‘His love for the game has never weakened’

Sal Mignano patrols the third base coaching box at Southampton High School around the 1982 season. (Credit: Courtesy photo)
Sal Mignano patrols the third base coaching box at Southampton High School around the 1982 season. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

Buddy Gengler stood at the podium inside the dimly lit auditorium at Shoreham-Wading River High School, the rain having forced the day’s festivities indoors. As he gazed out into the audience, he saw a crowd that had gathered to honor him along with two other former baseball players, Matt Millheiser (2001) and Bryan Sabatella (’02). On this day, their jerseys were to be formally retired, their legacy forever etched into SWR lore. But Gengler knew the day would be about more than his past accomplishments on the diamond. It was about something bigger. Someone bigger. 

As athletes go, few were more skilled in Shoreham history than Gengler, an elite soccer and baseball player whose real name is Gabriel. As a senior in 1997 on the baseball team, he set single-season school records in batting average, hits, runs batted in and slugging percentage — records that still stand today. He was a two-time All-Patriot League shortstop at West Point and became a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving two tours in Iraq.

Don’t let the name fool you; they don’t come tougher than Buddy.

Now 35 and the father of four young girls, Gengler, who lives in Wading River, wore a blue Shoreham-Wading River baseball shirt Saturday as he approached the podium to recount one of the most challenging times of his life.

He was a 15-year-old sophomore and a rising star on the baseball team when his mother was dying from cancer. In keeping with her wishes, Gengler and his family kept the tragedy close to the vest. A mix of emotions bottled up inside, Gengler grew reticent as his schoolwork slipped. No one knew what was wrong.

Finally, he confided in his baseball coach — Sal Mignano.

“Sal went to all my teachers and other people and said: ‘Go easy on Bud. He’s going through a tough time,’ ” Gengler told the audience, fighting back tears as he spoke. “He took care of me. He offered me the support I needed through an unspeakably difficult time.”

In his 38 years as varsity baseball coach at SWR, Mignano coached 337 young men over 907 games. To some, like Gengler, he was a father-like figure.

When winter gives way to spring next year, the Wildcats will begin their first season without their hall of fame coach. After 583 career victories, seven county championships and 12 league titles, Mignano has decided it’s time to retire.

“Those titles are the small part of what’s kept me coaching baseball here at SWR,” Mignano said during a speech Saturday, as he publicly announced his retirement for the first time. “The competition, the staff that I worked with, the coaches that we battled against and the friendships that have developed have all been highlights.”

Mostly though, Mignano said, what kept him around all these years centered around two things: a love of the game and the young men he was honored to coach.

The Shoreham-Wading River baseball team picture from 1979, the third varsity season for the Wildcats. (Credit: Courtesy photo)
The Shoreham-Wading River baseball team picture from 1979, the third varsity season for the Wildcats. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

After graduating from Long Island University C.W. Post with a degree in health and physical education in 1975, Mignano set out in search of a teaching position. He found an opening for a part-time health teacher at a nearly brand-new middle school in the SWR district. Mignano grew up in Nassau County, where he was a standout pitcher on the Oceanside High School baseball team as a junior and senior. The East End of Long Island seemed like another planet to the recent college grad.

“I mean, I didn’t even know Suffolk County existed,” Mignano joked. “I was a Nassau County kid.”

During Mignano’s first year in the district, which had just combined Shoreham and Wading River a few years earlier, there were still no varsity sports; the highest level was junior varsity. After his first year, his part-time teaching position became full-time. It was a job he held for more than 30 years, an unenviable position of teaching puberty to generations of squeamish seventh- and eighth-graders.

Mignano_2012Mignano, who retired as a teacher in 2008, had always envisioned himself as a coach, especially in baseball. An only child, he preferred staying home as a kid huddled up by a TV watching a baseball game — any game — over going out. “I was a baseball nerd,” he said. By high school, he realized his dreams of playing professionally were unrealistic. To stay in the game, coaching was his destiny.

In his first year at Shoreham, he coached middle school baseball, soccer and basketball. In the 1976-77 school year, Shoreham rolled out its first varsity teams. The athletic director, Mike Schwenk, hired the 23-year-old Mignano to coach varsity baseball.

“It was very overwhelming,” Mignano said in a recent interview. “I came from a winning high school program, a winning college program. I was very used to winning. And it didn’t happen for the first few years.”

Mignano was tasked with turning a ragtag group of sandlot ballplayers into a team. For many of the kids during that initial launch of the program, their experience with organized baseball was limited.

“We got a real quick lesson on what organized baseball was,” recalled Bob Sickles, a third baseman at SWR from 1977-79. “We had to wear our uniform the same way. There was discipline, which we weren’t used to, and accountability, which was one of the things we griped about. We kicked dirt and threw our helmets, but over time we learned.”

The Wildcats went 4-16 their first season, followed by a more respectable 9-11. They stumbled through a 4-18 campaign in 1979, then 10-12 in 1980.

From the archive: See highlights of SWR baseball by clicking photo.

The frustration mounted for Mignano, a fierce competitor. He couldn’t quite understand why the players didn’t seem as into it as he was. One day, a veteran coach asked him a question.

“How many players from your high school baseball team went into coaching?” he asked Mignano.

“Me,” he replied.

“That kind of gave me a decent perspective,” Mignano recalled. “I can work them hard and expect a lot, but I can’t expect them to be me.”

In the program’s fifth year, for the first time, the Wildcats posted a .500 record.

They’ve never finished below .500 since.

This past spring, en route to the League VII championship, the Wildcats clinched their 29th straight playoff appearance, a streak that started with the program’s first Suffolk County title in 1986. A year later, they won their only state title. The Wildcats have reached the postseason in 31 of the past 32 seasons.

“I always felt like I wanted to be a program that was consistent and strong every year, not thinking that every year you’re going to be that good,” Mignano said. “It just snowballed from there.”

His 583 career victories leaves him second all-time in Suffolk County history behind East Islip’s Sal Ciampi (601), both of whom are members of the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame. Mignano will be retiring just one or two seasons away from reaching that 600-win milestone, a fact that hasn’t been lost on him.

“People have talked to me about it, but that’s not the right reason,” he said of continuing his career.

Shoreham-Wading River coach Sal Mignano celebrates the team's 2012 county championship with catcher Jack Massa. (Credit: Bill Landon, file)
Shoreham-Wading River coach Sal Mignano celebrates the team’s 2012 county championship with catcher Jack Massa. (Credit: Bill Landon, file)

Standing just 5-foot-8, Mignano was hardly an intimidating presence on the mound, although his thick, dark mustache gave him every bit the look of a ’70s ballplayer. He was one of the team’s top pitchers in college at C.W. Post. He wasn’t overpowering, but consistently threw strikes.

His playing career continued in a men’s hardball league, where he pitched until he turned 40. He finally gave it up in the early ’90s, he said.

“I never had the most ability, but I knew the game, I was very competitive and I threw strikes,” he said.

Now 61 years old, his hair and goatee grayed, Mignano remains physically fit. He still threw batting practice three or four days a week this past season, he said.

In the early years, Mignano used batting practice as a time to fine-tune his pitches.

“We were seeing stuff we had never seen before,” Sickles said. “These curveballs would come in and we’d be like, ‘What is that?’ ”

Matt Millheiser (left) and Buddy Gengler with their retired jerseys. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)
Matt Millheiser (left) and Buddy Gengler with their retired jerseys. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)

What Mignano brought to the program from its first years was a detail-oriented, dedicated standard. “He’s always the first one there by an hour,” said Kevin Willi, the Wildcats’ assistant coach this season and its likely successor. “Everything you could think of, all the bases he has covered.” His enthusiasm for the game was palpable. Even now, as he enters retirement, his passion for the game is as strong as ever.

“His love for the game has never weakened,” said Sal’s wife, Sue. “He always had a connection with each [kid] and always made each boy feel special.”

Sue’s been with Mignano from the beginning. They attended the same high school, although they didn’t become a couple until college. Sue was also an athlete growing up, so she was well suited for a life that centered around baseball. In college, their friends were the ballplayers and their girlfriends.

Sue attended most of Mignano’s games. They settled in Miller Place, and after the couple had their two children, Michael and Jamie, she would bring them to many of his games. Their daughter and grandson, Austin, live near San Diego now, a motivating factor for Mignano’s decision to retire.

A teacher at Port Jefferson, Sue was an avid photographer. Her role was the unofficial team photographer for Shoreham baseball. In recent years, at the team’s award dinner, she would prepare a slideshow with highlights from the season.

“I always made [Sal] a huge team picture,” she said. “When we had our house, we had this big team picture displayed and he would put them in his classroom also.”

Sal Mignano couldn’t understand what was happening. Seemingly at random, while driving, he kept getting pulled over by police. He didn’t think he was driving any differently or breaking any rules of the road with regularity.

Then it dawned on him. His new license plate, “HARDBALL”, was generating suspicion from local law enforcement.

“What do you think you are, a tough guy?” Mignano said was the impression he got from officers.

Mignano hardly meant it to come across as arrogant, but rather as an homage to his team’s slogan: hardball with class.

It was sometime in the early 2000s, Mignano said, and he was trying to come up with a slogan for a T-shirt. Hoping to avoid the typical clichés, he tried to come up with something original. Hardball with class was born. It was a perfect fit. Hardball represented not only the sport, but the way in which the team played, while doing it with class.

Years later, it’s become a familiar slogan for Shoreham baseball.

“Hardball with class is definitely the way it is around here, and it’s really because of [Mignano],” said athletic director Mark Passamonte, who became the school’s newest AD in January. “He’s the epitome of a coach.”

As Mignano’s reputation as an astute baseball coach grew, offers trickled in over the years from college programs.

“In each case, I just felt like I was at a point in my career here where it wasn’t worth leaving what I had,” he said. “It would have changed everything about my life. If it happened in my first 10 years in my career, I would have been gone.”

The two main offers were from Stony Brook University and St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. At Stony Brook, Mignano was offered a job as a pitching coach, shortly before Matt Senk was hired as head coach 25 years ago. Offers from St. Joseph’s came a couple times.

While Mignano never did officially join a college program, he’s kept busy over the years with baseball in other capacities. In 1990, he became friendly with Alan Marr, a scout for the San Francisco Giants who had been watching Julio Vega, one of the top players to come out of the program. Mignano began working part-time as a regional scout, eventually picking up with Larry Izzo, a longtime scout who currently works for the New York Mets.

Mignano keeps tabs on Long Island players, offering reports to the regional scout or checking out a specific player when the team sends a request.

Working as a scout in a greater capacity is something that intrigues Mignano for the future, although he said it seems like teams are cutting back more these days around Long Island.

Sal Mignano goes airborne during a celebration in May after the Wildcats clinched the League VII championship. (Credit: Robert O'Rourk, file)
Sal Mignano goes airborne during a celebration in May after the Wildcats clinched the League VII championship. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk, file)

No. 1.

Mignano doesn’t recall exactly when he switched his uniform number to 1. He estimated sometime in the early ’80s. He’s worn it ever since, a fitting tribute when you consider that in many ways, he was the first member of the Shoreham baseball program. During Saturday’s ceremony to retire three jersey numbers, Mignano was presented a surprise. His No. 1 would be retired as well, never to be worn again.

Mike Williams, the father of Kevin Williams — a ’95 Shoreham graduate who died on 9/11 in the World Trade Center’s south tower, presented Mignano the retired jersey that will be displayed at the field that bears Kevin’s name.

mignano_jerseyHe was also presented a plaque that will be displayed at the field, titled “Sal Mignano, The Legend of Shoreham-Wading River Baseball.”

“The victories and championships are there to count, but the true measure of this man is the scores of young lives he permanently touched,” the plaque reads.

Those relationships have lasted well beyond the players’ graduation ceremonies. When Keith Osik, a 1987 graduate who led the Wildcats to the state championship as a senior, began his journey to Major League Baseball, Mignano was there every step of the way. Family vacations revolved around where Osik was playing. Mignano was there the day Osik picked up his first major league hit at Shea Stadium. He was there the day Osik’s son, Tyler, was born. This past spring, Tyler, a third baseman, graduated from SWR after playing three varsity seasons under Mignano.

During Gengler’s speech Saturday, he spoke of his relationship with Mignano in the years after his baseball career with the Wildcats.

“When I graduated West Point, Sal and Sue were there,” he said. “When I married my high school sweetheart, Sal and Sue were there. When my father passed in 2012, suddenly, Sal was on the phone with me that day asking what he could do.”

Gengler’s story of his tour of duty in Iraq served as the inspiration for a chapter in a leadership book written in 2005 by Michael Abrashoff called “Get Your Ship Together: How Great Leaders Inspire Ownership from the Keel Up.” In the book, Gengler credits his high school baseball coach for serving as an inspiration in the early part of his life, helping him become a true leader.

The book never specifically mentions the coach by name. But let the record show: It was Sal Mignano.

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An audio clip of Buddy Gengler’s speech Aug. 2 at the retirement ceremony: