As they reflect on the scenes from their last seven months, the baseball players of Towson University feel almost as if they're looking in on someone else's life.
President Maravene Loeschke, flanked by campus police officers, gathering them so she could pronounce the program dead. Their phones buzzing with texts, heralding a reprieve from the governor. Joyously collapsing on one another after winning their conference tournament and clinching their first NCAA bid in 22 years.
"If you saw it on TV, you wouldn't believe it," said Patricia Johnson, one of the parents who fought to keep the program alive. "They should make a Disney movie out of it, because this time, the good guys won."
It's all true.
Towson baseball really did receive a death sentence from the university's president on March 8. The devastated players really did spend weeks looking for other schools until Gov. Martin O'Malley amended his budget to give the program at least two more years. The Tigers really did go to Harrisonburg, Va., last weekend and win four straight tournament games. They really are headed for Chapel Hill, N.C. to begin NCAA play on Friday afternoon.
"It was just surreal, like wow, this really happened," said junior second baseman Pat Fitzgerald, describing his feelings when the Tigers clinched their berth. "Destiny. Fate. Whatever you want to call it."
Said fellow junior Dominic Fratantuono: "We went from the bottom to the top, I guess. Kind of like a storybook ending."
He paused. "Well, not yet," he added in deference to the games ahead.
Back from near oblivion, the Tigers won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament to greater acclaim than they could have fathomed.
"They tried to cut Towson baseball this year," tweeted ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt. "Instead they won the CAA title. Hey Pres. Loeschke, bring your security detail and celebrate?"
Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who played baseball at Towson, followed the clinching game on a text message chain with other alums. He said he felt just as invested as he had watching teams he built in Kansas City and Atlanta play in the World Series.
"I think it's one of the feel-good stories in college athletics this year," Schuerholz said. "Those young men showed such fortitude, character and even pride in the university that had given up on them."
Loeschke, villain of the saga to many, said she also admires the team. "They had to deal with a lot of disruption, as we all have," she said. "But they had to play through it, and I'm very proud of them."
The players and coach Mike Gottlieb talk of how they pulled closer together, even as they felt unwanted by the institution they were representing.
"They really bonded," said Johnson, whose son, Kevin Ross, is a freshman pitcher. "All teams bond, but they were determined to show the school and the world they deserved to be there."
Athletic director Mike Waddell called the players together in early October to tell them he had recommended cutting the baseball and men's soccer programs to address budget shortfalls and Title IX inequalities. No one saw the blow coming.
Johnson knew something was wrong when her son called in the middle of the day, pulling her from a meeting. "He was as upset as I've ever heard him," she recalled. She went to campus that night to help talk him through it.
Gottlieb was at a loss for what to do. He asked for advice from various people, including Schuerholz. "I just told him to take the high road as much as he could," the Braves president said. "The kids are going to be distracted, but get them back to what they can control, which is playing baseball."
One positive pattern quickly emerged — fervent support from parents and influential alumni such as Schuerholz and brothers Mike and Gary Gill.
Matt Butler, whose son Brendan is a sophomore first baseman from Bel Air, called Gottlieb the day Waddell made his announcement. "Coach, this isn't over," he said. "We're going to fight this."
"And it just uplifted me," the 56-yeard-old Gottlieb remembered. "I'm trying to figure out what the hell do we do. How do we fight this? And here, out of the blue, this guy calls and he's just filling me up with optimism. I just can't tell you how much that meant at the exact moment it was needed the most."
Waiting for an answer
The team remained in limbo for five months as Loeschke formed a task force to review the recommendations. The season began in February, with many hoping the president would save the program.
On March 8, the Tigers were called to a meeting. Fratantuono rushed over from class, entering just as Loeschke said, "I'm sorry." After she had reviewed all the proposals, she was still cutting baseball and soccer.
The Tigers were scheduled to play Delaware later in the day. If Towson didn't want them, they agreed, the planers didn't want to represent the university. So they applied black duct tape over the name on their jerseys.
"When we blacked out the Towson, we said we're going to play for ourselves," Fitzgerald recalled. "That was a huge team camaraderie thing."
The Tigers led most of the game, only to lose in extra innings.
"I'll never forget that," Fratantuono said. "Walking up to the locker room, I literally felt everything was drained from me, physically, emotionally, mentally."
What they did not count on is that the story would become an embarrassment to the university. O'Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot questioned Loeschke's handling of the situation. At the end of March, O'Malley released his revised budget, with $300,000 to keep the baseball program operating and $2 million to help build a softball field to address Title IX issues.
'We just got saved!'
Fratantuono was in the Atlanta airport, on his way back from Coastal Carolina University, where he planned to transfer. He noticed a frenzy of tweets. "Dude where are you?" said third baseman Zach Fisher when he called. "We just got saved!"
They no longer had to worry about finding new schools or covering their uniforms in black tape. They could just play the game.
"It was kind of like, well, now people want us," Fratantuono said. "When we were cut, it felt like nobody wanted us here. But now we're a baseball team that represents a university."
They had performed unevenly during a 25-28 regular season but entered the CAA tournament confident because they had played well against top seeds UNC-Wilmington and William & Mary. Gottlieb and the players adopted a "Why not?" outlook.
The Tigers opened with a narrow win over Northeastern behind senior starter Mike Volpe. From there, everyone joined the party. Fisher hit three in two games. Butler drove in six runs in the tournament. After only two days rest, Volpe threw 139 pitches as he went all nine innings in the clinching game against William & Mary.
Ecstasy engulfed the players as they piled on the field after a game-ending double play. Parents embraced in the stands. A day earlier, they had tried to give Gottlieb a signed team portrait and bat to thank him for his selflessness and good humor through the ordeal. But assistant coaches told them to hold off. They didn't want anyone putting a period on the season.
As the coach walked to a post-game interview with designated hitter Kurt Wertz, Wertz turned to him and said "This is the greatest moment of my life."
It was a sentiment repeated by several players Wednesday as they practiced at Towson's Schuerholz Park before departing to North Carolina. They badly want to keep winning in NCAA play.
But they know they have already authored quite a story.
"It's a bonus," Gottlieb said of the games to come. "House money. I mean, we have won, whether it's for the history books or in the perception of the public. We've won."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun