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The Buffalo News (New York)
KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Darkness was falling on what had been a long and dreary day at the ballpark. Cloudy skies had given way to heavy rain, delaying one game and pushing back the start of another, conspiring to make a miserable day worse for the University at Buffalo baseball team.
With pitchers throwing 90 mph toward hitters who had trouble seeing the ball, with the field soaked and two exhausted teams struggling to stay focused, UB was striving to squeeze every last drop from its season- ending doubleheader at Western Michigan's Robert J. Bobb Stadium.
Coach Ron Torgalski had managed to stay upbeat and hopeful, characteristics that had defined his career, but no other Division I program in the nation had endured what UB did since the university announced April 3 it was dropping four sports, including the baseball team.
To the university, it was strictly about numbers - $2 million in savings, 120 athletes affected, leaving UB with 16 sports, the minimum required. Business can be cold and unsentimental that way. To others, however, it was about the people involved, the lives turned upside down within athletics and beyond.
Torgalski, who had worked under substandard conditions for 17 years while trying to maintain a respectable program, would be out of a job. Two assistant coaches, whose wives were pregnant, would join him. One was a former UB player who had closed on a house less than a year earlier after sleeping on an air mattress for seven months.
There was a junior transfer who left San Francisco to play for Buffalo, sat out this season under NCAA rules and essentially wasted a semester. There were recruits who committed to UB but would never step foot on the field. Others needed to determine whether baseball was more important than academics - if so, at what cost? - after UB severed the term "student-athlete."
"If you're the AD or the president of the university, it doesn't affect you whatsoever to end 120 kids' careers," junior relief pitcher Ben Vey said. "It just doesn't. You could say that you care or that you feel bad and all that stuff, but you don't. At the end of the day, you really don't. They didn't take into account how it would affect us."
While their resiliency was impressive, the Bulls stood no chance against their toughest opponent. Father Time is undefeated, as any athlete will attest. UB moped through April in a daze but the season didn't wait, dwindling to weeks, then days, then hours and finally minutes.
Reality and finality, hanging over the program like the dark clouds above, intersected with Western Michigan holding a 7-3 lead in the seventh inning of the nightcap. Western had been gracious hosts. For UB to overstay its welcome would have been wrong.
Just like that, with the sun setting on the same field where the first College World Series was played in 1947, around the corner from where Derek Jeter played high school ball, some 450 miles and seven hours from home, the darkest era of UB baseball came to an end.
For all the shots the Bulls absorbed, they had underestimated the power in the punch delivered at the end. As they shook hands with Western and turned back to one another, knowing there would be no next year, a collection of emotionally spent ballplayers broke down in tears that were a long time coming.
Suddenly, it was over.
"It's ... it's tough," Torgalski said, his voice cracking with emotion and barely above a whisper, as he walked toward the center-field gate leading to the bus. "You know, they're good kids. They're good kids."
Feelings of betrayal
Looking back, the university's execution was harder to comprehend than its decision.
On Sunday, April 2, while riding the bus back from Kent State after kicking off Mid-American Conference play, Torgalski received a call from an assistant working the athletics office telling him that he needed to meet with Athletic Director Allen Greene at 7:45 the following morning.
They were almost halfway through the season. What was so important? Torgalski made a few calls to find out what was cooking but gained no insight. Later, about 9:30 p.m., his players received text messages summoning them to an 8 a.m. meeting Monday in the Center for the Arts.
Torgalski's meeting with Greene was short. "Less than five minutes," Torgalski said. His players were baffled as they assembled in the arts center before Torgalski had a chance to address them. Did UB secure funding for the new field house? Was a scandal unfolding within the athletics department?
It could have been anything.
Vey heard the news - UB was dropping men's soccer, men's swimming and diving, women's rowing and baseball - moments before the meeting with President Satish Tripathi and Greene and whispered as much to outfielder Kyle Norman.
Tripathi spoke first and delivered a muddled speech. "I don't think half the people understood his message," Torgalski said. "He didn't come right out and say, 'We're dropping your program.' It wasn't very clear." Tripathi left the rest to Greene, who spelled out the decision in simple terms.
UB was looking to shave $2 million from its athletics budget. Greene later emphasized that the money wouldn't be diverted to the struggling football program, a comment that hardly soothed anger and frustration among the athletes. The money wasn't going to football, as Greene said, but it also wasn't coming from football.
"At first, I was just shocked," junior outfielder Eddie Edwards III said. "I was confused. I felt betrayed, honestly. I think we all were when we were in that room at the same time."
Baseball's budget was about $600,000, including scholarship money, by far the smallest in the conference. Several sources said the financial net loss of UB's football program exceeded the budgets for each of the sports eliminated.
The 2016 football budget of $7.53 million accounted for about a quarter of the overall spending plan and is expected to climb. Even when all the donations and sponsorships were added up, UB football had been a financial loser since it moved to Division I.
Tripathi handed down orders to cut spending, leaving Greene the dirty work of deciding which sports would be dropped. In making the announcement, Tripathi's claim that the decision was made "only with extensive deliberation" rang hollow among the coaches and athletes in attendance.
"They were going to do this for a long time," said Vey, whose girlfriend was a senior member of the rowing team, which was also eliminated. "This isn't a decision you make overnight. This isn't a decision you make in a couple of weeks or even a couple of months. You've known for a long time. To not give anyone a heads up and not give people time to look for another school, I don't think that's right. They went about it all the wrong way."
UB's baseball program wasn't built with top recruits. In many cases, it was the school of last resort for developing players who had D-I potential but were overlooked. Often, newcomers sat the bench early in their college careers with the idea they would earn a place in the regular lineup before they graduated.
Several players appreciated UB despite the frustration that came with the university's callous attitude toward baseball. They felt indebted to the school and proudly served as ambassadors. On April 3, they felt abandoned by the very university they were honored to represent.
Why couldn't they phase out the program over two years or more, giving players enough time to consider their options and make plans? UB baseball players and coaches asked that question numerous times without getting any real answers. Greene declined comment for this story. Tripathi did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
"There's never a good time to drop a program," Torgalski said.
Most schools complete the recruiting process and distribute scholarship money months before the start of their seasons. With UB's decision coming down in April, the timing couldn't have been much worse for baseball players who had eligibility remaining, were in the middle of the season and would need a school to play for if they wanted to continue their careers.
One of the great misperceptions about college athletics is the number of participants awarded scholarships. Many hear "scholarship" and assume all athletes receive a full ride: tuition, room and board, books. That's mostly true in football and basketball but rarely applies to those in other sports.
Division I football programs are allowed 85 full scholarships. The maximum number for baseball is only 11.7. Most teams divide them among 30 or so players on the roster. UB was the only school in the Mid-American Conference that didn't use the full scholarship allotment for baseball. It offered only 6.5.
Despite the disadvantage, Torgaski fielded competitive teams and was optimistic about his incoming recruiting class. After the announcement, he needed to inform recruits who had committed to UB. They, like many on the roster, would have to scramble for opportunities elsewhere.
"It doesn't just affect us," Edwards said. "It affected everyone around us. It affected kids that were supposed to come here. It affected alumni and everyone else. And it's not just our team. It was the three other teams as well. It really trickled down."
Immediately after hearing the news, Torgalski had the unenviable task of taping his team back together. He scheduled a meeting with his players for 2 p.m., giving his team six hours to absorb the announcement and him more time to formulate a plan on how to proceed.
"It was, 'OK, how do we approach this?'" Torgalski said. "I wanted my guys to digest everything and think about it before they made any rash decisions."
He already had broken the news to assistant coaches Adam Skonieczki and Steve Ziroli, sneaking in two quick phone calls in the 10 minutes between his meeting with Greene and Tripathi's announcement.
It wasn't easy. Torgalski knew their wives were pregnant.
What about the babies?
Skonieczki played for UB before graduating in 2010. He married his college sweetheart and became a father. He served as an assistant coach at Georgetown College in Kentucky, which reached the World Series of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 2014. He was building a career in coaching.
His wife, Shayna, liked her job, and they were perfectly happy living near Lexington when Torgalski called him in November 2015 and asked him to become an assistant. Skonieczki had good reasons to remain at Georgetown but, because he and his wife adored Buffalo and had a soft spot for their alma mater, they couldn't resist.
For seven months, with their belongings in storage while they looked for a home in the Buffalo area, they slept on an air mattress on the floor of a duplex owned by a friend. "No TV, no internet, nothing," Skonieczki said. Their only other furniture during that period was the baby's crib.
Still, he was willing to make the necessary sacrifices to coach at UB. Last summer, they bought a house in Amherst. They were building a family, settling down and embracing where life had led them. Shayna, a 2008 UB graduate, is expecting their second child on the Fourth of July.
"We made the move to be here for a while, for sure," he said. "We closed on our house in June. Everything was great. Everything was awesome."
Seventeen months after accepting the job, nine months after closing on their home in Amherst, three months before Shayna's due date, Skonieczki found out he is finished at UB when his contract expires in 2018. He has since made peace with the university's decision.
"Looking back, after the initial anger and disappointment, you have to understand that it's a business, too," he said. "It (stinks). I'm sure there were a lot of people along the way that didn't want to cut this program. That's what happens in business. Sometimes, you have to make tough decisions. Unfortunately, we were on the losing end. I'm not holding a grudge against anybody. I don't think you can. It's life."
Ziroli was UB's pitching coach for seven seasons. He was born and raised in Illinois, pitched at Marshall University, and bounced around as a player and instructor for a few years. He was hired at UB in 2011, met his wife, the former Michele Leoni of North Buffalo. They bought a house and were building a life.
"I was 100 percent content," Ziroli said. "We're not going to move. She's rooted here. I was extremely happy at UB. We were extremely happy in Buffalo."
Last season, UB's pitching staff broke a school record for fewest walks in a season since returning to Division I in 2000. A year earlier, Ziroli's pitchers set the mark for most strikeouts in a season. Junior relief pitcher Mike Kaelin was drafted by the Angels in the 15th round last June. Another reliever, Blair Lakso, signed with the Twins.
On April 26, not yet four weeks after learning he was losing his job, Ziroli became a first-time father. Michele, an elementary school teacher, delivered a 6-pound, 8-ounce girl, Eva, three weeks premature. Ziroli's future is uncertain.
"This is my livelihood," he said. "It's why I moved here. It's how I met my wife. I came here to take a job at UB coaching baseball, and it led me to everything else in my life. It's tough to have everything pulled away from you, but it is what it is. The first two weeks were shocking, but it's tougher on the players than it is for us."
Bulls ride Three Amigos
Third baseman Chris Kwitzer, shortstop Ben Haefner and second baseman Brian Dudek played with each other at every level except high school. Haefner attended Lancaster High while the other two were at St. Mary's of Lancaster.
All three played infield, threw right, batted left, knew each other's strengths and weaknesses and shared the same brain. They had been together in summer ball since they were 8-year-old peanuts running around Southline Little League in Cheektowaga. In later years, they played for the Academy Stars.
