Wearing a “Team Frate Train” T-shirt and maroon, fit-tech sleeves, Mike Gambino witnessed a spectacle from John West in the home dugout at Fenway Park. Gambino didn’t know it was going to be his last time coaching a regular season game as the head coach for Boston College baseball.
“It was just such an intense moment,” Gambino said. “John [West] wasn’t even supposed to pitch that night.”
For the past 11 years, the Eagles have hosted a special game at Boston’s most-renowned stage to honor Pete Frates, BC ’07, a former BC captain who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in March 2012. Frates became the driving force of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and last season, the “most important BC game of the year” couldn’t have lined up more perfectly, Gambino said.
West, a 6-foot-8 right-handed pitcher, showed up in a bigger way than he had all year. Thunderous applause from BC students, alumni, and parents filled the void of West’s silent, shut-down innings against Notre Dame, which came at a pivotal point in the season for BC—the next game for the Eagles would be in the ACC Tournament, and then at a regional, potentially in Brighton, Mass.
Gambino went berserk after every strikeout West recorded. West completed his seventh frame and third 1–2–3 inning of the contest with two punchouts. His dominance hung around the heavy, early-summer air like rising dust particles, and that red-hot energy could be felt throughout the entire park.
As Gambino walked up to the mound and opened his palm to signal a pitching change, West stopped and stared all around. Noise poured out from the army-blue bleachers and the red-padded seats behind home plate. The honor of pitching in that game means more to BC players than just another tally in the win column, according to Gambino.
“He’s walking off the mound and we’re all standing there starstruck,” Gambino said. “I honestly don’t even know who said it, but I’m standing on the mound and all the boys in the infield are there. And I just hear somebody over my shoulder. We’re looking at the crowd, and I just heard one of the guys go, ‘Woah.’”
According to Gambino, the simple “woah” encapsulated how the entire team was feeling in that moment.
“You can hear me get emotional talking about this group,” Gambino said.
And at another juncture of the season, during BC’s road sweep of then-No. 18 North Carolina, the players were treated to a fireworks show after pulling off a 10-inning, 9–8 victory over the powerhouse Tar Heels on April 21. That moment was just as crucial for the group camaraderie and the elevation of team belief, Gambino said.
“Win or lose tonight, let’s stop and enjoy fireworks,” Gambino said he told the team that night, despite facing one of the toughest series of the season up to that point. “Let’s take a little bit of a moment in this crazy season and just be present and enjoy fireworks.”
Like little league players, Gambino and his squad filed onto the infield grass and squatted down on a knee or in a criss-cross applesauce position.
“I remember just standing there behind them,” Gambino said. “Watching them watch fireworks. It exuded just a calmness for us and a feeling of, like, we can do this.”
Gambino’s two favorite glimpses into the season don’t tell the full story of BC’s record-breaking 2023 campaign in which the Eagles accumulated the program’s best record of all-time, the highest program ranking ever, and the most conference wins in a season. But they are a testament to Gambino’s coaching style—prioritizing the BC family over everything else—and why he was chosen for The Heights’ 2022–23 Coach of the Year honor.
“To me, it is a team of the year slash program of the year award,” Gambino said. “Like, that’s how I look at it.”
While Gambino left in the early stages of the 2023 offseason and took over as the head coach at Penn State in July, he said the lasting impact of this past season is how intact the clubhouse remained in terms of the players.
“One of the things that people should realize about this team is they kept basically the entire roster together throughout all this,” Gambino said of the offseason conundrum of coaching changes. “Talk about a culture within a clubhouse and what that leadership of that clubhouse did. [The] entire coaching staff [left], and they put the program in each other and stayed there for each other. That’s pretty special.”
Gambino said he thought of this award as more team-based instead of individual. But some of his players and key leaders of the 2023 season don’t see it that way.
“I do think it was an award for coach Gambino, I do, and he’ll get mad at me for saying that,” former BC catcher Peter Burns said. “But, I mean, you can look up how we did every year—we didn’t have the best of years before that—and it was a grind. For him to not lose faith and trust in our guys, it was remarkable.”
