he bus doors veered open to the right, cutting through the thick, damp June air. For now, the rains had stopped over Coral Gables—though in South Florida, they can come back at any moment, given the occasional flash of lightning beyond Marlins Park over the horizon. From the gate by the left field foul pole, Boston College baseball traveled in a clump. On the luscious green grass of Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park, the quality of which this team couldn’t even imagine, the Eagles surrounded the third-base dugout. A team that had been threatened for the chopping block had made it to a Super Regional against a perennial powerhouse, the University of Miami. As the players grabbed their equipment and trotted onto the dirt, their brows grew taut and serious, eyes focused, and mouths in a straight line. Each of the Eagles had his game face on.
Donovan Casey doesn’t have a game face. Well, not that kind anyway.
Instead, he sports a bright smile that infects all those around him. His eyes are bright, relaxed, and wide open. And, at last returning to his natural habitat, he just had to do the thing that brings him arguably as much joy as baseball: mess with his teammates.
As the Eagles lined up at home plate, Casey would creep behind them, one by one, knocking their Louisville Sluggers or Mizunos onto the ground. If he was lucky, they’d stumble with the bats. The pitchers weren’t exempt—Casey is an equal-opportunity prankster, considering he identifies with the guys on the mound as much as the ones in the field. As Justin Dunn, the day’s starting pitcher, stretched with a foam roller, Casey calmly walked over and knocked it out from under him. It’s these kinds of stunts that Casey believes keep the team in the right mindset. For his biggest victim, first baseman and roommate Mitch Bigras, it perfectly embodies him. And for a family like Birdball, it’s necessary.
“Everything he does, it’s something you’d laugh at,” Bigras said. “That’s the stuff you’d remember from Donovan: Playing hard, making jokes, getting hits.”
But those three qualities can’t quantify the junior from Stratford, N.J. Casey doesn’t just play hard, make jokes, and get hits. He can lay a bunt down for a hit and steal second to get into scoring position. He can dive for a ball along Shea Field’s foul lines or throw a runner out at third. He can take to the mound in the bottom of the ninth with arguably the ACC’s best changeup. And he can take charge as a leader who cares more about his teammates than anyone else.
He isn’t just a goofy, sweet-swinging right fielder in the background anymore. Donovan Casey is the every-tool player that BC needs.
roy Casey loves his stickshift 2005 Chevrolet Corvette C6. With a fire-engine red exterior and sleek, leather exterior, the Corvette would be the prized possession of any middle-aged, post mid-life crisis father. And no one is allowed to sit in the driver’s seat. Except for his son.
“Donovan is the only person I’d ever trust while I’m asleep in the car,” Troy said.
Throughout his youth and high school baseball career, the two dotted the map driving the Corvette. One summer, Troy recalled, they tallied almost 2,000 miles in the car, traversing the South to take on the country’s best baseball players. Donovan’s favorite memory comes from a trip to the birthplace of the sport, Cooperstown, N.Y. On one Labor Day weekend, the Caseys passed the Susquehanna Hot Air Balloon Festival. The two pulled off I-84 and took pictures of the multicolored spectacle for hours.
But of course, whenever he took a break from the car he loves as much as his dad, Donovan was playing ball with one goal in mind: be the best player on any team for which he played.
He first proved that on the mound. Instead of toying with breaking balls or straight heat, Casey developed a devastating changeup. Casey’s change is his primary outpitch—Gambino said he can hit the mid-90s with his four-seamer, but will make a 14-m.p.h drop once he throws on the third finger. It’s a troublesome pitch for college players, but it was practically unhittable.
Troy recalled the first time he realized that his son had an 80-grade change. At an AAU national tournament in Myrtle Beach, Casey’s team, the South Jersey Young Guns, faced a big deficit to their rival, the Tri-State Arsenal. His coach put Casey on the mound—the Arsenal never threatened again, giving the Young Guns time to mount a comeback. In the championship game, Casey threw another five scoreless. Knowing Casey had reached his innings limit, Troy recalled, the other coach ran out of his dugout screaming “He’s out of innings!” It was no matter, though. The Young Guns were already en route to their first national championship, and it was another of the gritty performances that caused Casey’s dad to bestow upon him the nickname, “Dirtball”.
By the time he reached Sterling High School, varsity baseball head coach Chris Hoffman saw a future for Casey. But it wasn’t just on the mound. After 15 minutes of hitting fungoes to Casey, his assistant coach had to stop tryouts.
