Joe Bauth laughed out loud at the memory. Was Erie Community College baseball dying when he took over in 1991? Let’s just say that if you’d stepped onto the field at Main and Youngs in those days, you’d have wanted to administer last rites.
“Oh, it was dead,” Bauth said on Monday. “I remember when I got hired. When I went out to the field, it was like tumbleweed. It was falling apart. We had no fence, no dugouts. I thought, ‘What I am doing here? What did I get myself into?’”
But Bauth, who was 30, believed he could make a difference. Ralph Galanti, who hired him, wanted him to steer the program in a new direction. After six years at Cheektowaga Central, the last three as head coach, he knew how to coach a baseball team, to nurture and help it grow, like a field of freshly mown grass.
He had his own lawn-cutting business, which was helping put him through Canisius College grad school. It came in handy with the ECC field. In the early days, Bauth would bring his own lawn tractor out for practices and top-dress the field himself.
This was hands-on stuff. No one cared much about ECC baseball, but Joe knew the county executive, Dennis Gorski, and got him to provide fencing. It was slow, painstaking work, but Bauth had a vision; a real baseball team began to take shape.
“The roster the year before I took over had 10 players,” he recalled. “One of them was a 46-year-old. They didn’t win many games. The bar was set fairly low for me.”
He was laughing again.
“I went in and tried to change the culture,” he said. “I tried to change the perception of the program in Western New York do what I eventually did — build a team that year after year has a chance to go to the World Series.”
He would say he was creating a “new tradition” at ECC. And he did it. It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years. He doesn’t feel old, doesn’t see himself stopping any time soon. Last Sunday in the second game of a doubleheader at Genesee CC, he won his 1,000th career game, joining a select group of college coaches who have done so.
Bauth, whose Kats split doubleheaders the next two days after he hit the 1,000 mark, carried a 1,002-610-4 record into Saturday’s twinbill at Jamestown CC. He is second in the nation in career victories among NJCAA Division III coaches.
The Kats have 23 winning seasons under Bauth and 10 Region 3 championships. He’s a three-time American Baseball Coaches Association Coach of the Year and was inducted into the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2019.
He has done it in quiet obscurity, in a town that lives for its Bills and Sabres and tends to ignore minor college sports. Bauth admits there have been times when he wished the local media might give his program a long-overdue nod of recognition.
But anyone who knows him will tell you Bauth isn’t in it for the glory, but for the kids. It’s amazing that anyone could do something so well, and for so long, and not lose his enthusiasm. Joe always tells his players he’s smiling inside. When you love baseball and helping young men find their way in life, you have much to smile about.
“You know what? Now that I’m old, people keep asking me, ‘How many more years do you have?’ I really don’t know. I think I can still do the job, and while I can I’m going to continue to do it while I’m healthy enough to do it. I don’t feel 61, honestly.
“I like to do what I do and I love the kids. I think they keep me young.”
When he was just out of college, coaching at Cheektowaga, he once made his players run in the rain after an indifferent loss. Parents complained. The athletic director called him in, said he had a lot of “piss and vinegar.”
Bauth told the AD that his father, one of the handiest people he ever knew, had taught him there were only two ways to do things: The right way and the wrong way. He wanted the high school kids to understand that there were bigger lessons to be learned in sports, that every day was a blessing.
“Sometimes you lose today, but you win tomorrow and the next day and the next day,” he said. “That’s more important to me, that kids know the right way, that a grown man comes back and says, ‘You taught me a lot’. That’s way more important to me than how many wins I have.”
He has sent dozens of players on to four-year scholarship programs. Many came to Erie CC thinking it was a signpost for failure, the sporting small-time. Most leave as better players and people, grateful for the experience.
“It really did lay the foundation for my life,” said Joe DiLeo, who pitched for Bauth from 2012-13 and later worked for him as a coach.
DiLeo played high school at St. Joe’s and tried twice to walk on at Canisius College. He was cut twice. He felt empty without baseball. Some friends were playing at ECC and one of them recommended him to ECC.
Bauth, a diminutive man who describes his height as “5-foot nothing”, could relate to DiLeo’s struggle. A native of Alden, he played baseball at ECC, then tried to walk on at UB, which had a strong program at the time. He got cut. He planned to play at Brockport, but they eliminated baseball his first year there.
“I remember my first meeting with Joe,” DiLeo said. “The thing that struck me was he didn’t offer me an opportunity to play right away. He said, ‘I can give you this opportunity to increase on your potential.’ I don’t know why, but the way he said that to me was tantalizing. I was glad he did, because he provided all the opportunity in the world for me to grow.”
DiLeo had the typical bias against junior-college baseball. He quickly found out different.
“It was extremely competitive,” he said. “I was mind-blown. I had to work hard every single day. He gave me the opportunity to work my ass off to get something that I deserved. That’s hard to come by in the world.”
After two years at Erie, DiLeo earned a scholarship to Central Methodist, an NAIA school in Missouri. He loved it, but had gotten engaged and transferred to Fredonia for his final college season. He sees his college baseball career as a rousing success.
“When I look at any opportunity, I backtrack to that time at ECC,” said DiLeo, who works for Mass Mutual. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without that foundation. I got really close with (Bauth) over the years. I got to know him not as my coach but as his equal and his friend.
“He’s kind of quiet about it, but he really does have a lot of passion for baseball, and it’s really cool to see him have that drive after all he’s put into it.”
Bauth’s greatest pleasure is seeing his players move on to bigger things, be it baseball or life. Sean Dubin, who pitched for ECC in 2015 before moving on to UB, was in spring training with the Astros this year.
“We could spend a lot of time telling stories,” Bauth said. “It’s one benefit when you do it as long as I have. I take a lot of pride when my guys do well. I love it.”
Just a few days earlier, one of his former players, Alex Whipple, had been named the Great Lakes Conference player of the week at Ashland University in Ohio. Whipple, an Angola native, was an All-American centerfielder for the Kats.
“Whip came from us,” Bauth said. “He needed to do all the things we talk about, and he did. I’m president of the NJCAA coaches’ association. Two years ago, I was general manager of Team USA and Whip made that team and we played in the tournament in Wichita. He got to play that summer with guys going to Florida, LSU, Michigan State.
“That’s the key, providing these kids with the ability to see things that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Western New York is not the center of the universe, and certainly not of college baseball.”
Sometimes, people who have seen the world find a home at ECC. Bauth has two former Major-Leaguers on his staff. Joe Hesketh, a Hamburg native who played 11 seasons in the bigs, is on the staff. So is Wil Cordero, a native Puerto Rican who played for six teams in a 14-year MLB career and settled in Buffalo after marrying a woman he met during a stint with the Bisons.
Cordero had been working at a baseball clinic in Massachusetts. He wanted to do clinics in Western New York. He found a number for ECC baseball on-line and dialed it. Bauth answered the phone.
“He told me the players did the clinics,” Cordero said. “But he was looking for a coach, if I was interested. So we sat down and talked and that’s how the whole thing started.”
That was six years ago. Hesketh, who also does a lot of youth baseball coaching in the area, came aboard three years ago. It says a lot that two long-time Major Leaguers would commit to the often thankless world of junior-college baseball. It’s not for the money.
“Oh, no no no no!” Cordero said with a laugh. “It’s that I enjoy doing it, and it gives me something to do. He built the whole thing from the bottom up. He’s very dedicated to that program. He’s all in. He’s very passionate about it. We both kind of have the same mentality. That’s where we clicked right away.”
Cordero said he wasn’t even aware of the 1,000 wins when Bauth reached the milestone in the second game at Genesee last weekend. One of the players on the team told him. Cordero wondered why he never heard Bauth’s name on the local news reports.
Bauth’s wife, Suzanne, and daughter, Jordan, were waiting with champagne when he got home. His son, Brett, who played for him at ECC, came over to toast him.
“That was it,” he said. “We played the next day. It was a little bit of a relief. I had expected to get it last year, when I turned 60. My wife was going to have a big party for both things. Then Covid hit and it was ‘Let’s move on.’”
You look at what he’s accomplished and assume he could have moved on to a higher level. DiLeo said Bauth absolutely could have gone big-time. He’s heard there were offers. But why would Bauth want to move? He’s built a wonderful life and a program in Buffalo.
Suzanne was a professional figure skater who played Minnie Mouse in Disney On Ice. She now teaches the sport. Jordan followed in her bootsteps. She skated in the youth Olympics and is now a figure skater on Royal Caribbean Cruises. Brett is in law school. Coaching him was one of the highlights of Joe’s life.
The kids grow up so fast. It’s a hectic life when it’s happening, he said, and when it’s done you wish you could do it all over again. That’s the joy of coaching at this level, you get new kids every two years. They’re different in some ways from 30 years ago — yes, those cell phones — but still essentially good kids.
Bauth never gets tired of watching them grow. Smiling inside, he looks out at that ECC baseball diamond, his field of dreams.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.