Senior infielder Vince Cimini echoed Burns’ sentiments.
“I knew that he was not gonna want this article to be done,” Cimini said. “That’s kind of the coach he’s been for as long as I’ve known him. Just as much as he led us, he pushed us to take ownership of our situations.”
Above all, the way Gambino treated his players, Burns said, was unparalleled to any other coach he’s had, or to any other coach in the country for that matter.
“I think the real difference between Coach Gambino and every other coach in the country was just how much he cared and really loved his players,” Burns said. “His real thing was being in a brotherhood and having a family. A second family you can go to every year.”
The “I would take a bullet for anyone on this team” expression rang true for Gambino, Burns said. And sticking to the core values of BC—Jesuit values, and being a man and woman for others—was central to his philosophy. Cimini agreed with Burns on all of these fronts.
“He cares about you more as a person than as a player, which is really refreshing,” Cimini said. “Especially now, when college baseball is starting to turn into a little bit more of a business, and players are more dispensable because you can just go grab whoever you want now. To have that sense of familiarity is honestly the best way to put it.”
Beyond the type of relationships Gambino established with his players and fellow coaches, the accolades stacked up significantly during his final year in Chestnut Hill—right after a season-opening blowout loss at Pepperdine.
An upset win over then-No. 3 Tennessee in Knoxville during a proving-ground, Spring Break stint propelled the Eagles to a 12–2 start on the year—a program best.
“I think that kind of energy, that mindset, started in the fall,” Cimini said. “You could just tell from the first day the intensity was kicked up. We knew what it took, and we knew we had to do extra, because what we were doing wasn’t necessarily enough. We knew we had to do it for [Gambino].”
BC kept rolling with four straight conference series wins over then-No. 10 Virginia Tech, then-No. 21 Florida State, then-No. 24 NC State, and Georgia Tech, which thrust the Eagles into one of the top sports in the ACC. BC won just two of the remaining six conference series it played, but a series sweep over the Tar Heels on the road and two wins against conference-rival Notre Dame put the icing on the cake.
BC finished the year with a 37–20 overall record, including a Baseball Beanpot win, and a 16–14 conference record, which were both program highs. Magic was in the air all year for the Eagles, who were making noise throughout the entire college baseball world with the nickname “birdball.”
“I think that he kind of expected us older guys to instill that winning and dog mentality into the younger players everyday,” Burns said. “That was birdball. Whoever was in the locker room, all they wanted to do was win. If one guy didn’t get his job done, the next guy was going to pick him up.”
Birdball rose to new heights on different platforms as well. Three students designed a season-long docuseries that captured moments from games, daily life, practices, and team trips. Gambino kept them right in the loop as members of the “birdball family” the entire way, according to the students who created the series.
“It was a different guy everyday,” Gambino said of how the Eagles’ retained their success. “It was just a group that put the program first, that put winning first, that cared about each other more than anything else.”
Playing with a team-first approach was crucial to BC’s run. Putting wood into the fire was a team effort, according to Gambino, and the season couldn’t have played out like it did without contributions from the entire roster—from bench players to MLB Draft picks Joe Vetrano and Travis Honeyman.
“We kept this thing together, and that’s what Vince [Cimini] texted me after the season,” Gambino said.
And when that final game ended for BC, an 8–0 meltdown at the hands of Tuscaloosa Regional host No. 16 Alabama, the physical and emotional toll spilled out. Gambino’s leadership put the Eagles in a position to go to a Super Regional for the first time since 2016, coming just one game short. There was no holding back after that, he said.
“It was just guys hugging and crying,” Gambino said. “It was like disbelief that it was over and not wanting it to end. It was real, genuine love. But, once again, it was just me watching the guys on the field. For like an hour and a half, I just watched those guys hug.”
Gambino said there was an immediate feeling of unfinished business.
“I had this feeling we just, we weren’t done,” he said.