Football Fever Leaves Towson's Baseball Team Reeling




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Towson isn't a big-name baseball program. It plays in the Colonial Athletic Association, the fourth conference it has competed in since Mike Gottlieb became head coach in 1988.

Gottlieb, a Towson alum, has led the team to 12 winning seasons, three conference championships and two NCAA regional appearances, the last in 1991. So when Towson baseball was listed as one of two sports (along with men's soccer) the school was looking to cut in the fall, hardly anyone in college baseball blinked.

It's not like this was California, which rallied from nearly being cut in the fall of 2010 to a College World Series run in 2011 and ultimately saving the program. This was "just Towson." Just another statistic. The NCAA has 347 Division I institutions, and last year 297 teams played D-I baseball. Towson just was going to change that second number a bit.

But to Gottlieb and his players, it's not about statistics. It's about the time they have put in, the work they have put in, to compete, win or lose. It's about Gottlieb, who says he has never received a paycheck in baseball anywhere else and who went straight from player to assistant coach to head coach. He has essentially been part of the university community since 1978, when he transferred in from Nassau (N.Y.) Community College.

It's about alumni like Casper Wells, the best player in school history. From 2003-2005, Wells pitched and hit for Gottlieb, going 6-0, 4.96 as a junior while batting .362/.475/.723 with 18 home runs. The Tigers drafted him in the 14th round that year, and Wells has carved out a solid major league career in Detroit and now Seattle, hitting 10 homers in 2012.

It's about current players such as Dominic Fratantuono, who had the rug pulled out from under them. Fratantuono posted a .464 on-base percentage a year ago, and the 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior is one of the team's top performers. So when he got the news March 8, he was devastated and took to Twitter to express his frustrations with Towson administrators, calling the meeting "the longest 20 minutes of my life."

No Going Back

Athletic director Mike Waddell got the longest day in Towson baseball history started by calling Gottlieb early in the morning.

Waddell called Gottlieb and asked him to come to his office, and said that Loeschke wanted to meet with the team at 10 a.m. Gottlieb says he asked, "What's the news? I'm a big boy, I can take it." He says Waddell answered, "It's not good."

The school had been reviewing its athletic department due to financial issues and recommended in October that baseball and men's soccer be cut and men's tennis added as a lower-cost alternative to maintain the minimum number of sports required by the CAA and NCAA for D-I. The baseball program had embarked on a campaign similar to Cal's to save the program, and Gottlieb thought they were making progress even though he had never been given an opportunity to speak one-on-one with school president Maravene Loeschke, who like him is a Towson alum.

Several media outlets reported that both the baseball and soccer teams gathered to meet with Loeschke, and that she made a quick speech to the teams, announcing the news while surrounded by extra security. The response by Fratuntuono and his teammates was to head to their clubhouse and get ready for that afternoon's game against CAA foe Delaware.

As they prepared, the players decided to use black tape to obscure the Towson name and logos on their jerseys and uniforms.

They played for themselves and for each other, not for Towson. They lost 4-2 and in Gottlieb's words were "emotionally spent" after the loss.

"My words here, we were persona non grata to the administration since October," Gottlieb said. "We had a high level of support form alumni, both within the baseball program and outside, and we had some supporters who were influential in the university who we thought were making some inroads, some progress. They were largely ignored for a while, but they had started to open some communication in January.

"A lot of people worked their butts off to try to make it happen, to try to keep the program, and we thought we were making progress. But I believe this decision was made in the fall, and for the administration there was no going back."

The school argued that Title IX gender-equity laws were a major reason behind cutting two men's sports, but Gottlieb and several media reports in Baltimore noted minimal improvements to Title IX for the school as a result of the cuts.

The bigger issue appears to be money. Towson has poured more money into football, helping the team turn around from 1-10 in 2011 to 9-3 in 2012. The athletic department's goal at Towson is like that of so many schools now in college athletics: Do what's good for football.

Every other sport is along for the ride and had better learn to live with being second-class citizens. Every other sport rides at the back of the bus.

And at Towson, baseball got kicked off.