead to next year, and the silver linings buried in loss after loss were emerging quickly.
“As discouraging as that record was-and none of us were happy about that record-there were a lot of really encouraging things at the end of last year,” Gambino said. “We sort of left last year, and everybody kind of looked around saying, ‘This year stunk, but this program, we’re okay right now, and there’s some pretty good things going on.'”
One of those takeaways was the performance of Andrew Chin. Chin started 13 games and made 14 total appearances for BC, finishing the season with 45 strikeouts and a 3.88 ERA. The redshirt sophomore has continued to improve this year, going 2-0 in his first two starts with a .84 ERA and striking out seven batters in 10.2 innings pitched.
As a whole, right from the start the pitching staff looks much improved from last year. Stevens, Chin, and John Gorman round out the starting rotation, but an influx of freshman talent has provided the bullpen with much-needed depth. Mike King, Michael Strem, Bobby Skogsbergh, Justin Dunn, and redshirt freshman Luke Fernandes have emerged as viable relief options for the Eagles, as well as sophomores Jesse Adams and John Nicklas.
“The freshman arms are going to have big roles, big roles out of our bullpen, and they’ve already earned trust about how they handle things right away,” Gambino said.
Behind the plate, the battle is wide open between Sauter and Sciortino-either of the catchers could make a push for it-and Gambino said he believes they both have the ability to be very good ACC catchers.
One of the emerging talents on offense last year was Chris Shaw, who led the team with six homeruns. The 6-foot-3, 248-pound sophomore has quickly shown he can be the Eagles’ power hitter this year, batting .370 with a .667 slugging percentage and one homerun through seven games played.
After two weekends of games, BC is 4-3 , and has been, at times, resilient, dominant, and disappointing, winning big at Stetson but also failing in a ninth inning comeback.
Over the past few years, Gambino has faced a lot of challenges and a lot of problems. Now, with things looking up, he has a new hurdle: making his players believe that their success is real, not just a fluke.
“I think one of our weaknesses could be an unfamiliarity with winning and being a really good team,” Hennessy said. “I think we have the potential to be a very good ACC team and make a run to the postseason. But just the fact that the last three years we haven’t made the postseason, so kind of building on that, is kind of like that fear of being really good-once we start making a run and becoming a really good team, it’s like ‘Wow, look at what we’ve done, what do we do now?’ I think that kind of works with our theme of not getting complacent and getting better every day.”
After three years of toiling through the regular season with no payoff in the end, the Eagles’ goal this season is to get to the postseason, to make it through the ACC tournament and to get to regionals. It’s not going to be an easy path. BC faces early away series at Miami and the University of Virginia, and then shortly after that, Florida State comes to town. Despite the talent this team possesses, it’s going to lose games, and in order to make the postseason, it must respond better to losses than it did last time around.
“It was pretty hard last year, going through a certain skid, but this year it’s just a different makeup,” Stevens said. “I think we have the guys that will surround each other and will pull together and be able to go through a tough time like that and be able to rebound and put something together. Hopefully that’s only one or two games, but you try and nip that in the bud early on.”
Gambino sits in his office as the hellish mix of ice rain and snow continues in torrents outside his window. He refuses to use the northeast weather as an excuse-he says with the kids he’s recruited, adversity is that is the reason they’ll win, not the reason they’ll lose.
The collection of objects arranged on Gambino’s desk is a testament to his coaching style. Among the assemblage is a framed photo of his friend and teammate Sonny, a money clip given to him by a member of the last BC baseball team to make the College World Series, the St. Ignatius cup-an honor awarded yearly to one men’s and one women’s team that scores the highest in athletic performance, academic performance, overall citizen, and Baldwin points-a medal given to him by a BC graduate and Navy Seal team three member, and a plaque from his father, who passed away last year.
The plaque faces outward so anyone sitting in front of his desk can see it. It reads: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
Gambino’s vision of BC baseball is spread across his desk, represented in the monuments he’s collected: Build a team of closely-knit, hard-working, high-character people and let them play for each other and their school-the wins will come as a result.
Gambino’s goal for the season is aligned with that of his team-to make the postseason-but on a broader scale, he wants to bring respect back for the program he loves and success for the senior class he loves.
“They came into a spot, I don’t know that they realized they were coming into a rebuild, and have been through the struggles and have worked so hard to get this thing going in the right direction,” Gambino said. “I’m excited for them to get paid off. I want nothing more than to watch these kids perform in a regional and for them to know how big of a part they had in getting us back to playing Birdball.”
For Gambino, much is riding on his fourth season. Achieve the goal of making the postseason, and his vision for a winning BC baseball program built on character and work ethic is one step closer to a reality. Lose like last season, and that vision could fail with him. He’s made mistakes and learned a lot over the past few seasons, and he’s smart enough to know that while this team has the potential to become great, it won’t happen overnight, and it’s going to require constant improvement. It’s going to take time, and there are going to be failed comebacks and series sweeps along the way. A vision doesn’t reach fruition simply from desire-it comes together game by game, individual wins and losses at a time.
“I tell the boys this and same for myself: Our job is to keep getting better every day,” Gambino said. “I definitely look back at some things I did over the first couple of years and some mistakes I made and things that I would do differently, absolutely-and learning how to communicate better to a group of guys and learning how to develop guys. I hope I’m always getting better.”