They developed into Division I players and were fortunate to land in the same program. Each selected UB in part because there was comfort knowing the other two would be in the same dugout; they became UB's Three Amigos.
"On the field, we're like brothers," Kwitzer said. "You look at our infield, and it was our Academy Stars lineup. Every time I see a ground ball hit to Dudek or Haef, I know they're going to make the play. And if they don't make the play, it's one miss out of a hundred. We all know each other's range. It's all about comfort."
They left their mark. Dudek hit a walk-off home run in extra innings of the final home game. Haefner hit the last homer for UB when he hammered a pitch over the wall in the finale at Western. Kwitzer led UB with a .348 batting average. Going around the horn, Haefner was second with a .326 average and Dudek was third at .324.
Kwitzer left an impression, literally, on the season. In batting practice, before the first game of the final series against Western, he crushed a ball that soared toward the top row of the adjacent football stadium, some 40 feet above the left-field wall. It punched a hole in the Broncos' banner hanging off a railing.
Estimated distance: 450 feet.
"It's sad," Dudek said. "I would do anything to play with these teammates another weekend, another game. I would do anything. You play this game for one reason, to have fun, since you were a little kid, and to see it all come to an end is disappointing."
Fretting about the future
Everybody involved with the program felt the initial jolt, and they handled the long goodbye to the program with emotions often associated with death: denial, isolation, depression, frustration and acceptance. "The first week, it was like a funeral around here," Ziroli said. They were trying to come together, knowing they had separate agendas, but were crumbling under uncertainty.
"As much as you want to be a part of the team, and obviously we are, you're trying to figure out things for yourself," sophomore first baseman Andrew Taft said. "You don't know where you're going. It's a scary feeling."
It was obvious during a three-game set at Toledo in mid-April. By then, they had processed the announcement and were trying to regain their focus. Some put the bad news behind them easier than others. Torgalski had his antenna up for players who might mentally disengage for the season.
If anything provided comfort, it was UB honoring existing scholarships and paying their coaches through the 2018 season. However, a large portion of scholarship money already had been exhausted on seven seniors. Underclassmen who had been expecting partial scholarships when the seniors left were out of luck.
"My initial reaction was, 'Thank God this didn't happen last year,' " said senior catcher Kyle Brennan, an exercise science major who is expected to be selected in the Major League Baseball Entry Draft. "With my major and where I was in my career, it would have been a train wreck. After that, I felt terrible for all my teammates that now have to move. For a day or so, there was a feeling of being unwanted."
Torgalski urged them to enjoy the game as much as they could, while they could. The Bulls took two of three games over Northern Illinois, but putting a happy face on a sad situation was easier said than done. Players fretted about their futures and put added pressure on themselves to perform.
In particular, Torgalski worried about Haefner. The redshirt junior was a classic UB recruit, a good high school player with untapped potential. He made a commitment, paid his dues, became a starting shortstop and emerged as a leader. Never overly vocal, he had become unusually quiet and walked around in a fog after April 3.
Position players had a considerably tougher time than pitchers finding schools because the country is loaded with guys who can play the field. Haefner was looking for a school that needed a shortstop, offered classes that would contribute to his career without baseball, at the right price. It was a tricky situation.
"I don't want to have any regrets, you know?" he said.
Haefner was a true student-athlete, one who excelled in the classroom as much as he did on the field. He was on schedule to graduate with a degree in exercise science and had been accepted into UB's School of Physical Therapy. Because he sat out his first season, he had one year of baseball eligibility remaining.
He could walk away from the game and concentrate on his studies, but he forever would wonder if he quit too soon. He developed into a darned good player with pop in his bat. He was on the radar of professional teams. If he continued his career, he might have a chance to play pro ball.
One problem: His acceptance into PT school is valid only for the coming year. If he continued playing ball, it could mean walking away from a great academic opportunity at UB. He would need to reapply to PT school with no guarantees. In order to play baseball elsewhere, he also would need to reach into his pocket.
It explained his 4-for-20 slump in the first six games after The Announcement.
"I had no idea what I was going to do," he said. "I was getting phone calls every day. I didn't know what to tell anybody because I didn't know what I wanted. I didn't know what was best for me. I couldn't focus when I was playing, and I was playing poorly. ... I knew I would probably wind up regretting something. Regardless of the decision I made, I was trying to figure out which one I would regret less."
Haefner pulled himself together in Toledo while going 5 for 6 in a wild 21-20 loss and put together an eight-game hitting streak. He hit safely in 10 of 11 games and batted .500 during that stretch. In late April, with his bat ablaze and options sorted out, he signed a letter of intent to play for Sam Houston State in Texas.
"I'm going to a good program," Haefner said. "I could get some more draft looks down South. It gives me a year to figure out what I want to do academically. At first, it was a shock. Now, it's a blessing. But for some of these guys, they don't have anywhere to play or are thinking about not playing again. And that (stinks)."
Harasta among the fortunate
Junior relief pitcher Logan Harasta was among the fortunate few who had solid options. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound righty showed up with a fastball in the 87-88 mph range and grew into his body. Three years later, he had a 97 mph fastball with a complementary slider.
Harasta came to UB to get an education and play baseball, in that order, and is two semesters from earning his degree in exercise science. He comes from an academic family: His parents have master's degrees in chemical engineering, one brother is preparing for medical school while another was a graduate student at Albany.
Schools lined up for Harasta, the fifth-rated pro prospect in the MAC before the season, upon hearing he was available. He's almost certain to get drafted. If he isn't selected or isn't satisfied with his contract offer, he has a spot waiting for him at the University of Oklahoma and can re-enter the draft next June.
