Top Story, Spring, Baseball

Out Of The Swamp

The Boston College baseball team lands in an orange New Orleans sunset and boards a bus headed for Louisiana State University’s gorgeous 10,326-person baseball facility, a bit more than an hour’s drive from Louis Armstrong airport. It’s Thursday, Feb. 19, and after starting the year off 2-2, the opportunity to play a three-game series against No. 4 LSU means the unranked Eagles can test themselves against one of the premier, talent-rich teams in the country.

But first, they conduct a thorough analysis of the indigenous wildlife.

“There’s gotta be a gator roaming underneath here somewhere!” calls out a player from somewhere in the back of the bus.

A bird whips by the window. “Gators can fly in Louisiana!” says another in a terribly forced backwoods accent.

The bus begins to pass over miles of swamp. “This is where we find gators, boys. Pay attention!” booms an unmistakably loud Chris Shaw, the Eagles’ best player and leader by virtue of confidence, stature, and volume.

This BC team has two intangible, binding traits: a resilient sense of family and a collective pride intrinsically tied to Pete Frates, a former BC captain diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 2012 at the age of 27. As far as college teams go, they are impressively unified. The players thrive in each other’s presence and demonstrate widespread respect—it sounds simple, but this couldn’t be taken for granted over the past few seasons. It certainly doesn’t exist for every other team at BC. From the coach to the captain, the Eagles believe the strength of this baseball family can lead them to success.

In a way, it already has.

Four days separate BC from the start of the 2015 season, and two weeks remain before the LSU series. Yet another vengeful blizzard is dumping snow on the frozen tundra that serves as BC’s baseball field. The Alumni Stadium practice bubble, which has to be abandoned in high winds and snow for fear of collapse, is visible outside the window. BC and the University of Miami are the only schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) without permanent indoor practice facilities or concrete plans to build them. And the latter hasn’t seen any snowfall in over 38 years.

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BC head coach Mike Gambino, one of two people waiting out the storm on Conte Forum’s fourth floor, sits in his office, bundled in Under Armour sweats from his boots up, thrilled to be getting work done. It’s been five years, but he remembers every detail of the day that could end up saving his job.

He was out west when he got a call from Frates. A former star and friend of Gambino, Frates was still two years away from a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In 2014, Frates’ championing of the Ice Bucket Challenge raised millions of dollars and unprecedented awareness for ALS. But at the time, he was just playing ball for the Blue Sox in Lexington, Mass., a men’s team made up of post-grad guys who ad played college or minor league ball, a few college kids, and one high school sophomore named Chris Shaw.

“Dude, you gotta see this kid,” Frates told Gambino over the phone. “Kid’s playing some first base and outfield for us, but you should see this kid’s swing, you should see this kid’s power. You gotta come see this kid.”

Gambino landed at Logan Airport a few hours later, got in his car, and drove straight to the field in Lexington where the Blue Sox were playing. He watched from a distance as Shaw hit soft toss in the cage. Eventually, Frates walked over.

“Please tell me that’s the kid you asked me to come see,” Gambino said.

“Yeah, that’s him.”

The crown jewel of Massachusetts hitters landed right in Gambino’s lap thanks to Frates’ call. Five years later, Shaw is a college junior, hitting cleanup and playing right field for BC. Coming in at 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, he will likely be a first-round pick in the Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft this June, and scouts name him as a contender for the best college hitter in the country. He’s a preseason All-American pick, and looks the part.

Gambino says that Shaw is BC’s most powerful batter since Sean McGowan, who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the third round 16 years ago. He’s the kind of player who can almost ruin a batting practice with how far and hard he can blast a ball.

“For my money, I’ll take him over any bat in the country,” Gambino says.

Shaw is the Eagles’ most formidable, visible, and vocal weapon, but he can’t do it alone—no matter how good Shaw is this year, he needs help.

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“I don’t think people realize how good offensively guys like Blake [Butera], and Johnny [Adams], and Joey Cronin, and Mike Strem are,” Gambino says.

“There are going to be times when Chris is going to carry us, because he can do that. He can win a game for you. Chris is going to do that, but most of the time, it’s going to have to be those other guys.”

The seventh-inning stretch comes and goes, and it’s back to the game—the bloodbath—at hand. The Tigers are flattening BC’s hitters with whack-a-mole mallets and reducing the bullpen’s best efforts to a tragic game of pinball. It’s the third and final game of the series, and LSU carries an 11-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh. By the time legions of fans in purple flood the parking lot, the Tigers will have tacked on five more runs in the eighth, chased off seven BC pitchers, and bashed the Eagles for 21 hits. This third loss of BC’s Baton Rouge series lasts three hours and eight minutes. “Feels more like eight hours and three minutes,” says a sports information director in the press box.

Dark blue clouds stretch across the warm Louisiana night sky. Gambino pores over a freshly printed stat sheet. He walks out of the dugout at Alex Box Stadium and immediately blames himself for the carnage, saying that he knew BC was unfocused in pregame warmups, and he should have fixed it before the bayou beatdown began.

“We played two good games yesterday, had the chance to win two baseball games,” Gambino says. “The first one got away a little bit at the end, but it was a close ball game. The second one we had the chance to win at the end. Today was my fault.”

It’s harder to find any moral victories after a 16-2 loss. Gambino’s biggest critics, failing to see past the box scores of games one and two (8-3, 7-4), will call an otherwise competitive and promising weekend a nuclear meltdown, chalking it up to more of the same from BC, which has posted records of 22-33, 12-40, 22-34, and 17-34 under Gambino.

But they would be writing off the arduous gains the program has made. Finally, after four frustrating seasons, Gambino has an infield composed of ACC-caliber talent, a burgeoning superstar, and a united locker room.

“This team has a chance to be really good,” Gambino says before leaving the field. “But if we don’t do the things that we are capable of doing and have the ability to do and focus on those things, then we’re that.”

“That” being the same old BC baseball team that hasn’t made the ACC tournament since 2010—heavy on promises, light on wins.

The ball rockets off an LSU bat straight for the gap between third base and third baseman. Cronin explodes to his right, diving into the dirt. In a flash he’s up, instinctively gunning for first base. He tosses a perfect one-hop bullet to a full-stretch Strem, and the umpire cocks his arm and closes his fist. Out.

Abandoning first base, Strem breaks to his right and flails for a ball skipping toward the outfield. He can’t get there in time—it’s out of his range—but Butera flies along the edge of the infield to back him up. Senior pitcher John Gorman races to cover first, and Butera’s throw beats the runner by a millisecond.

Adams hurls his body toward second base, landing face-first in the clay but snagging a furious grounder on the hop. In one, smooth motion, without using his free hand, the shortstop flips the ball to Butera to force the out at second.

“I think we’re going to have the best defensive infield in our conference,” Gambino said prior to LSU. “And it’s a pretty good baseball conference.”

Gambino might be right. On defense and at the plate, BC has the potential to contend with any team in the country. That’s not what the players want to talk about, though.

“[The team is] just full of those guys that have bought into our mindset here of just grinding away and playing hard,” Butera said. “It’s a full team now, full of those guys.”

Shaw tied BC’s success late last season to the birth of the Eagles’ growing sense of unity.

“Honestly, I think that the biggest contributing factor to that success was just the clubhouse, like how we came together off the field,” Shaw said. “It became such a tight-knit family during that time that we were starting to pound teams.”

The Eagles earnestly believe that the greatest difference between 2015 and the last few unsuccessful seasons is the unity in the clubhouse. On the surface, this blatantly contradicts the individualistic nature of baseball. There’s no magic formula connecting a tight locker room with a winning record—it can keep players from getting at each others’ throats during slumps, but will only get them so far on the field.

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The Eagles’ sense of family is readily apparent, though, and anchored by their relationship with Frates. From the freshmen to the seniors, BC players eat together, go out together, and live together in mixed-grade rooms. They support Frates with stickers on their helmets, a flag in their dugout, and red FrateTrain wrist bands. Frates sends them messages regularly, and told the team he was expecting a baby by letting them know they were going to all be uncles. Frates is BC baseball.

“The hard part is you don’t want to overplay that hand, but at the same time it’s something that you can always go back to,” reliever Luke Fernandes said. “It’s always been said that when he was here he was the hardest worker, he was the best teammate, and now he’s continued that even though he’s not on our roster.”

On a logical level, family and pride should mean nothing in a sport dominated by recruiting, and there are few better reminders of that than the state-of-the-art locker rooms and finely manicured grass at LSU. Like the other Olympic sports at BC, baseball doesn’t charter flights, and due to the lack of artificial turf, snow and rain can render BC’s home field unusable for half of the season.

The bright lights in Baton Rouge illuminate a multi-million dollar complex nicer than most minor league ballparks, while back in Chestnut Hill, Shea Field doesn’t even have lights. The average BC student spends considerably more time tailgating for football games on the infield than watching baseball games. Gambino’s recruiting continues to improve, but his resources do not. His goals have no ceiling, but unless he can convince the northeast’s top prospects to play on borrowed home fields, his results might.

But then again, family is exactly what delivered BC’s greatest talent of the 21st century.

“Pete obviously played a big role in me coming here just because of how close I was with him in high school,” Shaw said. “He pretty much helped my recruiting get started. And plus, my mom was one of seven, and five of them came here, and my grandfather came here. Pretty much a no-brainer for me. I grew up loving BC.”

Early in the afternoon on Friday, Gambino reads a message to the team from the Frates family on behalf of Pete. “Be passionate, be genuine, be hard working, and don’t be afraid to be great!”

A few hours later, the Eagles take the field against the Tigers in front of thousands of LSU fans, and for long stretches of time, they look exactly like the team Gambino keeps promising is coming. But a few wild pitches, an incomprehensible obstruction call, and freaky errors—like Gabriel Hernandez’s throw from center field bouncing wildly off the mound—absolutely kill BC in key junctures.

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If the Eagles can eliminate the mistakes, their defense will be formidable. Right now, Gambino still needs to figure out his bullpen. If one of his starters blows up—Nick Poore only lasted an inning and two thirds on Saturday—the relievers will struggle to go an entire game against top talent. Justin Dunn, Mike King, or Jesse Adams may end up being the answer as the third weekend starter instead of Poore, but Gambino needs whoever is in there to last more than an inning or two. Assistant coach Jim Foster, who arrived from the University of Rhode Island in August, is constantly working to improve the bullpen.

Calling Friday’s pitchers over after dinner that night, a hulking Foster leaned over a dirty white tablecloth littered with scraped-clean plates of pasta and empty Gatorade bottles, and discussed the day’s positives and negatives. “That’s when the real coaching happens,” Foster said. “Not right after the game, cause the emotions are running high, but the real teaching moments happen when you can get them at a team dinner like that or on the side. That’s when it really sinks in and you can connect with them. I think we’re making some good strides.”

Nobody says a word. The only sounds on the bus are dull beats leaking through headphones, and restless shuffling around in seats. The atmosphere following a 14-run loss is not much better than that of a final exam held on a Saturday. Gambino instructs the team to shower up and be ready for dinner in half an hour.

Players, coaches, family, and friends of BC baseball fill up the patio at Mike Anderson’s, a popular seafood restaurant in Baton Rouge. When the Eagles travel with 40 they eat for 60, and tonight there’s enough food for 100. After dinner, the entire team takes a picture as Butera holds up a No. 3 Frates’ t-shirt. Back at the hotel, Foster calls a pitcher’s meeting. “Running shoes on!” jokes someone from the back of the bus.

Perspective breeds resilience, and with Frates at the heart of BC, there’s no shortage of perspective for the Eagles. BC is 2-5, but the season is very young, and painful lessons are better learned early on. On the way to the airport Sunday afternoon, the chatter returns. The bus crawls along with a flat tire, and rueful refrains of Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge” erupt periodically. “I didn’t see one damn alligator!” complains Shaw.

In less than a week, BC will head down to Florida for another series of tests and plenty of chances to hawk gators from the team bus.

“I truly believe this is the year we’re going to do something good for the school and for the program,” Shaw said before the start of the season.

Gambino’s Eagles believe. They believe that Shaw can be great, and that Cronin and Strem can protect him. They believe the bullpen will come around, and the worst times are in the past. They believe in Frates. They believe that the talent in their dugout and the unity of their clubhouse will make them a very good team.

Now, it’s time for them to convince everyone else.

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Featured Image by Connor Mellas / Heights Senior Staff

February 25, 2015