One of the most senseless phone calls of my sportswriting career took place on June 7. It was the day before the Stamford softball team played Trumbull in the Class LL semifinal. I had known for weeks that Black Knights coach Tony Esposito planned to announce at the end of the season that he would be retiring, but was asked to keep the news a secret so he didn’t become the story and take the spotlight from his players.
Still, I decided to go for the million-to-one shot. If the Black Knights won and reached the final, I asked Esposito, could I write a preview about him preparing for his final game.
Esposito’s reply was succinct and expected: “Absolutely not.”
After 19 years of adhering to a strict policy, Espo, as he has affectionally been known to his players, was not going to deviate during the final days.
As it turned out, the Black Knights lost to Trumbull, the eventual champion, 3-0, in a game that still lingers in Esposito’s mind for a number of reasons.
“This group was such a special group you really would have liked to go out on top,” Esposito said.
Esposito does, however, go out on top. If you go by the record books, he leaves with one state and three league titles. But those books cannot measure the breadth of Esposito’s impact, the enjoyment and improvement he gave his players on the field, the way he made them better people away from it.
Esposito was fittingly voted the FCIAC Coach of the Year this spring by his peers. Just a hunch, but based on my conversations with his peers over the years, he was considered the best coach, period.
“I grew up in a neighborhood where the older kids always played and were so gracious. If you played against the older guys, they would bat the other way to make the games fair, different things like that.”
Not that this is a widespread issue, but from my experiences there have probably been more softball coaches during Esposito’s tenure that threw players under the bus after losses than in any other sport. With Esposito, the girls won games and he lost them.
It was always about Esposito’s players, first, last and in between. During our talk yesterday, I referred to him as the best coach who least liked being interviewed. Many were the times he would answer a question and take a step or two back hoping there would be no follow-ups.
“Go talk to the girls,” he would politely request.
Asked about this yesterday, Esposito explained, “I definitely don’t like getting interviewed, but certainly more I liked when the girls got interviewed to get their perspective of things.”
There are roots to that humility. I wonder how many of his players were aware of Esposito’s background: a baseball star at the old Stamford Catholic, a youth league teammate of Bobby Valentine’s. Esposito went on to play at Iona.
Esposito offered an interesting perspective about his experiences growing up that shaped the way he went to extremes to deflect credit.
“I grew up in a neighborhood where the older kids always played and were so gracious,” Esposito said. “If you played against the older guys, they would bat the other way to make the games fair, different things like that.”
Esposito was disconsolate after the loss to Trumbull, in which he called for a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the sixth inning of what was a scoreless game. The maneuver failed and Esposito internalized the blame, though his strategy to make something happen was sound, with his best bunter at the plate. If executed and the Black Knights had won, it would have been another smart move by a brilliant tactician.
“I’ll be thinking about that a long time, that’s not going to go away for a long time,” Esposito said. “Would have, could have, should have, wish we did, didn’t do, that type of thing.”
“I tell you what, it was a great 19 years working with the girls at Stamford High. You are blessed with determined student-athletes. I mentioned to the parents a couple of weeks ago there wasn’t one day I didn’t want to get to the field. And that’s all because of the girls and because of the situation at Stamford High.”
The 2000 state title run, fueled by masterful pitching from Nicole Vitti, was certainly the highlight, but Esposito was not being disingenuous when he said there were no best teams or favorite players.
One of those stars, former shortstop and current assistant Melissa Giordano, almost certainly will deservedly be named Esposito’s successor, assuring continuity in the dugout.
As someone who covered the Black Knights for Esposito’s entire tenure, the lasting memory will not be a game or a win — or him shouting “beauty” on a close pitch, trying to get a strike call from the umpire — but the atmosphere that was created. His team had as loyal a following as any at the school, with administrators to the custodial staff regulars at home games. This was a testament to the quality of the girls in the program, and the person who coached them.
Esposito and his wife are moving to Rhode Island, but he has a daughter — Shanna pitched at Trinity Catholic and was on her father’s staff — and grandchild here and left open the door to possibly being an assistant somewhere in the future.
“I tell you what, it was a great 19 years working with the girls at Stamford High,” Esposito said. “You are blessed with determined student-athletes. I mentioned to the parents a couple of weeks ago there wasn’t one day I didn’t want to get to the field. And that’s all because of the girls and because of the situation at Stamford High. It was certainly a rush.”
It was a two-decade love affair that now ends not in divorce but in relocation.
Esposito is going to miss the Stamford softball program.
The Black Knights will miss him even more.