In December, the Temple baseball team was given the shocking news that it and six other sports at the school were being dropped. Last Saturday, the Owls, in what was surely pent up aggression that had built for two months, opened what will be their final season with an offensive onslaught. Five runs in the first inning. Two in the third. Another in the fourth. Two in both the fifth and sixth. Another in the seventh. Two more in the eighth.
By the end of the afternoon, seven Temple players had multi-hit games and the Owls had themselves a 15-8 victory over Rider. Their hands were sore from high-fives and fist pounds.
Coach Ryan Wheeler watched with pride, keeping his raw, mixed emotions in check. He had not yet told his players, but there was a meeting scheduled for Monday at which the program's fate would be decided once and for all. Two days after the excitement of its season-opening win, the team learned that the baseball program would not be given a reprieve. The school's board of trustees voted to reinstate only the men's crew and women's rowing programs.
The Owls had officially become lame ducks.
"I didn't go into the meeting expecting to be reinstated," Wheeler said Monday evening. "I didn't want to go in only to get my emotions crushed again. So I went in there hoping for the best, but expecting the worst."
It hasn't been easy for Wheeler to have much optimism about his program the past few months. Going back to Christmas break, just after news had broken that the program was going to be dropped, the third-year head coach lost his three best starting pitchers, his closer, his shortstop and his centerfielder as transfers. Additionally, three of his top recruits for next season had all decided to commit elsewhere.
"It's been a circus," admitted Wheeler. "Every day has been filled with phone calls, emails and meetings. One minute I am trying to save a program, and a half hour later I am talking to a college coach about one of my players, helping them try to transfer. It's been nothing short of chaotic."
There was nothing Wheeler could do when ACC power North Carolina State called asking about two of his junior pitchers, or when Kentucky came for another, or Pitt for another. He was paying the price for recruiting top players and selling them on a Temple program that dates back to 1927. He sold them on a program that hasn't won much in recent years, but has made two College World Series appearances (1972 and 1977) and produced major leaguers like Bobby Higginson and the late John Marzano. And he sold them on his hope that Temple could be a force again in the Northeast. But Wheeler had no choice but to give his blessing to players who had the opportunity to play elsewhere.
Still, he held out hope he could save the program. Wheeler worked feverishly to come up with a plan that would convince the board to keep the baseball program alive.
"I feel like we came up with practical and viable solutions," Wheeler said. "What I was told was one of the biggest reasons the program was being cut was because of our poor facilities and the money needed to upgrade. So, we got the Camden RiverSharks (an independent minor league team) to allow us to use a 6,700-seat, state-of-the-art stadium for our entire 2015 season. And we got the Phillies to allow us and the softball program to use Roosevelt Park as a practice facility."
For years, Temple baseball and softball players have commuted 30-45 minutes on buses to the school's Ambler, Pa., campus for practice and games. Wheeler said his players knew what they'd signed up for when they came to Temple to play baseball and rarely complained about the trip to the suburbs. But if it was an issue to the board of trustees, well, he had a resolution. Wheeler also offered up himself, his staff and his team to assist the Phillies Urban Youth Academy. They'd be instructors and mentors to inner city kids.
"I feel like the two facilities we secured were a good alternative," Wheeler said. "Obviously, the best case scenario would be to have something on-campus, but that's not cost effective."
When the cuts, affecting approximately 150 athletes and nine full-time coaches were first announced, the board of trustees said the moves would save $3.5 million by dropping seven sports: baseball, softball, men's indoor and outdoor track and field, men's and women's crew and men's gymnastics. The announcements were made just before students were to take their final exams. The anger was palpable.
"It made things very challenging," said Wheeler. "But our guys came together the best they could. The guys who returned worked very hard. They took on huge burden, especially when we became a depleted team."
On the bus ride down to Wilson, N.C., where they played their first three games, the remaining 26 Owls players hashtagged all their tweets #BandOfBrothers. Their message was clear. You can eliminate their sport, but you can't destroy their team. Wheeler watched them bond, but took it all in with a lump in his throat.
So, as they Owls put that big number on the board in the first inning against Rider, Wheeler was almost numb. As much as he wanted to pump his fist and hug the whole team, the baseball man in him knew better. Emotion and baseball don't always go hand-in-hand. It might work in spurts, but the game is best played on an even keel. Following the opening victory, the Owls' lack of pitching depth was exposed. The season-opening victory was followed by defeats to UMass-Lowell and Rider, and a long bus ride back to Philadelphia in which Wheeler knew he had an extremely difficult task in front of him.
"Throughout this ordeal, I've tried to update [the players]," Wheeler whispered into his phone as the bus drove up I-95, with his team studying, sleeping and talking in the seats behind him. "But I have tried not to immerse them in all the details day in and day out. I wanted them to focus on academics and baseball. I'm about to share this with them. To tell you the truth, I'm more nervous about this meeting than I was about any of our games. I have a nervous feeling in my stomach that won't go away."
Sadly, for the coach and his players, there was reason to feel queasy.
"There was a lot of chatter before the meeting, just amongst people who've been involved in this," Wheeler said. "For me, prior to going in there, I started to hear maybe the issue wasn't really about facilities, because they knew we'd solved that part. But now, maybe it was going to be about (our nine) scholarships and how that might impact Title IX. In fact, I was hearing, if they brought back baseball, that would mean nine scholarships too many for the men and that would throw the numbers out of whack. To strip us of all our scholarships would not allow us to be competitive. At one o'clock, there was a closed door meeting, a lot of student-athletes started to show up, and then at two o'clock, we went in for the meeting. The chairman said they'd deliberated, that there were good and bad arguments, but that the board's recommendation was to reinstate women's rowing and men's crew, but the decision to eliminate the other sports was final."
There was a vote, but there wasn't much suspense. "It was like December all over again," said Wheeler. "The phone calls, the text messages and the emails started flying fast and furious. I've been trying to talk to my players, just to explain to them exactly what it means, and where we go from here. I want to keep them focused on the season. We're only three games in."
They'll be back on a bus later in the week, headed south on I-95 again, this time to play three against Virginia Commonwealth, followed by a pair against Radford. Wheeler believes most of his players with eligibility remaining will transfer. They're ballplayers, after all, and have no interest in staying at a school they feel betrayed them. The coach, who is married with three children, must also think about his own future.
"We need to stick together," Wheeler said. "We need to pick up the pieces and move forward. As much as I've tried to shelter them the last few weeks, I think they knew what was going on. I think they've put off their future plans, and where they're going to be next year. Now, I think they know, their time here is about to end."