BASEBALL: Chasing A Vision
Published: Monday, February 24, 2014
Updated: Monday, February 24, 2014 11:02
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.”