University of Buffalo cancels men’s baseball program
By Michael DiStefano
Canadian Baseball Network
Two Canadians hope to close out the University of Buffalo Bulls baseball program on a winning note.
Toronto natives Alex Thrower and Brent Cleland, along with the rest of the team, were informed that for the first time since 1999 the UB Bulls will not field a team in 2018 after the school announced it’s folding four athletic programs due to budgetary constraints.
University president Satish Tripati and athletics director Allen Greene held a meeting April 3 to alert students about the closures.
Cleland said the meeting didn’t feel right to him the moment he walked into the room.
“The athletic director was there, which is what you expected, but also the president of the university was there — so you knew it was going to be something serious,” Cleland said. “[The president] ultimately just said that because of monetary issues they were going to have to cut four programs, baseball included.”
Bulls center fielder Thrower is in his senior at Buffalo and is not as affected as others on the team, but he still feels horrible for his younger teammates.
Cleland, however, has been a member of the Bulls’ pitching staff since 2013 and still holds one more year of NCAA eligibility due to a redshirted 2016 season.
“I was deciding [between] coming back and playing baseball at UB or go back [to Toronto] and focus on school. I do have one more year of eligibility, but with the program being cut it kind of made the decision for me,” said the Bulls hurler.
“I’ve been there for four years and this day wasn’t far down the road [for me],” Cleland said. “But for the freshmen and sophomores you feel really bad [for them]. It sucks they have to play the rest of this year with this added pressure whether if they perform or if they don’t perform, and what it will do for their future.”
Typically, when student athletes transfer to new programs they have to sit out a full season before playing again. This rule will not be in effect for Bulls players who decide to switch to a different school.
“What [happens now] is you’re allowed to transfer and not sit out for a year. [Or] if they wanted to, and had scholarship money from UB, they could stay here for the duration of their degree and have it paid for,” Thrower said.
University official say they will also honor the incoming athletes’ letters of intent if they decide to stay for their academic programs.
UB is not generally considered a baseball powerhouse, especially since they’ve only had one winning season since 2000. Yet, 32 Bulls have been drafted to the pros and the school has pumped out seven major leaguers over the course of its rich 58-year history.
Lefty Joe Hesketh is the most notable of the bunch. He was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1980 and spent 10 years in the big leagues. Hesketh spent a majority of his career as a reliever with a 3.78 earned-run average with 726 strikeouts in 961 2/3 innings pitched.
The most recent Bull to transition to the major leagues is Colorado Rockies catcher Tom Murphy.
Murphy spent three years in Buffalo and was chosen in the third round of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft. He made his debut in 2015, and had 21 appearances last season. The Rockies believe Murphy will be a fixture on the big league team in the foreseeable future.
“We have a strong Alumni,” Thrower said. “The Alumni come back and respect where they came from, so that’s pretty cool.”
The Bulls latest draftee is Los Angeles Angels minor league right-hander Mike Kaelin, who still keeps a good relationship with his old Buffalo teammates and wished his team well after hearing the bad news. He’s working in relief for the class-A Burlington Bees.
“Kaelin wrote in [the team group chat] about how sick he felt to his stomach, wished us the best and hoped that we win the thing,” Cleland said.
“As [crappy] as this is, the situation has probably brought everyone and the alumni closer. I’m sure throughout the season we’ll get tons of Alumni at our games because they know it’s the last time out and it’ll just be a great atmosphere,” Cleland said.
Thrower says the team is ready to rally around all the support it has received from the community and alumni.
“I think every single away game we’ve had someone who’s played on the team come [watch], which is pretty cool,” Thrower said. “I don’t think every team can say that.”
Despite all the adversity and distractions, Thrower believes the team will grow from this experience and use it as fuel to win the Mid-American Conference championship this year and go out with a bang.
“I think we were going to make a run regardless of the program being cut,” he said. “Now it just gives us a little more motivation.”
This weekend the UB Bulls (10-20, 3-4 MAC) are in Toledo, losing 4-3 to the Toledo Blades on Friday.
Leading off and playing centre field Thrower, an Etobicoke Rangers grad, singled and drove in a run. He is hitting .236 with two doubles, two triples and 13 RBIs stealing seven bases.
Cleland is 2-2 with a 5.18 ERA in seven games, making four starts. The Toronto Mets grad has walked 17 and struck out 17 in 24 1/3 innings.
No player looks forward to the final game.
Yet when the UB Bulls take the field May 20 at Western Michigan to play the Broncos, it will really be the final game.