Becoming a legendary baseball coach was never part of the plan for Sam Tropiano.
A lifelong teacher, first and foremost, and a soccer player when he attended St. John Neumann High School, Tropiano found his calling as a high school baseball coach, first at St. Augustine Preparatory School and then at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken, New Jersey, where he has been the skipper for the last 31 years.
On Saturday, he became the first coach in South Jersey to win 700 high school baseball games after Bishop Eustace defeated Camden 13-0. And he never expected any of it.
“I’m a teacher at heart first,” said Tropiano, who teaches AP psychology at Bishop Eustace. “I’m a teacher that happens to coach. I thought I was going to be teaching in college and getting my Ph.D. and then this crazy baseball thing happened. It got into my blood and things took a detour.”
Tropiano’s whole life took a detour at age 6 when he and his parents moved from Italy to South Philly. He grew up on the 2500 block of Sartain Street, which runs parallel to nearby 12th Street between Shunk and Porter streets in the Stella Maris parish on 10th Street. He ran a water ice business until he met his wife from nearby Epiphany of our Lord Parish on Jackson Street and the happy couple moved to South Jersey after they got married in their mid-20s.
Tropiano’s first teaching job at St. Augustine offered him his first taste of coaching baseball.
“They just needed a JV baseball coach so I started coaching JV and within a year they needed a varsity coach and I did that for about four years,” Tropiano said. “And then I got a teaching job (at Eustace). The same thing happened. They needed a JV coach and I did that for a year until 1990, which was my first varsity season here — and we won the state championship. The rest is history.”
Good thing he’s not a history teacher, or his students would have missed out on all the details.
Tropiano’s Bishop Eustace teams would go on to win four more state titles, along with a total of six South Jersey titles, five prestigious Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic tournaments and 22 Olympic Conference divisional titles.
He has coached more than a dozen players who have gone on to play in the Major Leagues, including Zac Gallen, Devin Smeltzer and Mike Moriarity.
Two years ago, Tropiano set a new South Jersey record of 673 wins by passing Delran coach Rich Bender. And despite having no official season in 2020 due to the pandemic, Tropiano quickly hit 700, as his powerful Crusaders’ team won its first 14 games of the season through May 16.
“We’ve had some really good teams,” Tropiano said. “We had a ’97 team that was 30-3 and ranked fifth in the nation. We’ve been blessed with a lot of great teams here over the years.”
Tropiano still returns home to South Philly on occasion and enjoys the short trip over the river.
“It’s an awesome place to be,” Tropiano said of South Philly. “As a sports fan, you’re always going back for a ballgame. But you always go back when friends get married or kids get baptized. It’s part of my roots.”
As part of an annual tradition, Tropiano gets to visit South Philly to coach baseball. As one of the coaches representing all-stars from the Olympic and Colonial conferences of South Jersey, Tropiano’s team takes part in the Carpenter Cup tournament, which brings together hundreds of players from the Tri-State area to compete in front of college coaches and MLB scouts.
The first two rounds are traditionally held in FDR Park while the semifinals and championship game are held in Citizens Bank Park.
The Olympic-Colonial team won it all in 2018 after enjoying two games on the grand stage.
“That year, we had five Crusaders on that squad,” Tropiano said proudly. “We had a little second baseman Sky Duff who went on to the University of Pittsburgh and he hit a home run there that we still talk about. It was a bomb. We called it the ‘Sky Shot’. It was pretty thrilling to be part of that.”
It was extra special for Tropiano, having grown up mere minutes from the Stadium Complex.
“Something about being at a beautiful baseball field and you go to Citizens Bank Park and it’s gorgeous,” he said. “To be able to play on the same field as some of those Phillies players was unreal.”
So is 700 wins.
“You just worry about the next one in this business,” Tropiano said. “Numbers are not always your friend as you get older. It just means the end is coming so I try not to get too hung up on milestones and things like that. But I guess it’s pretty reflective of the great relationships you’ve had and the great players and assistant coaches that have been a part of the success of the program.”