Two Buffalo kids are making their journey to the MLB together

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Troy Banks and Josh Surowiec have been playing against each other on the same baseball fields since they were early teenagers in the suburbs of Buffalo. Then, they played as teammates for three years at NCAA Division II Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania on Lake Erie.

Now – they are teammates again for the Trenton Thunder of the MLB Draft League.

Their journey together so far

After using up their collegiate eligibility at Mercyhurst this past spring, and going undrafted in this year’s MLB Draft, Banks and Surowiec weren’t quite ready to hang up their spikes for good just yet. 

“I had a better year than I was expecting, to be honest,” said Surowiec, who was named the PSAC West Athlete of the Year thanks to his .430 batting average, 56 RBI, and program-record 17 home runs in 2022. “Even with the season I was having, all spring I was applying to jobs and figured that there was a good chance that my baseball career was coming to an end. As the season went on, Coach told me this league might be a possibility.”

“It all starts with having a good college career,” Banks said. “One great season probably won’t get it done. He and I both did pretty well for ourselves during our five years at school.”

Josh Surowiec works on timing up the pitcher from the on-deck circle as his current Trenton Thunder (MLB Draft League) and former Mercyhurst teammate, Troy Banks, gets set in the batter’s box. (Ryan Schwager/Philadelphia Sports Network)

Banks accumulated 20 homers, 74 RBI, and a .287 batting average during his three-year career for the Lakers. Prior to his time in western Pennsylvania, however, Banks got just 40 at-bats as a freshman for Baton Rouge CC in Louisiana. The very next year, he broke out and earned all-conference honors at Niagara County CC in New York.

Growing their games along the way

“At Niagara, I had the pleasure of working with George Halim. He was my infield coach, so he kept tabs up with me throughout my time at Mercyhurst. At the end of the season, we talked about my possibilities and what I could be doing, and the MLBDL was a good fit for me.”

Halim is a scout for the Texas Rangers, as well as the Director of PBR Canada. Prep Baseball Report is one of the major reasons why the MLB Draft League is even in existence, as it is partnered with Major League Baseball 

Surowiec, the big lefty first baseman and a five-year Laker and whose list of accolades goes far beyond the conference’s top baseball player, will have Banks throwing to him from either shortstop or second base for the 40-game second half of the MLB Draft League season for Trenton.

“It’s great to have a familiar face,” Surowiec said. “We played together at Mercyhurst for three years, and we’ve been playing against each other for even longer back in Buffalo. It’s great to see those close to you succeed, as well as sharing the journey with him.”

“Life just worked out that way,” Banks added. “We didn’t even know we were going to be on this team together. We could have been on different teams in this league, but I guess that’s how destiny works.”

Banks and Surowiec were separated from former Laker infielder Jack Elliott. In nearly 200 games at Mercyhurst, Elliot recorded 170 hits and 133 RBI as a five-year starter. He now plays for the West Virginia Black Bears of the MLB Draft League – the first-half champions who are managed by former big-leaguer Jedd Gyorko. The three faced off in a three-game series last week in Trenton.

Their future in the MLB Draft League

For now, the two members of the Thunder are playing (at least) one more year together on the baseball diamond. But their first experiences with each other came even before Mercyhurst. 

 “Yeah we’ve been playing on the same fields since we were like 13 years old or so – going to tournaments and stuff,” Banks said. “I always knew who Josh was.”

As seniors, the two even squared off during a game featuring Buffalo’s Williamsville North and Orchard Park High Schools. In an early-season matchup, both earned the starting pitching nod. Both hit triples. Both walked three and struck out four batters. But it was Surowiec’s Williamsville North squad that came out on top 11-7 in 2017.

“Keep in mind we both don’t pitch anymore,” Banks jokingly stated. “But we were two of the top baseball schools in the area.”

“My first couple of years, we got beat pretty good by Orchard Park,” Surowiec recalled with a smile. “So senior year, we finally turned the favor, I guess.”

The game is different

Baseball in the MLB Draft League is much different from high school baseball in western New York, as well as western Pennsylvania, however. Along with wooden bats and different baseballs, Surowiec highlighted that there is a noticeable jump in talent at this level.

“I’d say the talent here is a little bit stronger,” he said. “Each team is a little deeper in terms of pitching. Whether you’re facing a starter or a bullpen guy, you’re going to be facing a good pitcher every at-bat.”

Surowiec also mentioned that playing in the stadium of a former MLB AA affiliate is surreal. Even without an affiliation, Trenton Thunder Ballpark still draws big crowds, like the 7,721 faithful that showed up for a Wednesday afternoon game on July 27.

“We’re used to playing in front of the few parents that braved the cold weather to come out and watch. Communicating during play, like talking over the crowd noises and just being out there with a big crowd behind you is a different experience. Getting used to that is the biggest adjustment for me.”

Banks added his own take on playing in front of large crowds…and is grateful he’s playing baseball in the summer again, and not in late winter in northwest PA.

“That’s a good way to put it,” he said. “Playing in front of thousands of people every day is fun. At Mercyhurst, we would play in 30-degree weather and my parents wouldn’t even come because it was just that cold.”

Constantly learning

For Banks, even the atmosphere off the field is different, like in the clubhouse, for example.

“Being a rah-rah guy was the way to go in college, because it always got the whole team going. But at this level, it’s a lot more of taking care of your own business before, during, and after the game. Being around a bunch of guys who played in the major leagues (MLB) and high-level pro ball, as well as top D1 programs, it’s great to pick their brains. You learn something new every day being here.”

Though none of the nearly 200 players of the MLB Draft League can get drafted until next July, many will be out of baseball entirely come that time. Banks and Surowiec are taking it one day at a time while they still can.

“Obviously our dream is to one day play in the major leagues, but I’m just trying to be where my feet are right now and keep playing ball as long as I can,” Surowiec said. “I want to enjoy the time I have here without putting too much pressure on myself and just see what happens these next five weeks.”

Banks agreed.

“Yeah, he said it best. Be where your feet are. That’s most important right now. You want to get to the major leagues and even the next level, but you really do have to enjoy this, because it’s a special thing to be on this team and in this stadium every day.”

Looking ahead

With about one month in the season left, these two Buffalo boys are giving it their all. They are wishing for a call from a professional organization sooner rather than later, like the many MLB Draft Leaguers that have been signed as undrafted free agents in the weeks of the fallout of the MLB draft itself. For example, the Philadelphia Phillies recently signed former Thunder pitcher Braeden Fausnaught as a UDFA almost a week after day three of the draft.

If a call from the MLB does come someday for either Banks or Surowiec, maybe a package deal will be on the table.

Photo Credit: Ryan Schwager/Philadelphia Sports Network

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