"I would like to graduate," Harasta said. "There's life after baseball, and you need to be prepared. Obviously, I'm thinking about the academics, but to be honest I'm looking a lot at athletics. This puts us in a position where we don't know what to do. We know we should do this, but we want the other thing, too. It doesn't always match up."
Student or athlete?
For the seniors wrapping up their college careers, the announcement was less disruptive. Freshmen and sophomores had time to restart their careers, but it meant repeating the recruiting process - only in reverse, with the player courting the school.
UB's juniors were in the toughest spot. They had invested three years toward their degrees and were left with two options, one coming at the expense of the other.
They could continue receiving any scholarship money and finish their education at UB, foregoing their final season. Or they could transfer to another baseball program and put graduation on hold. No school would allow three years' worth of credits from somewhere else to apply to its degree. UB wouldn't accept one year of credits from another school and allow a player to graduate on time.
"They're basically making some guys pick baseball or pick your degree," Haefner said. "They have forced us to make a decision."
Those on the cusp of pro ball were left to gamble on themselves. In some cases, it meant coming up with thousands of dollars to cover tuition and keep their dreams alive. The alternative was quitting baseball and spending the rest of their lives wondering, "What if?"
Student-athletes whose sports were cut while they had eligibility remaining were conflicted. It was one or the other, student or athlete.
"It's split down the middle," said Vey, a relief pitcher from Pittsburgh. "You basically have to choose one. I could go to a good school, too, but all credits aren't going to transfer. It's going to set you back a year, maybe two. You can't transfer credits back. You have to choose delaying your academics or you have to give up the game you gave so much to and loved your entire life."
Vey was a junior majoring in finance with a concentration in supply-chain management operations. He had a 3.5 grade-point average, second-highest on the team. He pitched well for UB, but he couldn't justify transferring to another school knowing he was a year from graduating and had little chance of playing pro ball.
Still, baseball didn't end on his own terms. Then again, it rarely does.
"I'm a business major," he said. "I get it. Sometimes things just don't add up, and you have to do that. But you also have to think about all the kids that affects. I get that you're playing around with the numbers if you're the president of the school. For them, it's a numbers game."
Raising the stakes
Charlie Sobieraski played football, basketball and baseball his senior year at Lockport High. In 2014, he was named The News' Three Sport Player of the Year. Sabres fans from an older generation remember his late grandfather, play-by-play man and community treasure Ted Darling.
In July 2013, Sobieraski grabbed the attention of big schools such as Pittsburgh and Boston College while playing for the Empire State Elite. The team, made up of 12 players from 10 high schools in Buffalo Niagara, finished fifth in the country in a prestigious Perfect Game wood-bat tournament in Atlanta.
Scouts salivated over his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame, natural athleticism, his ability to throw 92-93 mph fastball, a sharp breaking ball, and very few innings on his arm. "The kid plays catch at 88 (mph)," former UB star and major league pitcher Joe Hesketh once said. "It's incredible."
Sobieraski stayed home in part because he wanted to be near his older sister, Lea, after she suffered a life-threatening illness. (She recovered and was a graduate student at Daemen College during 2016-17.) He considered leaving UB after batting cleanup as a freshman. He returned because he enjoyed his teammates, had an opportunity to develop as a pitcher and was getting a good education.
Overall, UB worked for him and his family.
"I couldn't ask for anything better or anything different," Sobieraski said. "It was exactly what I pictured. (The program) was doing everything it needed to do. I'm not the type of kid who always wants more. I'm just happy with the opportunity, not looking for things we don't have. The opportunity means the most."
Sobieraski also has a chance to be selected. If he's overlooked, he has received a half-scholarship offer from Pittsburgh to play in the elite Atlantic Coast Conference. It should raise his stock, but it means coming up with about $20,000 to play baseball, taking classes he might not need and delaying graduation.
While many would be thrilled to have his problems, the fact is he was in a better situation as the No. 1 starter at UB. He needs experience that comes from innings pitched. If he doesn't get drafted, he'll need to pay for that experience at Pitt with no guarantees he'll ever play professional ball.
"My dad (Mike) has been indecisive about whether he would retire," Sobieraski said. "He works his (butt) off. He's a principal, but he's also working in a pizza shop for extra money. He's been there for 20 years. He's 55 years old and working in a pizza shop when he should be allowed to kick back, relax and retire. Now, he can't do that."
It could have been worse for Sobieraski. He could have been Kyle Norman, the outfielder and friend Sobieraski persuaded to join him at UB.
A life tossed into trash can
Norman grew up in Maryland and attended the exclusive IMG Academy for baseball in Bradenton, Fla. He earned a partial scholarship to the University of San Francisco, where he played two seasons. He transferred to UB in January after playing on the same summer team with Sobieraski, Dudek and Harasta.
In accordance with NCAA transfer rules, he needed to sit out a full year before becoming eligible to play for Buffalo. The timing seemed perfect with senior Alex Thrower graduating and opening a spot in center field. Torgalski was excited about adding Norman to the roster in 2018.
Norman came all the way from San Francisco and spent a semester in Buffalo ... and for what? He never played an inning. He was scouring the East in search of his third school in less than a year.
"Why am I here? Why am I here?" Norman said in early May during a break in batting practice at Sports Performance Park. "I'm here to watch a team play, pretty much. I got here, and everything checked out. I loved the team. I loved having a big school with a football team. And then it gets wiped away.
"Now I have to find another school that I may not even like. I have a place that I love now, and I'm only going to spend one semester here. My life was fine three or four weeks ago, and now it's in the trash can, to be honest."
Late in the season, Norman committed to Monmouth University in New Jersey.
Decisions between the lines
Brian Wasilewski had several opportunities to play D-I ball, but he chose UB for four simple reasons: Geology, geography, baseball - and hockey. An outfielder with power from West Seneca East who played with Sobieraski on the Elite team, he arrived at UB as a preferred walk-on.
He agreed to pay full tuition with the idea he would play his way into a partial scholarship as a junior or senior. UB helped the sophomore keep another dream alive. Wasilewski is a rising professional hockey official.
He has worked nine American Hockey League games, four as a UB freshman, five as a sophomore, along with dozens of games at various amateur levels. Playing baseball in Buffalo allowed him to continue his work and develop his skill with the hope he could someday land in the NHL.
"Everything was so right here that you never thought this was going to happen," Wasilewski said. "We joke how you don't get (much) money; it's Buffalo and it's crazy to play baseball here. But when it actually happened, it was like, 'Wow, it's done.' I came here because I wanted to come here."
Wasilewski plans to play for a team in Glen Falls in a collegiate summer league and find another program, preferably one that offers his major and is located in a region where amateur hockey is popular. If not, he'll likely end his baseball career, remain at UB and continue his officiating career.
"I could have gone to Canisius, Niagara, whatever," he said. "I wanted to come to UB. It was too good to be true."
The perfect storm
So how did we get here?
Danny White was hired as UB athletics director in 2012 largely because he was successful when it came to raising money at Ole Miss. UB was looking for someone who could generate outside sources of revenue. As the son of Duke Athletic Director Kevin White, he grew up in the business.
When he arrived, White was perplexed by UB's inability to sell college football in Buffalo. He also was determined to change a culture that, for better or worse, was infatuated with the Bills, Sabres and not much else. But Buffalo's sports climate had been the same for decades and, despite UB's efforts, wasn't about to change.
White was effective when it came to raising money, which contributed to the perfect storm that ultimately led to the demise of four sports. In essence, he made deals with donors that ensured football would remain on the same path in the MAC no matter how little interest it generated in the community.
The biggest infusion came from the Murchie family, which presented UB with a $3 million endowment for the football program. It included a state-of-the-art training facility named after the family, new offices for the coaching staff and other luxuries that eluded UB's other sports programs.
UB continued struggling on the field and at the gate. Administrators reasoned that fans would come around if they started winning. One might conclude it was mostly the rationale of outsiders who failed to understand Buffalo's culture. Regardless, administrators were told numerous times over the years that fans were entrenched in pro sports, but the message was largely ignored.
The university could have reduced spending by $2 million or more by playing in the Football Conference Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA. It had the option to cut spending for its current program, but that would have led to greater disadvantages when stacked against others schools in the conference. It could have shaved money from other sports, but each would have been compromised.
All along, football has been the elephant in the room. Many believed the costs of football would ultimately impact UB's non-revenue sports.
"You know your program was driven by football and basketball and, as a coach, I always got that," Torgalski said. "Knowing the athletic department as a whole and looking at the big picture, I always knew we weren't getting a stadium, we weren't getting fully funded, we weren't getting big salaries. We were getting what we got. If basketball and football were going, it was great. You were pulling for them because that's what made the department roll."
'They don't know Buffalo'
Former professional baseball scout Bob Miske stood behind the UB dugout before a game against Ohio and shook his head in disgust. A baseball and basketball lifer, Miske played both sports at Canisius in the 1950s before transferring and playing both sports at UB.
Miske, a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame who worked for the Yankees and several other teams in his 50-year career as a scout, said he sent an email to Tripathi expressing his disappointment in the decision to dump the four sports. He had not heard back.
"I was a little upset. It wasn't a little, actually, it was a lot," Miske said. "It just bothers me so much. I'm so upset about this. I drafted kids out of this school. He's going to have three or four drafted off this team. It's a start in life for these kids. These administrators, I don't think they know what's going on.
"I go to the football games. There may be 8,000 people, sometimes 10,000. Why in goodness nation do they have concerts for 20,000-25,000 people? You don't need that. We are not LSU, and we are not Ohio State. We are the University at Buffalo and playing in the MAC.
"This is my own opinion, but we should not be playing in the MAC. We should be playing against Stony Brook, Army, Holy Cross, Cornell, Colgate. This is nonsense. They don't belong in this league. You have to fight the Bills, the Sabres and the Bisons. You're losing. They don't know Buffalo - at all.
"Every day, I get up and say, 'What in God's name are they doing? There are 30,000 students here, and we can't afford to have a baseball team or a swimming team? How much does a pair of Speedos cost, about $40? Give me a break. And they throw it all into football. I'm not a fan. I'm sorry."
NYBI's trickle-down effect
Buffalo's attitude toward college football wasn't likely to change, but it didn't stop the university from spending money on a failed marketing campaign known as the New York Bulls Initiative. It was masterminded by White, with Greene on board, and disbanded after White departed for Central Florida.
UB ended up on the financial hook twice, first with its implementation and again with its deconstruction. Total costs were unknown, but nobody could deny the athletics department wasted money during the process. Less than a year after restoring "Buffalo" in the athletic department, UB dropped four sports to save $2 million.
Once university officials accepted big donations and made major changes, which included a luxury area for suite holders at UB Stadium, they would have had a difficult time explaining why they downgraded football to the level of other state institutions such as Stony Brook and Albany.
Baseball and other sports that failed to drive revenue were doomed. By all accounts, Greene was told to trim the budget and was distraught over what it would mean to drop four sports on his watch.
Greene ultimately determined which were eliminated. Dropping baseball was particularly troubling to Greene, who played college ball at Notre Dame, was drafted by the Yankees and had a brief career in the minors. Still, he failed to find a better solution once orders were handed down from Tripathi.