“He told me, ‘I have your center fielder for the next four years,’” Hoffman said.
Unlike other outfielders, Hoffman said, Casey doesn’t rely on a ton of speed to cover ground. Rather, his aptitude was simply Mike Trout-esque—even if it made him nervous that Casey insisted on playing so shallow. To this day, Hoffman hasn’t seen a player with the instincts of Casey. Even as a freshman, he would be halfway to the ball before it was in play, feeling the direction in which the batter pulled the ball—his father credits his electric reaction time to the black belt he earned as a 12-year-old.
That skill in the outfield matched his play at the plate. Hoffman lauded Casey for his level, doubles-minded swing. He had a fantastic eye at the plate—his senior year, Casey only struck out seven times. Casey hit .370 that season, though Hoffman insisted that Casey felt he could hit .500 if he had a little more luck.
That strength as a center fielder didn’t keep Casey from the mound—far from it. As a junior, Casey became the team’s ace. After a rough first outing, Casey had a season for the ages. He went 7-1 with an ERA of 0.11, ending the season on a 41-inning scoreless streak.
His best moments, unsurprisingly, came in the playoffs. In that magical junior season, Sterling faced Manchester Township in the quarterfinals. Though it was May, Hoffman said it was no warmer than 40 degrees with the wind blowing in. Casey battled against a solid pitcher, leaving each inning scoreless. But Hoffman recalled Casey’s reassurances in the dugout.
“Just get one, just get one, just get one,” Casey said. “We’re going to get one, because they’re not going to get any.”
Sure enough, after nine scoreless and 120 pitches, Manchester Township didn’t get any. And in the bottom of the ninth, Sterling got the one it needed. His senior year, Casey matched that performance against West Deptford. He struck out 12 and drove in four—including a two-run, 350-foot home run to the power alley in right—in the 13-3 win.
espite all that on-field success, it was a class trip to the mountains that changed the trajectory of Casey’s baseball career.
The winter entering Casey’s sophomore year, Troy received a phone call from the hospital. His son had crashed while snowboarding and broken his left wrist—doctors estimated he could throw in six weeks’ time. His coach for the Young Guns played it safe and wouldn’t let him on any travel trips to the warmer weather.
Casey couldn’t handle sitting for that long, regardless of any doctor’s orders. But Bob Barth, head coach of the Tri-State Arsenal, believed Casey could still play, or at least work out, during the injury. So, after a nasty spat with the Young Guns coach, he left the team. When Barth saw Casey in his office to sign up, the coach wondered why it had taken him so long to join the Arsenal.
“Coach Barth,” Casey said, “you never asked me.”
Impressed enough with his talent and leadership on the field, Barth soon called a good friend: Mike Gambino. Soon, the BC head coach began trailing Casey wherever he went. Troy remembers seeing him in Georgia and Florida, though of course, the NCAA barred the two from interacting.
But one trip to the desert made Gambino jump from liking Casey to needing to have him.
He had seen the numbers and heard the stories of his teammates. But one question remained: how much heart did he have on the field? Little did Gambino know he was dealing with Dirtball.
In the August going into his senior year, Casey entered a tournament in Arizona. Because of the summer heat, games had to be played either early in the morning or late at night. But a rare Arizona rain forced a game to be played in the face-melting heat of high noon. Casey’s team was getting blown out in the late innings when he hit a groundball to the second baseman, the most routine of plays. Instead of jogging it out lightly to return to the dugout with a fan and Powerade, Casey busted down the line as hard as he could, and nearly beat it out. The second after that play, Gambino offered him his first scholarship.
“A kid that’s that competitive, that runs that hard on a meaningless ground ball, in a meaningless game, in 148-degree weather, that kid is going to help you win,” Gambino said.
For Casey, he loved Gambino’s pitch that BC—with its poor facilities and rare home games—was the hardest place in the country to play. Casey adored the family aspect inspired by Pete Frates, the former team captain who has become the face of the movement to cure Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). And it helped that Gambino said everyone plays like he does: with reckless abandon.
“I play like every play is my last time on the field,” Casey said.
he adjustment to ACC play was no problem for Casey. In his freshman year, Casey slotted well into five-hole after beginning in low-pressure, bottom-of-the-order situations. He hit .298, a much higher average than the first-year campaigns of Johnny Adams, Michael Strem, Nick Sciortino, or even Chris Shaw. As Casey attests, a lot of those hits were in the infield—the ones he loves to beat out—rather than the gappers he wants. And, to build up his strength, Gambino strayed from using him in that two-way capacity.
