West, Birdball Claim Victory On Emotional Night At Fenway – Boston College Athletics

Coffee pots across New England had barely stopped percolating by the time Mike Gambino first emerged from the Pete Frates Center on Friday morning. His Boston College baseball team and the visiting Notre Dame Fighting Irish were in the middle of batting practice and fungo drills to get ready for the noon-ish first pitch, and the sun-splashed Harrington Athletics Village brought a smile to Gambino’s face.

He knew virtually every experience possible over his 13 years as the head coach at his alma mater, but the weather forecast for Saturday called for a deluge of predicted rain. Having already played on Thursday, next week’s ACC Tournament start on Tuesday meant no other option existed for BC and Notre Dame to reschedule the game unless they moved it to a Friday doubleheader. It was, in effect, a simple arrangement, one that meant the Holy War rivals and former Big East conference opponents would end their regular season one day earlier by playing a day-night doubleheader.

Only one problem. Friday night was BC’s annual ALS Awareness Game honoring the memory of Pete Frates, the former Birdballer-turned-worldwide icon thanks to his courageous fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and after a four-year break, the Eagles were returning to their second home stadium at Fenway Park. The Boston Red Sox were on the West Coast, and with the ticketed event immovable, a new first arose for Gambino: a day-night doubleheader across two stadiums, with the final out of the 2023 season coming at Fenway Park after an early afternoon first pitch in Brighton.

As he smiled, it was, in his words, a Birdball kind of day, one made all the better by a two-game sweep that brought BC its first ALS Awareness Game victory since 2017 while simultaneously clinching both a series victory over an ancient rival and an eventual No. 6 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament.

“Pete’s fingerprints were all over this one,” Gambino said after BC’s dominant day. “From the rain to John West, it’s just what Pete does. It always works out.”

ALS Awareness Games are always a circled date on Boston College’s baseball calendar, but Friday’s matchup featured a confluence of events unlike any other moment in the program’s history books. The 11th annual game was the second consecutive and fourth overall at Fenway Park, and more than 3,000 people filed through the turnstiles to support both the Eagles and Irish as they played under the most fabled lights in baseball.

The usual pregame ceremonies rang with emotion after Pete’s daughter Lucy threw out a ceremonial first pitch to his brother, Andrew, and a national television broadcast featuring a remote-site broadcast of ACC PM brought the team’s critical message to the larger audience both within and outside Massachusetts. The camouflage uniforms – a reminder of Pete, who loved wearing his stars-and-stripes socks to the ballpark – made their second appearance of the year, and after past games against fellow ALS warrior Chris Combs’ NC State Pack Nine and legendary field boss Mike Martin and Florida State, the Holy War – a game against Notre Dame – took center stage for the first time.

It was just that everything else – everything else – gave the game a more special sepia tone for the BC record books. The predicted rain moved the game into the back end of a season-ending doubleheader, and both teams started the day needing critical wins to bolster their postseason resume after Notre Dame’s win over BC in the series opener jumped the Irish up three spots in the Ratings Performance Index poll while the Eagles simultaneously dropped out of the top-16.

Both clubs owned a spot in next week’s ACC Tournament, but the league’s chaotic standings left too many undecided parts. Thursday had been Notre Dame’s 30th overall win, but it moved the Irish one game ahead of BC for third place in the Atlantic Division. Virginia, Miami, Duke, and North Carolina all owned 11-loss records with nearly the same amount of wins, and after one of those teams clinched the No. 2 seed as Coastal Division champion, the remaining five cross-divisional programs would pollinate based on their records and tiebreakers.

The ramifications echoed far enough to reach the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, but BC and Notre Dame both needed the wins to bolster NCAA candidacies. For the Irish, wins meant a shot at actually getting inside the bubble, while BC sought its first-ever opportunity at hosting a regional. The twinbill couldn’t decide that conversation, but it very easily could force a more ripe or difficult debate.

“We sort of said it when it looked like it would shape up [into a doubleheader],” said Gambino with a laugh, “but nobody wants to play a [day-night] doubleheader in two ballparks. Since I’ve been here [over the last 13 years], we’ve played home games at other teams’ parks and home games in other states. We’ve played ACC series where games were at two different parks in the same series, and we played at other colleges. We’ve never actually played two home games on the same day at two parks.

“Nobody wants to do that at the end of the year,” he continued, “but we all said that nothing’s been easy for these boys, and they handle everything unbelievably well. Their energy, their effort for the entire day, this is the type of day that they will talk about for a long, long time, and I hope people watching this team fell in love and are falling in love with this team as much as I have.”

All of this fell on the backdrop of the game itself and the opportunistic shuffling of BC’s pitching staff, where graduate transfer Chris Flynn initially expected to start at Fenway. Gambino opted to keep Flynn as the starter for the second game when the doubleheader became official, but while that meant he had to start on shorter notice, junior John West slid onto the bump for the season finale.

The move bore instant storylines for West, whose father passed away in 2014 after his own fight with ALS. Handed the ball, he harnessed raw emotion into arguably his best pitching performance in a BC uniform, and he exited with seven innings thrown and three runs allowed on four hits on just 75 pitches. Pulled from the game in the top of the eighth, he received a bear hug from catcher Peter Burns, himself a Massachusetts native, before a standing ovation echoed off the Green Monster and another embrace from Gambino awaited him in the dugout.

“It was a dream come true,” West said. “I felt like my soul left my body. It was probably the best moment of my life, and to have that with Coach [Gambino], his coaching staff, this team, and then look behind [the dugout] and see my family and friends, it was incredible.”

“I was trying to keep it together,” Gambino added. “You want to try and say that once the game starts, it’s just another ballgame, but Johnny out there at this ballpark, on this night, I’d be lying if I told you that my emotions weren’t getting going.”

Two innings later, BC celebrated a series victory over Notre Dame, and the pent-up emotion of a long day spilled into tears and smiles. Nancy Frates, Pete’s mom, hugged Mike Gambino, and players took pictures before exiting the field. Somewhere in the heavens, Pete Frates smiled with former sports information director Dick Kelley and facilities wizard Paul Gallivan at another BC win over Notre Dame. 

The West family basked in its own, deeply personal moment, and the electricity of potentially clinching a regional at Brighton flowed through a baseball cathedral as two teams – two ancient rivals – once again recommitted their sport and their institutions to battling an insidious, unforgiving beast.

“[The ALS Awareness Game] is a special day and we knew that coming in,” West said. “Coach grabbed me pregame and said, ‘Look, I know how much this night means to you, so soak it in during the pregame and the postgame. When that light comes on, I know you’re going to get the job done.’ It was an emotional day, but I was just [glad] I could get the job done.”

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