During a conversation in his office, Mike Buddie peers toward a set of windows. From Buddie’s desk at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he can see miles of the Hudson River, and on this late spring day, the deep blue sky and puffy white clouds above the water make the already picturesque view even more breathtaking. The mountains on either side of the river are filled with lush green trees that frame the river and complete the picture.
The stretch of the Hudson that Buddie’s office overlooks is also steeped in history. It was in a narrow and sharply curved area of the river during the American Revolution that George Washington and his army stretched a 75-ton chain between Fort Clinton and Marine Battery on Constitution Island, preventing British troops from using the waterway to strike into the interior of New York and divide the colonies in two. Without the “Great Chain,” historians believe that the outcome of the war -- and whatever future might have existed for America -- could have turned out much differently.
Buddie, who was named West Point’s director of athletics in 2019, and who pitched for the Yankees in the late 1990s, doesn’t take the scenery for granted. In fact, there’s not much about how his life turned out that the 50-year-old doesn’t appreciate.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty good view,” Buddie says of the rural area located 46 miles north of Yankee Stadium. “But really, it never gets old. And as beautiful as this is, it isn’t even my favorite view from West Point.”
As Buddie begins reminiscing about his previous life from the head of a large conference table that sits in front of his desk, he lifts his right arm up and leans back. He’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt with the Army logo on the left breast, and the visible scar on the inside of his elbow tells its own story. It serves as a constant reminder of just how resilient he has been, considering that his big league career came to a premature end when Buddie, like so many pitchers, encountered issues in his throwing arm that led to Tommy John surgery.
Long before the career-ending operation in 2003, Buddie was drafted out of Wake Forest by the Yankees in 1992 in the fourth round. He spent six seasons in the organization’s Minor League system, then was on the big club for parts of two seasons.
Not surprisingly, Buddie’s six years of Minor League Baseball included their share of challenging moments, times in which he questioned whether the sacrifices were worth it.
“I thought about quitting every day,” he says. “Honestly. I was a starting pitcher for the first five and a half of those six seasons. You’re only as good as your last outing. It’s a humbling game, and there were times when I would pitch 7 2/3 scoreless innings and be convinced that I was only a phone call away from the Bronx. Then the next two outings, you don’t get out of the third inning, and you think, ‘What am I doing?’
“I was one semester away from earning a degree from Wake Forest, and that weighed on my mind. You think about how six months from now, you could have a Wake Forest degree and be making $80,000 a year rather than making $1,400 a month. There were certainly challenges, but that’s what Minor League Baseball is for, to find out who is passionate about the game and who is committed to find a way to scratch and claw their way to the big leagues. Fortunately, I was able to scratch and claw long enough to get the opportunity.”
Although the Yankees’ big club was mired in a long run of losing seasons when Buddie began his professional career, he quickly realized that the opportunity that he so badly craved could be even sweeter than he had ever imagined. The Yankees were quietly building a dynasty. Then-general manager Gene Michael and his baseball operations team were stockpiling young talent that would form the nucleus of some of the greatest teams of all time.
“We were winning championships in the Minors,” Buddie says. “Going to the instructional league at the end of the season and hearing people talk about how important winning was made an impression. Most other Minor League farm systems at that time were meat markets where the organizations just put their players out there to get at-bats. The Yankees were interested in winning games and getting the Minor League players accustomed to making it to the postseason. It was easy to see that there was some real talent on those teams that could turn things around at the big league level.”
Buddie finally got the call shortly after the start of the 1998 regular season, and he would make his most significant contributions to the Yankees during that record-breaking campaign, posting a 4-1 record with a 5.62 ERA in 24 games.
For Buddie, that championship season was a whirlwind filled with the excitement of being on a team that won at a historic rate, along with the constant uncertainty surrounding his big league job security. Despite putting together a productive spring, Buddie had become a roster casualty, the last pitcher the Yankees sent to the Minors before breaking camp. But the demotion was short-lived.
“I knew that I was going to get cut, but I went from Tampa to San Diego with the big league club for two exhibition games, and then we bused up to Anaheim,” he says. “Before Opening Day out there, I went back to Tampa for five days, then we broke camp and I headed to Columbus to start the season in Triple-A. While I was on a stopover in North Carolina, I got a call from [general manager] Brian Cashman, who told me that I needed to get on a plane and head out to Seattle because Mariano Rivera had [strained his groin]. Five hours after that, I was in Seattle, taking a cab from the airport to the old Kingdome. I walked in during the fifth inning, and I pitched the eighth inning. In about a seven-day window, I had just gone from Tampa to San Diego to Anaheim to North Carolina to Seattle.”
For all of the Yankees’ success that season, things got off to a rough start, and Buddie was at the center of the team’s initial futility.
“We were losing, 4-0, when I came in, and I gave up four more,” Buddie says. “Our record fell to 1-4, and David Cone called a team meeting. He kicked the coaches out and said that he wanted the room. That was a famous turning point in that season, and we won 22 out of the next 24 after that and never looked back.”
Buddie traveled back and forth from the Bronx to Columbus all summer. He has great pitching memories from that season, especially from the two games he started. But it’s an exchange he had with a teammate after learning that he had been sent down in late August that stands as being particularly noteworthy.
“I had been up for a while, and right before rosters expanded at the end of the month, Joe Torre told me that they needed to make room on the roster and that I was going back to Columbus,” Buddie says. “I remember thinking, ‘Couldn’t I just stay here for 36 more hours, until the rosters expanded on Sept. 1?’ I was finally pitching well, but once again packing a bag and heading to the Triple-A team.
“I threw a bag over my shoulder, and I was walking through the bowels of the old Yankee Stadium as Darryl Strawberry was walking in,” Buddie continues. “I told him that I was going back to Columbus for the ninth [freaking] time. And he told me that it was team photo day. I said, ‘Whatever, I’ve got a plane to catch.’ We talked for a few minutes, and he told me that he would talk to Joe Torre about having me stick around for the photo. He reminded me of how good the team was, and that it was probably a photo I would want to be in. I walked back into the clubhouse, and Joe came up to me and said, ‘Oh, good, you’re going to be in the team photo.’ Now I can prove that I was on that team, thanks to Darryl Strawberry.”
Buddie only made two appearances in pinstripes in 1999, and with the Yankees’ bullpen filled with stars, he was released by the team in June 2000. Buddie began the last -- and most successful -- chapter of his playing career a few days later when he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers. At 30 years old, he pitched in 31 games for the Brewers in 2001 and posted a 3.89 ERA. The following season, he made 25 appearances and finished the campaign with a 4.54 ERA.
“Professionally, those were two fun years because I was pitching in more meaningful games,” Buddie says. “I found myself in seventh-inning situations during one-run games. Pitching for the Yankees in the American League and then the Brewers, who were by then in the National League, gave me the chance to pitch in all but two Major League stadiums. I was there for the last game at the old County Stadium and the first game at Miller Park.”
The experience of pitching in Milwaukee also helped Buddie understand just how special it was to wear the pinstripes.
“There were subtle differences between pitching for the Yankees and every other team,” he says. “I remember my first full day with the Yankees in 1998. When batting practice began, there were about 5,000 people in the seats behind the first-base dugout watching us stretch. That was the coolest thing: 5,000 people came out just to watch Major League players stretch. In Milwaukee, you got out to stretch, and there’s nobody there. I hadn’t put together how different it was to play for the Yankees from every other team. But I had a great time in Milwaukee.”
The music would soon stop for Buddie. Arm troubles necessitated Tommy John surgery in 2003, and although he contemplated making a comeback, he ultimately decided to call it a career, the back of his baseball card showing a 5-4 record and a 4.67 ERA in 87 games.
That’s when Buddie’s life began to get even more interesting as he began a journey unlike the type traveled by most former Major League players.
“I didn’t know what was next,” Buddie says. “At that time, I was in my early 30s, married and had two children. I was finishing my degree from Wake Forest while I was recovering from surgery, and I just didn’t want to go back into that life. When I got drafted, I thought that I would play two or three years before they realized that I wasn’t that good. I wanted to parlay my playing experience into a front-office career. But after 12 seasons, I definitely had that ‘Oh, no!’ moment. That lifestyle is brutal; it stresses relationships. I knew that I needed to find something else.”
Buddie wasted little time in joining the work force, initially taking a job in fundraising at Wake Forest. After working for the business school for about a year, he moved into a similar position in athletics. Four years later, Buddie was again at a crossroads.
“I just realized that I hated what I was doing,” he says. “Realizing that I was going to be working for another 25 years, I started to think about being an athletic director, or at least trying to do that. I had a heartfelt conversation with my boss, [former Wake Forest athletic director] Ron Wellman, and he took me under his wing and let me dabble in contracts, scheduling and supervising coaches. He allowed me to move from the position of assistant athletic director for development to assistant athletic director for administration.”
For Buddie, the experience was fulfilling, and it also gave him the much-needed confidence that he could achieve his new dream of becoming an athletic director.
“I remember going to my first Major League camp and watching [five-time All-Star] Jimmy Key throw a bullpen,” Buddie says. “He was throwing 84 mph, but he was still Jimmy Key, and the baseball was going exactly where he wanted it to. I remember thinking, 'You know what, this isn’t that far-fetched. I can do what he’s doing.' The same thing happened for me in college athletics. I watched the athletic director; I got to know who he was meeting with and what he was discussing. I was reading the same contracts. I was talking to TV executives and Nike people. I went to ACC meetings, and I got to meet other athletic directors and got to learn what challenges they were dealing with. Those things helped me believe that I could be an AD.”
Following a decade of work for his alma mater, Buddie got the chance to run the athletic department at Furman University. During his tenure at the South Carolina school, which fields 18 Division I sports programs, the Paladins won 26 Southern Conference championships. Buddie also spearheaded a major financial resurgence for the athletic department.
All of this caught the eye of the search committee responsible for filling the position of athletic director at the most prestigious military institution in the world. In what Buddie describes as a life-changing moment, following a final round of interviews at the Pentagon, he was offered the position.
Now riding through the 25-square-mile military post on a golf cart, Buddie stops at another of his favorite locations, Trophy Point, where a 46-foot-tall monument pays tribute to 2,230 Army officers and soldiers who died fighting for the Union during the Civil War. The final 13 links of the “Great Chain” are also on display, along with a plaque that describes how “a series of fortifications made West Point the most important post in America.”
Buddie sits down on a stone wall that separates the post from a ravine leading down to the Hudson, and he candidly shares how significant the opportunity to lead Army athletics is to him.
“It’s a big deal,” Buddie says. “Getting the call from [former Yankees VP of player development] Brian Sabean in 1992 saying that the Yankees had just drafted me was comparable. West Point is such a storied institution for so many reasons. And, who has a job interview at the innermost room of the Pentagon?”
On a short walk to the circular display of the links from the “Great Chain,” Buddie crosses paths with a few colleagues, all of whom are wearing military uniforms. The mutual respect between Buddie and the servicemen is unmistakable.
“I had that ‘Holy [crap]!’ moment of, 'Now I work for the United States military,'” Buddie says as he puts a hand on one of the links. “There’s a heightened level of understanding of the political climate here; and like when I was with the Yankees, you’re representing an organization that is much bigger than one person. But certainly for my family to be at the Pentagon with me and to get the job offer was a huge opportunity. Running the athletic department is one thing, but getting to learn from three- and four-star generals, and hearing their stories from wartime and battles, is a great way to be a lifelong learner.”
The challenges associated with running the athletic department at West Point go far beyond those that come with just about any other job in sports. Army competes at the Division I level -- most of its 30 teams are in the Patriot League -- but the athletes that represent those teams have much more on their respective plates than most of their opponents do. West Point cadets know that when they graduate they will be spending the next five years of their lives on active military duty.
“There are a lot of great academic institutions across the country that have unique missions and high values, but none are more unique than West Point’s,” Buddie says. “None of them have the values: Duty, Honor, Country. We talk as a staff all the time about the importance of providing an opportunity for these young people to compete for the last four years of their athletic careers. We want to provide the same amenities to our athletes that other Division I programs provide to their athletes, not because we are preparing them to turn pro, but because they are going to spend the next five years serving our country. I’m in charge of 1,200 young men and women who have to balance academics and sports with this huge monster in the room, which is military training. That will be what saves their lives when they are in battle, not how well they can hit a curveball or how they did on their English composition.
“They certainly have to focus extremely hard on their academics and on their military training, and they are getting up five hours earlier than I ever did in college,” he continues. “And then whatever is left in the day, we are going to use to get them out onto the field to try to make them better athletes. So, we don’t get to train as long as our competitors do, but we think it’s a badge of courage.”
From Trophy Point, Buddie drives the golf cart to Johnson Stadium at Doubleday Field, where the Army baseball team has played its home games since 1909. Like virtually every other place on the grounds of West Point, the baseball field has a mystique. In 1939, baseball’s centennial anniversary, the United States Military Academy dedicated the field to Abner Doubleday, an 1842 West Point graduate.
The field sits in front of a backdrop of granite buildings and monuments to legendary figures in America’s history including George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur and Sylvanus Thayer, a brigadier general known as the “Father of West Point.”
As a high school athlete in Berea, Ohio, Buddie was a standout wide receiver in football, a champion on the wrestling mat and, of course, an elite pitcher on the diamond. These days, the increasing concentration of white hair on his head gives away the fact that those heroics were achieved a long time ago. But the enthusiastic athlete in him remains ever-present as he arrives at a vacant Doubleday Field.
“I’m glad there aren’t any baseball players here to bust my chops,” Buddie says while walking out onto the field.
He grabs a baseball sitting in a hopper and takes it to the mound.
“This might compel Brian Cashman to give me a call,” Buddie jokes before throwing a pitch to the backstop. Asked what he used as his “out pitch” to put away batters with two strikes back in his playing days, Buddie delivers another one-liner.
“That was the problem,” he says. “I didn’t really have one.”
While Buddie’s base of knowledge is rooted in baseball, these days he’s passionate about a multitude of sports, and he contends that it’s his responsibility to devote the same effort to each of the academy’s teams.
“Having so many teams gives me a great perspective because I understand that our backup women’s lacrosse goalie works just as hard every day -- two hours in the weight room and one hour on the field -- as our starting quarterback,” Buddie says. “She just doesn’t get to play in front of 55,000 fans like the quarterback. But it’s just as important to me that every one of our athletes gets that support. We have 30 sports here, and I try to go to as many practices as I can. I go to rugby games, softball games, rifle competitions, hockey games, and it’s been awesome to learn about the intricacies of all of those sports. Between me and my staff, we divide and conquer, and we make sure that all of the athletes feel supported.”
After the brief stop at the baseball field, Buddie makes his way to Blaik Field at Michie Stadium, the home of the Black Knights. Once a gridiron powerhouse that won three national championships in the 1940s, Army has seen its elite academic standards and military requirements hamper recruiting efforts for decades. But in recent seasons, the program has experienced something of a resurgence under the stewardship of head coach Jeff Monken. In 2018, the team went 11-2 and defeated the University of Houston, 70-14, in the Armed Forces Bowl.
In Buddie’s first year as AD, the football team went 5-8, but even more devastating was the outcome of the famed Army-Navy game — a 31-7 loss in a contest that has stood head and shoulders above all other sports rivalries for more than 100 years. Although he was knowledgeable about the magnitude of that one game each year, Buddie admits that it was impossible to fully grasp until he was part of it.
“It’s consumes us in the week leading up to the game,” he says. “‘Beat Navy’ becomes punctuation here, and there is a tangible energy on post. There’s as much of a desire to win as there is a fear of losing. To fall short that first year, and to see what that meant to our players, was brutal. Then to be talking to the football coach a few minutes later about what we needed to do in order to win the next year, and to then spend the next 364 days fighting for every advantage so that we could beat Navy, that’s a pretty remarkable thing.”
In 2020, Army posted a 9-3 record and earned a Liberty Bowl berth. Most importantly, the Black Knights defeated the Midshipmen, 15-0. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the game was played at West Point’s 38,000-seat stadium for the first time since 1943, rather than at a neutral site. Of course, the game took place without fans in attendance.
“We played so well that day,” Buddie says. “The feeling that I had after that game made me understand why we work 365 days a year to make sure that we can capture that feeling again. Beating Navy is really worthwhile.”
Like many service members and civilians who hold positions at West Point, Buddie’s residence is located on post. Buddie, his wife and their daughter live in close proximity to Michie Stadium -- and the AD’s son is currently a student at Furman. The view from Buddie’s back deck overlooks the Lusk Reservoir, a 13-acre body of water that sits next to the football stadium.
“On a winter day, I can see the football stadium from across the reservoir,” Buddie says while posing for a photo on a stone bridge. “I can hear our lacrosse players practicing at 6:30 in the morning while I’m having a cup of coffee. Things like that make me realize how fortunate I am to be in such a special place.”
While Buddie retreats to his home to prepare for a midday run on Flirtation Walk, a wooded path along the Hudson River that he considers his favorite place at West Point, he’s hit with a question that literally stops him in his tracks.
What if you never had Tommy John surgery? Would you have been so dogged in your pursuit of success after baseball if you had been able to play in the Majors for five more years -- or even longer than that -- and made millions of dollars?
“That’s a great question,” Buddie says. “I don’t think I would have had the same sense of urgency. When your career ends and you’re married and you’re a parent, you need to make money. You certainly have a greater sense of urgency to find something. I probably would have been more methodical in my search, but something tells me that I still would have found this career. It’s such a good fit; it’s so rewarding. I’m just not the kind of person to play golf six days a week. But it would have been nice to find out. I wouldn’t have minded having a 10-year big league career, but the drive would have still been there.”