So by 2016, Casey prepared to make the jump from contributor to centerpiece. He started strong with an average in the mid-.300s as late as mid-March. On the mound, he hadn’t given up a run in his first five appearances.
Yet Casey’s kind of gritty play came at a huge cost.
The Eagles eyed a home-series win against then-defending champion Virginia in the rubber game on April 10. Tied at one in the bottom of the eighth, Casey led off looking to get something started. He knocked a Baltimore chop over the head of the third baseman. Most players would’ve been content with a single—Casey eyed second base right away. In a Superman dive reminiscent of Pete Rose, Casey dove into the bag, his left hand first.
Immediately, he knew something was wrong.
Gambino tried jogging out to him, but Casey waved off his advances. The Eagles didn’t score, so Casey went out to right field the next inning, his glove placed precariously over his swollen left hand. After the inning, Gambino checked on him—“no, Coach,” he replied. “I’m good.”
“C’mon, you’re tougher than this, you’re used to this,” Casey thought as he flexed his hand.
By the time his spot in the order came up in the 10th, Gambino knew something was up. Instead of practicing swings, Casey was mocking drag bunts, like he’d do back in freshman year. So again, he approached Casey.
“And all he said to me was, ‘I think I can hit,’” Gambino said. “A hustle double turned into a broken hand, and he was still trying to compete for his team.”
Finally, Gambino was forced to remove Casey from the game. Scott Braren replaced him in the lineup to leadoff the 10th, now down 4-1. Braren singled and would come around to score on a game-tying three-base double by Michael Strem. He’d then get the game-winning single in the 13th.
Even without playing—with a broken hand, no less—Casey had helped his Eagles to the victory that would spark them on the path to Miami.
o pass the time with the injury, Casey returned to his other favorite pastime: screwing with Bigras.
“Oh, he knows where to push my buttons,” Bigras said.
Casey has become legendary among his teammates for how he can get someone at any moment. Even Gambino can sense it—one of his favorite stories Casey tells is when he poured baby powder all over his dad’s bed as a 10-year-old to create a giant puff of white smoke when he jumped onto it.
But no one gets it worse than Bigras. The two have been roommates the last couple of years, and Casey never misses an opportunity. On a trip to Port Charlotte, Fla. in Feb. 2016, Casey faked that he was Bigras in the hotel lobby to take his room key. He snuck upstairs, tied all of his shoelaces together, and threw them out the window, Rapunzel style. Then, he took all of Bigras’ underwear, ran them under the sink, and put them in the freezer. Finally, he took all of Bigras’ pillows—his signature move—just for good measure.
“He wasn’t too happy, and he knew exactly who did it,” Casey said, incapable of holding back a smile.
His biggest hit came last season alongside teammates Jake Palomaki and Joe Cronin. The group lived in a six-man suite in Stayer Hall, when they came out to find Bigras’ clothes all over the common room. Casey asked Bigras politely—so he claims—to pick up the clothes. When Bigras refused, Casey took action. He tied all of the laundry together, threw the rope out the window, and ran it up a tree across Campanella Way. When Bigras found the line, he had to climb the tree to get it down.
“He’s a target,” Casey said. “I love to mess with the kid.”
Bigras, on the other hand, wasn’t as thrilled.
“Yeah, that’s Donovan doing Donovan things,” Bigras said.
ow that he’s back on the field full-time, the question is whether Casey has recovered well enough to become the three-hole/cleanup hitter Gambino expects of him. That includes taking advantage of the gaps, using his speed to make pitchers nervous with bunts or steals, and going bombs away.
Casey has shown flashes of what he can be after returning from the broken hand for the NCAA Tournament. In his first game back against Tulane, Casey notched a double, single, two runs scored, and a hit-by-pitch. Against Miami, Casey went 4-for-12 with four RBIs, three runs scored, and a home run. Without his impact bat, it’s hard to imagine BC would have been as competitive against the high-powered Hurricanes offense. Coupled with the occasional save opportunity Gambino is sure to give him, Casey will eye to continue a rise to stardom.
But, letting out an exasperated sigh, Bigras knows one thing. No matter how hard Donovan ‘Dirtball’ Casey plays on the field, no matter how big of a name he becomes, nothing will save him from the pranks that are sure to come this season.
Playing hard, making jokes, getting hits. Yeah, that’s Donovan doing Donovan things.
Featured Images by John Quackenbos / BC Athletics and Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor