Top Story, Spring

In Final Game at Shea Field, Birdball Clinches ACC Tournament Berth

It isn’t always easy to control your own destiny—some things are out of your hands. No matter how hard you might try, it isn’t always possible to change them.

That’s not a way of thinking that Mike Gambino really subscribes to. There have been numerous factors out of his control during his now seven-year run as the head coach of Boston College baseball. He has dealt with bad (and sometimes devastating) weather; crippling injuries; talented players being drafted with years of eligibility remaining; and perhaps most significantly, a below-average set of facilities. But despite all that—and not to mention competing in the more talented division of the most talented conference in college baseball—he seeks to foster an environment where his guys believe they can beat anybody, anytime, any place.

It’s part of the reason why saying goodbye to Shea Field, which is set to be retired and replaced by new fields on Brighton next spring, isn’t as easy as you might think. The 56-year-old field has never been what anyone would call ideal. Just seven years after it was erected beneath the easterly shadow of Alumni Stadium, it underwent a major renovation to prevent it from sinking further into the ground. (At that time, center field was four feet lower than home plate.) It remains one of the few fields in the Northeast without turf, meaning there are rainouts aplenty and no chance for players to practice on turf before hitting the road. It doesn’t have camera wells, meaning it cannot host any video streaming.

Yet despite all those missing pieces that makes recruiting less appetizing, Gambino has fought to build a winning program. He finds guys who buy into that underdog system, who are willing to play on a field that is dwarfed both in size and quality by most others on the team’s schedule. And it’s on Shea Field, with its lack of full light towers and permanent fence, that those guys have come together to play.

“There’s not enough time to talk about all the special feelings and memories here,” Gambino said. “It’s so crazy that you can have this thing that can be such a disadvantage in so many ways in recruiting, but it’s such a part of our DNA and who we are as a program … everybody talks that we’re so excited the stadium is finally getting built, but we’re going to miss the cage.”

This isn’t all to say Gambino and the rest of the team aren’t excited about getting an upgraded field—they are. But they’ll miss the magic that they made for themselves there. And despite all those rainouts, and the uneven hops on dirt, and pieces of the wall falling over from the wind, there’s a sense that magic hadn’t quite run out.

Maybe it was Senior Day, where five guys—Johnny Adams, Chris Balogh, Luke Fernandes, Bobby Skogsbergh, and Michael Strem—were honored in front of their families and fans. Maybe it was the presence of so many Birdball alums, or the relatives of Eddie Pellagrini, who threw out the ceremonial first pitches before the game. Or maybe it was a fake story about the team reaching the ACC Championship Gambino had commissioned a few weeks earlier to give the guys some inspiration.

But when BC baseball went down 7-3 today against Notre Dame in a game that could give the Eagles a berth to the ACC Tournament, no one in the third base dugout panicked. No one considered that they could lose the last-ever game scheduled for Eddie Pelligini Diamond on Shea Field.

Things weren’t looking good at the time, though. Heading into the day, the Eagles had a couple ways to clinch one of the top-10 seeds necessary to make a trip down to North Carolina. First, on the last day of the ACC regular season, they could hope that Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh would either both lose, or both win, since BC had the three-team tiebreaker. Or, they could win, sweeping Notre Dame for the first time in team history. But they focused on just one of those outcomes.

“That was the goal the whole time through, let’s not have to scoreboard watch,” Gambino said. “Let’s try to keep it as simple as possible.”

Brian Rapp, who started for the Eagles, never quite had a consistent feel for the ball. Besides a crisp 1-2-3 second inning, Rapp allowed four walks, a hit-by-pitch, and a couple pass balls get the best of him. Notre Dame took advantage, using both hard hit balls to the gap and a few well-placed bunts to build an early lead.

BC also came out of the gate swinging. The team had at least one baserunner every inning, initially driving Notre Dame’s starter from the game after just 2 2/3. Things just slipped a little out of their reach.

In the top of the third, Notre Dame’s Matt Vierling hit a high lazy liner to short, which even with a perfectly-timed jump just barely cleared the glove of Adams, and a run scored on the next play. The next inning, as BC threatened with runners on second and third with two down, Brian Dempsey hit a sharp liner toward right. Second baseman Nick Podkul got a glove on this one, however, saving what would have been two runs from scoring and preserving a 5-3 lead at the time.

As BC continued to trail, the other situations for the Eagles weren’t falling their way, either. Wake Forest routed Pittsburgh early on, meaning Miami would have to beat Virginia Tech to allowed BC to clinch. Those two teams hung with a 2-2 tie through nine innings before Virginia Tech took a 5-2 lead in the top of the 10th. The Eagles’ destiny was put fully back in their lap.

Birdball’s bullpen rose to the challenge. After Rapp walked the first two batters in the fifth, Gambino made the move to Carmen Giampetruzzi. The lefty allowed his two inherited runners to cross the plate but stopped the bleeding after that, allowing just one hit in two innings’ work. Luke Fernandes, sporting a 9.64 ERA entering the game, took the ball after that and retired the side in order. Donovan Casey closed the door for the final two innings, marking a combined effort of two hits, one walk, and no runs in five innings’ work.

Meanwhile, BC continued to chip away at the lead, scoring a run each in the fifth and sixth to make it 7-5, Notre Dame. After Gian Martellini walked and Jake Alu knocked a base hit, Mitch Bigras singled to score a run. For some reason, Bigras tried to stretch it into a double—he was thrown out by four feet.

Instead of hanging their heads, the players turned to Adams, their captain, who Gambino said everyone knew was going to be a big part of their inevitable win.

He blasted a game-tying triple to the wall.

One inning later, with the score still tied at 7, Birdball loaded the bases with two outs, just around the time Virginia Tech had taken its 5-2 lead. Who else could step to the plate but Adams, who seems to get these types of opportunities regularly throughout his four years. And he often makes the most of them.

“I just try to take it day by day, try to be as good of a person and as good of a player as I can every single day,” Adams said. “Just try to help my team win. The rest kind of fell into place.”

BC’s leader, the only player to wear Sonny Nictakis’ No. 8 twice, drew a five-pitch walk, effectively prolonging his BC career at least a little bit more.

“It’s miserable because I know I don’t have him for another couple years,” Gambino said. “I think it was maybe Gian, who started calling it ‘Operation Don’t Let Johnny Leave.’ You’re talking about a group who loves all the seniors, but Johnny’s Johnny.”

Casey officially shut the door on Notre Dame in the ninth—completing the sweep BC so desperately needed to keep its season alive—and the team burst out of the Shea Field dugout for the final time to celebrate its second trip to the Tournament in as many years.

“We’re a bunch of gritty guys who fight all the way to the end,” Adams said. “I think that showed in the past couple days.”

Funnily enough, Miami actually came back to beat Virginia Tech. Edgar Michelangeli, the ultimate villain in the Birdball story, hit a three-run homer to give the Hurricanes a 7-5 win in the 10th. But BC didn’t need that gift to keep its story going.

“The joke has kinda become we suck at leaving,” Gambino said. “That was sort of the end of the year, like ‘We’re not going home. We suck at leaving.’”

Even as the team is leaving its home for the past 56 years, it’s gearing up to make the most of the final season. As often as it has been thwarted, Birdball is still fighting for a way to write its own ending.  

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

May 20, 2017