The first time the Red Sox played Boston College in an exhibition was April 11, 1916, in Fenway Park. The Sox were coming off a World Series championship.
“The final score was nine to one,’’ the BC Stylus reported, “but is scarcely indicative of the snappy game the Maroon and Gold played against the Champs.’’
Nearly one hundred years later, under the bright sun of JetBlue Park on Monday afternoon, the 2016 Red Sox made their spring debut and beat a previously undefeated BC team, 6-0. The Sox and BC have now played 26 times, including every year in Fort Myers since 1994. The Sox have won all 26 games.
But it has never been about the winning, which also holds true for Northeastern University, which lost later the same afternoon, 8-3, to the Sox.
“Just look at their faces,’’ said Boston College coach Mike Gambino, gesturing to the line of Eagles players standing in front of the visitors’ dugout, watching raptly, before Sox third-base coach Brian Butterfield invited them to cluster around the batting cage while the big leaguers took their swings.
“My guys grow up loving and idolizing these guys, and now they get a chance to be out here, be around them. Being the head coach for me is a little bit like being a parent, to be able to watch them do this,’’ Gambino said. “My favorite part is to sit in the dugout, stay out of the way and just watch my boys.’’
Gambino brings an unusual perspective to the game. He played against the Sox as an All-Big East second baseman for BC, collecting two hits against the major leaguers as a fifth-year senior in 2000. Undrafted, Gambino was planning to play baseball in Sweden, of all places, when the Sox called. They needed an extra infielder, knew of Gambino, and signed him to a minor-league deal.
Gambino played two seasons in the minor leagues for the Sox, then returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach, bringing him back to Fort Myers with the Eagles.
“Nomar [Garciaparra] was still there,’’ Gambino said. “I’m throwing BP, and all of a sudden I hear someone scream “Bino!’ It was Nomar. He didn’t have to do that, but he’s a really good person.’’
In those early years, to make a little extra cash, Gambino worked as a waiter and bartender at the Stockyard, the Brighton steakhouse. That continued even after he was hired as an area scout for the Detroit Tigers, where his boss was former Sox scouting director David Chadd and GM Dave Dombrowski, now Boston’s president of baseball operations.
“A lot of things I learned directly or indirectly from Dave,’’ Gambino said. “One of the big things David Chadd hammered on us as area scouts was, ‘Get the makeup right, get the makeup right.’ Everything else is projection, but no reason ever to miss on the makeup.
“As a young scout, learning from those guys was like trying to get a Master’s in scouting, and at that point I was in kindergarten. On top of that, they were unbelievable people. I ran into Dave Dombrowski in Fenway once. I see him walking down the stands. He says, ‘Hey, Mike, what’s going on, how’s the move going?’ I was just moving to Alabama. Then he asked me about a report I’d written on a shortstop for the Rome Braves. I’m like, ‘What?’ Unbelievable memory, and just so good to everybody.’’
Gambino joined his old college coach, Pete Hughes, at Virginia Tech as an assistant coach, then became BC’s head coach in 2010. He was here last spring, when players on both teams all wore jerseys with the number 3 and the name “Frates” stitched on the back, in honor of Pete Frates, the former BC captain who had been stricken with ALS and had launched the “Ice Bucket Challenge” which raised over $200 million for ALS.
“What they did with those jerseys was the coolest baseball experience I’ve ever been around,’’ he said. “I had a lump in my throat the entire day.
“I had sent an e-mail to Sam Kennedy, asking him what he thought about the idea. I checked my computer about an hour and a half later, and there were like 15 e-mails in a chain. He’d reached out to everyone, and the next thing I know he has MLB approval and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’’’
The effort on behalf of Frates and ALS continues. The Frates family, with the help of Gambino and others, has launched a new initiative, called “Band Together to Strike Out ALS.’’ On Monday, players on both the Sox and BC wore special wristbands with a “PF3/Strikeout ALS” ribbon embroidered on them. Next month is “ALS Awareness Month,” and many college teams have pledged to wear the wristbands to draw attention to the effort.
“It’s one of the things Pete said: ‘Like it or not, this is our disease,’’’ Gambino said. “Our sport, baseball. It’s called Lou Gehrig’s disease. We may not have asked for it, but it’s our disease, our disease to get rid of.’’’
There’s another former BC player that is close to the heart of Mike Gambino. His name is Sonny Nictakis, and he was Gambino’s teammate. He had a hit in his last at-bat for BC, even though he already was dealing with the cancer that claimed his life only months later.
Every season, Gambino singles out a player to wear Nictakis’s No. 8, a tribute to that player’s ability to deal with adversity. This year, it’s junior shortstop Johnny Adams.
Oh, and one other thing: This past year, Mike Gambino and his wife, Jill, had their first child, a boy. His name? Sonny Lawrence Gambino.
You see? It’s never been just about the winning.