"We know it's higher up the ladder," Edwards said. "You can't really blame Allen Greene. I know he's the AD. I know he controls athletics. But you can't pin this on him. You have to pin it on the people higher up. They all knew this was happening at some point, and they let it go."
True to Buffalo roots
Torgalski was on the telephone nonstop, calling coaches for his players, fielding calls about his players, for weeks after the announcement. He worked late and slept little, especially the first two weeks.
Penn State signed one recruit, Toledo another. Rider called looking for infielders. Oklahoma was interested in Harasta and No. 2 starter Shawn Dubin. Maryland was among schools interested in pitcher Alex Touhy, who was out for the year with a broken foot. Most teams were looking for pitchers.
Sobieraski sent out emails outlining his big frame and velocity, which elicited a quick response from Purdue. Injured outfielder Sean Dunne, who transferred from junior college and suffered a season-ending hand injury two innings into the first game, gave his coach a list of six schools that had showed interest in him.
Torgalski was so busy helping his players that he had little time to consider his own future. He repeatedly said the same thing at various points in the season.
"I'm fine," he said. "It's not about me."
Torgalski was a terrific athlete himself, an All-Western New York basketball and baseball player in the mid-1980s. He was the driving force behind Nichols School winning a state basketball title in 1985, and was named most valuable player, when Christian Laettner was a freshman.
The second of four competitive sons of a longtime coach, Torgalski felt compelled to pass along what he learned from his father. Bob Torgalski had coached sports for 50 years, never losing his old-school approach whether he was coaching at St. Francis in the 1970s or the girls at Mount Mercy three decades later.
Ron played college hoops at Hamilton, but he never forgot where he came from. He initially was hired as an assistant basketball coach at UB under Tim Cohane before switching to baseball in 2000. He took over for Bill Breene in 2007 and maintained a competitive program.
UB won a school-record 33 games and finished 19-6 in the conference in 2013, earning Torgalski Coach of the Year honors. His career 220-358 record may have been more a reflection of the university's scant support than anything else. Sixteen players signed professional contracts under his direction with more expected this month.
"I wasn't one to go in and complain to the AD every year with 'I need this, and I need this,' " he said. "It was, 'Give me what you can, and we'll make the best of it.' We might come up short based on the lack of certain things, but we were always going to compete. That was the reputation we developed."
At age 51, after 23 years at the university, including 17 with the baseball program, he was out of a job. As a divorced father of two sons in their teens, he's not in a position to leave the region. He will be paid for the final year remaining on his contract. After a lifetime in sports, he wasn't sure about his future.
"Buffalo" wasn't just the name across his jersey. It's who he is.
"After having invested 17 years, it's hard to see it go," Torgalski said. "My kids grew up in UB baseball. It has been a part of our lives for a long, long time. It has been tough. It's hard when you feel like you're taking small steps every year to raise that talent level, but you never had that opportunity to compete at the highest level year in and year out because of the lack of commitment from the school."
Thankful to play baseball
The irony is that UB added baseball in 2000 because ... it was intent on upgrading its football program. In order to join the Mid-American Conference in football, member schools were mandated to participate in certain sports. Baseball was one of them.
For years, Buffalo obliged at the bare minimum. Others schools in the conference offered the maximum number of scholarships while UB had five fewer. UB's field at Amherst Audubon Park, a dump when compared to facilities at other schools in the conference, contributed to the Bulls' recruiting disadvantage.
Several times during his tenure, White changed the subject when asked about building a baseball facility. Baseball was a necessary inconvenience and remained near the bottom of the athletic department's priority list.
The lack of scholarship money compared to other schools was a major problem. Five scholarships broken in half equates to six upgrades on the mound and four upgrades in the field. Torgalski spent little time recruiting top players because he had little chance of signing them.
Their shortcomings surfaced in one-run games. Torgaski was forced to leave starting pitchers in games longer than he wished because he lacked depth in the bullpen. He also had few solutions for light hitters often found at the end of his batting order. UB had inferior rosters virtually every season.
"It changes the way you coach," he said. "You can't do certain things that other guys can do in certain situations, especially coming out of the bullpen. Other guys can make changes and get a lefty-lefty or righty-righty. We can't do that because we either don't have enough guys or guys aren't ready yet. It changes everything."
And then there was the field. Audubon was hidden from the university's general student population behind the Northtown Center at Amherst. UB put little resources into its home ballpark.
On May 1, Torgalski canceled a non-conference game against Niagara that was re-scheduled for the following day because his infield wasn't covered during a rainstorm. The tarp was littered with so many holes that it wasn't worth the effort of spreading it across the field. The Bulls didn't even have an indoor batting cage.
While the women's basketball team's fund-raising efforts raised money for luxuries such as matching winter boots and a massage therapist even though UB already had one, money collected by the baseball team was earmarked for necessities such as jackets and a new L-screen for batting practice.
Miami of Ohio, meanwhile, boasted a $4 million facelift for what is now a gorgeous facility. Western Michigan plays in a nice ballpark adjacent to the football stadium. Toledo's field is a short drive from campus, but it had everything it needed. Every other MAC school had facilities worthy of Division I.
"It's a huge disappointment," Rockies catcher Tom Murphy, a third-round pick from UB in 2011, told SB Nation after his alma mater dropped his sport. "But we were always put on the backburner there as a program; we never had a field on campus or anything like that. It's a sport that's thought of as very secondary.
"We never complained about it or held a grudge against the university. We were just thankful to play baseball and played hard every day, regardless of what kind of stock the university put into us."
Shame on them
Former longtime Ohio coach Joe Carbone helped champion the mandate that required MAC schools to have baseball programs. It was instituted in the early 1970s, back when baseball was a given for Division I sports. He was among many who feared baseball would someday fall victim to football.
Carbone was a respected voice in the conference. He played a pivotal role in MAC schools upgrading their playing fields into small stadiums and pushed for the conference to offer the maximum number of scholarships allowed in D-I baseball.
He also helped UB get its program up and running. When the Bulls first joined the MAC in 2000, the administration didn't even know how many baseballs it needed for a full season. Carbone set up UB with an equipment company, helped arrange its schedule and explained other nuances of the conference.
In 2012, shortly after he retired, the conference decided baseball no longer was required in the MAC. In 2015, when Akron dropped baseball as part of an effort to save $40 million, he worried Buffalo and other schools such as Bowling Green and Northern Illinois wouldn't be far behind.
"And now Buffalo has dropped baseball," said Carbone, a scout for the Miami Marlins. "It makes me very, very sad. It makes me angry. I feel badly for Ronnie and all those kids. They just come in and announce it - so long, goodbye.
"Shame on them. Shame on the president of the University at Buffalo. Shame on the athletic director. You can't afford it? Then you have to cut the budgets of all the sports and kick in fund-raising to get this done, not just say, 'I quit.' For that AD and that president, it's a major loss. They're well below .500 in my book."
By mid-May, UB had lost five straight games, putting it in danger of missing the conference tournament. Torgalski invited alumni back for the final weekend at home, and several former players stopped at the ballpark to offer condolences, complain about the administration and tell tall tales about past seasons.
As was customary, top administrators kept their distance.
"I'm in the bullpen the other day, and Allen Greene shows up with his car with tinted windows and the windows up," Sobieraski said during the series. "He was here to watch but didn't want to be seen here. He didn't even get out of the car. He laid low, watched a few innings and left."
Ohio handed them two losses, including a 12-1 drubbing on May 13. Senior Day was set for the following afternoon, Mother's Day. Senior Day was a special occasion for everyone involved, particularly for Brian Dudek and his father.
Gene Dudek played at UB in the late '70s and early '80s, spent a few seasons in the Orioles' system and returned to Western New York. He became a single of father of two when his wife, Marcie, died in 2009 after a 12-year battle with breast cancer. Brian was 2 years old, three years younger than his sister, Kara, when their mother was diagnosed.
Marcie Dudek attended every one of Brian's youth games she could before she passed at age 47. Brian knew his mother wouldn't have missed Senior Day. She would be proud of Kara, too, who teaches autistic children and is getting married in August. Dudek's teammates sensed his mother's absence bothered him during Senior Day ceremonies.
"You could tell," Kwitzer said. "It was Senior Day and Mother's Day. I knew. A lot of guys knew. We tried not to bring it up."
UB played its final home game two days later against Niagara, and Dudek couldn't have written a better script. Buffalo tied the game in the ninth before he stepped to the plate in the 10th and hit a walk-off homer that, with a gust from above providing a little push, barely cleared the fence.
"I blacked out," Dudek said with a smile.
Imagine, a senior playing his last game 15 minutes from home, the son of a great player from another era of Buffalo baseball, coming through with a game-winning homer and enjoying the greatest individual highlight of his career.
"It was awesome," Kwitzer said. "The first thing I thought of was his mom. She was definitely looking over him. When he hit it, it was a special moment. There was no person better than him that could have hit that walk-off."
Baseball and fatherhood
At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, senior Vinny Mallaro has a frame suited for batting cleanup. Through his first 31 games, he hit .325 with 31 RBIs and three home runs. He had a beer-league softball performance in the wild 21-20 loss to Toledo when he hit two three-run homers and had a school-record nine RBIs.
Mallaro wasn't just the DH. He was the team's only father. His girlfriend gave birth to their son shortly after his junior year. The arrival of his son forced Mallaro into the real world sooner than he expected. His teammates suggested it accelerated his maturity and gave him greater perspective.
"He doesn't care if I play bad and we lose," Mallaro said of his son, "and that makes my day."
Last year, after he batted .351, had 13 homers and 52 RBIs in 50 games, Mallaro was told by scouts he might be selected in the draft's first 15 rounds. He experienced pain in his shoulder during a pre-draft workout with the Reds, was overlooked in the draft and had Tommy John surgery the following month.
Sidelined for the summer and unable to participate in workouts until January, his production fell. On May 12, he and his girlfriend took their son to an immediate-care facility and stayed until 4 a.m. The baby had a virus and would be fine. Mallaro was hitless in eight at-bats over his next two games.
Fatherhood, injuries, uncertainty about his future and frustration accompanying a 3-for-24 slump had added up. He finished with a .285 average, eight homers and 51 RBIs in 51 games, earning him second-team all-MAC. He had a good season, but he was a fraction from a great one.
"It definitely can take a toll on you," Mallaro said. "My girlfriend has been completely supportive. When my son wakes up in the middle of the night, she'll say, 'You go back to bed. You have a game tomorrow. I'll take care of him.' But there have been times I'm working in two-three hours of sleep. It's a lot to take in."
Mallaro was three credits short of graduating with a degree in health and human services. He could be drafted or sign as a free agent. If either happens, he'll likely receive a small signing bonus and low starting salary with two other mouths to feed.
He learned construction as a kid growing up near Syracuse. He talked about becoming firefighter or a cop. If nothing else, he learned life can throw you a curve.
"You try to do the best you can in whatever situation you're in," Mallaro said. "A four-year degree is a lot better than $30,000 (signing bonus) and, with taxes, you're getting practically nothing. Being on a four-year scholarship, going back to school, getting that degree, look at me now: I need one summer class. I'm getting a really good degree from a really good university.
"I'm going to give (professional baseball) a shot, give it a couple of years and see what happens. If not, it's time to find a real job in the real world."
Focus returns to baseball
As the end of the regular season approached, players planned a silent protest that would take place during the conference tournament - when more people were paying attention. They wanted to draw attention to the program's elimination by wearing jerseys inside out and taping over the logo on their caps.
In order to make the statement, however, they needed to make the MAC Tournament. The Bulls figured they needed two wins over Western Michigan to reach the postseason. Finally, the focus was on baseball.
UB had chances to break open the first game but left the bases loaded three times and was tied, 4-4, through eight innings. Dudek doubled off the wall in the ninth and scored on Phil Tomasulo's sacrifice fly, to give the Bulls a 5-4 lead. Harasta and his 97 mph fastball came out of the bullpen.
He retired two of his first three batters. Nate Grys doubled to right-center to score a runner from first. One batter later, Jesse Forestell hit a hard grounder to Dudek's left. Dudek made a great play to knock it down but temporarily lost his footing. Grys scored the winning run from second.
Western scored five runs with two outs. UB left 16 runners on base.
Final score: Western Michigan 6, Buffalo 5.
Afterward, Torgalski reminded his players that they still had a chance to win two games. Listening to his players on the bus back to their hotel, he quietly worried that his team would remain on the canvas after the last haymaker.
"There wasn't a sound the whole way back," he said. "Not a peep. It was the quietest ride of the year - by far."
Time to go home
Rain on Friday forced a doubleheader Saturday. Taking two of three games on the road was difficult enough. Winning twice on the same day is a tall order for any team, especially this one. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong when they blew the lead in the ninth inning Thursday. And yet there was hope.
UB had learned one win against Western combined with a Toledo loss would give Buffalo a berth in the conference tourney. The season was on life support, but the Bulls were alive for the 11 a.m. start of their first game. If they won, they would play the second game and keep an eye on Toledo-Eastern Michigan.
Buffalo dropped the first game, 7-2. Trailing, 2-0, the Bulls had bases loaded with nobody out and scored one run. They died from a thousand cuts: a bloop single followed by a high chopper to make it 4-1, an opposite-field grounder just inside third base to score two more; a bleeder to give Western a 7-1 lead in the sixth.
In a fitting final chapter, right when it appeared they experienced more adversity than any team should, steady rains over Lake Michigan swept 30 miles east through Kalamazoo. Mother Nature evidently cared less about the program than Father Time.
Western coach Billy Gernon could have called the game based on field conditions, and nobody would have thought less of him. Gernon wanted to give the Bulls a puncher's chance, so he made his own team sit through a three-hour delay before getting the field ready.
And with Western holding a six-run lead during the delay, UB had nearly three hours to digest a season filled with heartbreak. They kept fighting until the final out. Dudek stood over the railing in the dugout, staring at the dirt, pondering his future and coming to terms with the end of his career. In the parking lot, the team bus was running and waiting to take the Bulls back to Buffalo.
But wait. It wasn't over.
Haefner put his team-high 3.7 GPA to work, grabbing his cellphone and scanning the tiebreakers before realizing that, holy cow, UB had an infinitesimal chance to reach the postseason. They had to play one more game. And with that news, the Bulls had one final surge of energy and unity.
"I guess we were used to the holy cow stuff," Torgalski said. "It was a classic ending. We were out here for 12 hours, the rain, happy to be here, spending 12 hours with the guys that you've been with for years, keeping them together one last time."
The Bulls had a chance to rediscover the reasons they had poured so much time and energy into the game since they were kids. It was for the love of baseball. In a season filled with uncertainty and turmoil, a collection of resourceful players became kids once more.
Together, they played a baseball game.
Fittingly, senior Tyler Utz had the last official plate appearance of the game, the season, the era. He epitomized what college sports were about before losing their way, how purity disappeared over time and buckled to money, how it became the multibillion-dollar industry you see today.
Utz was a three-sport athlete at Williamsville South High who grew up minutes away from the Amherst campus. He came to UB for an education, spent his first year gaining his feet, showed up for tryouts as a sophomore, made the team as an extra body and proudly wore the uniform for three years as a bullpen catcher.
Torgalski viewed him as an All-American teammate. He showed up every day and prepared to play knowing he wouldn't. He sprinted from the dugout to the plate while warming up pitchers and never complained. He batted .200 with one extra base hit and one RBI in 17 career games over three seasons.
It was far more than he expected before he stepped to the plate with on and two out in the seventh against Western. With his parents in the crowd after making the drive from Buffalo to hustle him back to UB for graduation ceremonies the next morning, he didn't get cheated. He took three mighty swings, fanned on the third, turned to the guys cheering him from the dugout, and smiled.
Moments later, he gathered with his teammates, and together they sobbed. Some cried with one another, others for one another, others because they couldn't stop once the first one started. In the months that had passed, while coming to terms with the decision, virtually everyone landed on one word: sad.
For Utz, it was all that and more.
"I'm just so grateful," Utz said. "They gave me a chance to play college baseball. That was my dream. I actually got to play over the years. It's a dream come true. I got to make the best friends, meet amazing people - not just the baseball team but throughout athletics. It changed my life completely. It's a shame that it's over."
Together, with darkness falling, players and coaches collected their belongings from the dugout and headed for the bus, their message clear but unspoken.
It was time to go home.
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