In the locker room, with the minutes ticking away to first pitch, they all agreed that a statement needed to be made, so someone volunteered to run over to the university store, returning moments later with a roll of black duct tape. Just before they all walked out into the cold sunshine with their gloves and bats, they took turns ripping off pieces of tape and placing them carefully across their chests, right where it used to say “TOWSON.”
On Friday afternoon, in a locker room in Chapel Hill, N.C., those same Towson Tigers, champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, will put their uniforms on again, before the opening game of the NCAA regional tournament, and this time no duct tape will be needed. This time, they will wear “TOWSON” across their chests — if not proudly, then at least without regret or remorse.
“We went from not having baseball at all to being one of the top 64 teams in the country,” marveled junior outfielder Dominic Fratantuono. “It’s hard not to think of everything we’ve been through. There have been some real low points.”
Nearly three months after being handed a death sentence by their own university, and about two months after being granted a temporary reprieve through some political arm-twisting and financial creativity, the Tigers (29-28) play on. Four straight victories last week in the CAA tournament earned them the conference title and the school’s first NCAA berth in 22 years. At 1 p.m. Friday, they will meet Florida Atlantic in their tournament opener.
“I was thinking this morning about the feeling in my stomach the day they announced we’d been cut,” Tigers Coach Mike Gottlieb, a Towson alumnus now in his 26th season as the team’s head coach, said on Wednesday before practice. “It was like a death in the family. That’s the kind of feeling I had. And to be here today talking about our season — a season that’s still alive — there’s just so much happiness. I don’t have words to describe it.”
That is not to say the Tigers have forgotten or forgiven what was done to them this spring. They may never be ready to do that.
The text message from the athletic department went out to the baseball players’ cellphones around 9:30 a.m. on March 8: mandatory team meeting at 10 a.m. at the athletics offices. Everyone knew what it was about — back in October, Athletic Director Mike Waddell had recommended cutting baseball and men’s soccer in the name of financial savings and compliance with Title IX regulations. (The discontinuation of the soccer program was immediate and was not reversed.)
But none of the players who left their classes and rushed across campus for the meeting was prepared for what confronted them: At 10 o’clock sharp, university President Maravene Loeschke entered the room, flanked by campus police officers, and informed the players the baseball program was being eliminated at the end of the 2013 season. It took less than two minutes, and she left without taking questions.
“It was very disappointing to us the way she went about it, with the police officers and everything,” said junior outfielder Kurt Wertz. “We felt we were disrespected.”
“I got there a couple of minutes late, and she had already started,” Fratantuono said. “All I heard was, ‘I’m sorry,’ and, ‘You can always come back to Towson.’ I’ll never forget those words, and where I was. I was devastated.”
Peter Bowles, a sophomore infielder from Gaithersburg, said that, when he got there and heard Loeschke’s news, he “let out a couple of bad words at her,” before he and some of his teammates left.
A “couple of my buddies just grabbed me, took us out. Everyone was real angry. Older guys just said, 'C'mon, man, let’s go,' “ Bowles recalled. “There was tears. .. It was like [your] girlfriend cheating on you or something, you know? Just like -- with your buddy or something. … It was just terrible."
In a telephone interview Thursday, Loeschke said she acted quickly to call the meeting because of a media leak and because she wanted to tell the players in person before they heard about it in news reports. As for the police officers, she said there was one in plain clothes in the room with her, and one in uniform in the hallway. “And they were needed,” she said.
The decision to eliminate the teams “was very wrenching,” Loeschke said. “I love baseball. I’m very proud of the team. I think the young men are wonderful. It’s been very difficult. Sometimes you have to make a decision your head tells you is necessary and your heart breaks. And this would be one of them.”
Waddell, who last week announced he was leaving Towson to become senior associate athletic director at the University of Arkansas, said he was “painted into a corner” by the department’s financial constraints and Title IX issues. “Nobody gets in this business to look at a student athlete and tell him, ‘We don’t have the money for your team.’ I didn’t like doing it.”
The days that followed Loeschke’s announcement brought some hard reckoning. The players began to detach themselves emotionally from Towson, covering up the school’s name on their uniforms with duct tape before each game and, in many cases, starting the process of finding a new place to play. On a road trip to Hofstra, a few of them took a tour of the campus.
“At that point you had two options: find somewhere else to play, or you were going to be done playing baseball,” Bowles said. “In the back of my mind, I really didn’t want to go anywhere else. Was thinking of straying here and hanging with all my friends.”
At the same time, Gottlieb estimates it took just 48 to 72 hours for the phone calls to start coming in from rival coaches looking to poach his players. He didn’t mind. He was about to start calling some of the same coaches himself.
“Guys would say, ‘Mike, I hate to do it, but . . . ’ ” Gottlieb recalled. “I just said, ‘It’s fine. It’s part of the job.’ The number one thing I was telling these other coaches was [that] I wanted to get these kids placed.”
Meantime, behind the scenes, a group of players’ parents — fueled by the twin forces of justice and parental instinct — redoubled the efforts they had begun back in October when the athletic department had first raised the prospect of eliminating baseball.
“There was no way we were going to let this happen to our boys,” said Janine Fratantuono, Dominic’s mother.
The parents started meeting once a week. They formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, met with a lawyer regarding a possible lawsuit, wrote letters to lawmakers, bought radio advertising, commissioned reports that questioned the university’s accounting. (That was on top of the $1,500 they spent last fall for an airplane to fly over M&T Bank Stadium during a Baltimore Ravens game trailing a banner that said, “Save Towson Baseball.”)
“We fought and fought and fought,” said Fratantuono, who estimates she spent nearly 200 hours on the cause.
Eventually — and with the help of some well-connected Towson alumni — the parents’ efforts to save the baseball program reached the highest levels of Maryland’s state government. In late March, state comptroller Peter Franchot blasted Loeschke’s handling of the situation, telling reporters it left a “severe black mark on the record of an otherwise exceptional university,” and threatening to withhold funds for the school’s planned satellite campus until she came to Annapolis to answer for her actions.
Two weeks later, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) announced he would include an additional $300,000 in both his 2014 and 2015 budgets to fund the baseball team. Although the state’s General Assembly later tweaked the budget proposal to make it appear less like a bailout — requiring matching funds from the school, for one thing — the effect was the same: Less than four weeks after losing their future, the Towson Tigers had one again.
“It almost feels like a movie,” Dominic Fratantuono said. “The good guy always wins in the end.”
But in this case, the good guys were not doing much winning on the field. On the day their reprieve came down from the governor, the Tigers were riding a five-game losing streak, and the stay-of-execution did little to change their fortunes. They went 12-15 over the remainder of the regular season, arriving at the CAA tournament with a 25-28 overall record.
All the while, Gottlieb believed his team was tantalizingly close to a breakthrough, and fortunately it came during the conference tournament, where the Tigers took narrow victories over Northeastern and UNC Wilmington to advance to the weekend. They then pummeled William & Mary by a combined 25-15 in a pair of wins to clinch the title. In the championship game, senior right-hander Mike Volpe, pitching on two days’ rest, threw a 139-pitch complete game.
“This is a dangerous team because we believe we can win, and we literally have nothing to lose,” Fratantuono said Wednesday. “We’re not even supposed to be in existence.”
The damage inflicted this spring is still being undone. Just this week, one of the players who had decided to transfer came to Gottlieb and said he thinks he wants to stay after all. Officially, the budgetary reprieve was only for two more years, but Gottlieb thinks the program is on solid footing now.
For now, at least, there is still a Towson University baseball team. For now, that baseball team is still playing, deep into the spring. And for now, the players are leaving the duct tape back home.