Final innings for Temple baseball, softball
It was easy to be fooled. What was there to see at Temple's softball field? The infield chatter sounded familiar. The shortstop pantomimed high fives with the centerfielder after outs. Spectators debated the eyesight of the umpire.
Same thing at a baseball game just over some pine trees several days later on Temple's Ambler campus. An old gent sat under the pines and took it all in. The chatter sounded similar. The league standings weren't impacted much.
Meaningless games, really - except they meant the world.
When that softball game ended, Temple's players grabbed little plastic cups they'd brought to scoop up dirt from the infield to take home.
Before that baseball game started, a Temple senior pitcher spoke to his teammates in front of the dugout: "How tough do we want to be here?"
The players knew, of course, these were the last two games these two teams would ever play on those fields just below Meetinghouse Road.
This goes back to a rainy December day when Temple athletes were called into a meeting and told the school's board of trustees had just voted to cut seven sports - baseball, softball, men's gymnastics, men's crew, women's rowing, men's indoor and spring track. On their way out, many of them crying, athletes were given a white envelope detailing specifics.
Eventually, a check was written and an agreement with the city reached to fix the Schuylkill boathouse for the rowing teams. Those teams were given a new life. But only those teams.
Field of dreams
A rainstorm had swept most of the Ambler pitching mound's shape away. So Owls pitching coach Brian Pugh worked on the mound for eight hours the day before with a two-by-four, hula hoe, and tamp.
Most of Temple's home games this year were at the shinier Campbell's Field in Camden. But Ambler still was home base before and after the school announced that baseball would be one of the sports cut after this spring.
Before the last time at Skip Wilson Field, named for the man who retired in 2005 after coaching Temple baseball to 1,034 wins over 46 years, Owls players huddled in front of their dugout.
A senior, lanky pitcher Ryan Kuehn, did the talking. About this game with nationally ranked Louisville, the American Athletic Conference front-runner, Kuehn pointed out the Owls had nothing left to lose. He went on, "That's what makes us dangerous."
That's when Kuehn asked how tough did they want to be here. Then he hit them with this: "I'll tell you one thing, we've dealt with a lot more [stuff] than having to play [expletive] Louisville."
Senior Matt Hockenberry took the mound. He noticed the nice slope, he said, told himself this was going to be a good day. He said he had to come to grips with the significance of the game.
In the fall, the team had gone through a team-building exercise, and the players came up with slogans such as "Band of Brothers" and "For Love of the Game." They had no idea what kind of team-building was in store for them.
"Everyone's emotions are always running wild," Kuehn said of this spring season. "That's probably the hardest part, keeping them in check."
"It's not really that it brought us together," Hockenberry said of the last season of Temple baseball. "It just kind of put a spark underneath us."
Hockenberry was right about the mound. Louisville's first batter struck out, swinging.
From the third-base coaching box, Temple softball coach Joe DiPietro looked up at the rocket arcing past and yelled, "Get out of here!"
The ball followed directions, landing just left of a scoreboard in left field. Temple 1, South Florida 0, bottom of the second, last softball game in Ambler.
Was it possible to have a fairy tale ending here?
"I wish . . . No, there isn't," DiPietro said later. That home run, by a freshman, Erin Drennan, was Temple's only hit in a 7-1 defeat.
When the cuts were announced, DiPietro had pointed out that softball was the only Temple sport to have a better record than the season before for each of the last five years. The streak ended this year.
"I really underestimated the impact these cuts had on the girls, mentally," DiPietro said. "It was tough that way. Mentally, they just haven't been there all year. Some are worrying where they're going to be. If they have a bad game, 'My stats are bad, nobody is going to want me.' "
That only topped the list of issues. A dozen games in, Temple's star catcher broke her hand. The same game, the centerfielder got a concussion. Then the flu went through the team. And virtually all the home games were washed out by the terrible spring.
"We all have our rough days," said sophomore pitcher Kelsey Dominik, who is transferring to Coastal Carolina University after the season. "We all back each other up on the field."
After the cuts were announced, the baseball team lost six transfers at the mid-semester break. Temple baseball coach Ryan Wheeler said those lost players would have been the four pitchers at the top of his rotation and the two batters at the top of his batting order.
It's been toughest on his younger subs, Wheeler said. Most of their midweek nonconference games were rained out, costing them a chance to show their wares for some prospective new school. "The ones who have struggled [emotionally], they've consequently struggled on the field as well," the coach said.
Temple officials have said from the start that the money saved from the eliminated sports, which they estimate to be $2.5 million, will go into the remaining nonrevenue sports. One official said they held off refurbishing locker rooms back on the main campus in McGonigle Hall as long as they could, but began work in May. That meant the baseball and softball teams had to move into smaller quarters. The softball team didn't even use the new room, DiPietro said.
"I tried to explain that, you know, we only had a few weeks left," said Wheeler, the baseball coach. "I said baseball locker rooms are sort of a sacred place. It was one of the only things we had left. I was hoping they could adjust the renovation schedules to allow us to stay in there, and they couldn't. . . . It hurt them, it really hurt the players."
What's left to say?
Before the last home softball game, DiPietro didn't try for a rah-rah speech. Standing out in short left field, he told his players that if they were going to strike out, to do it swinging. He also suggested they have a blast, although the words probably sounded funny coming out of his mouth. (Afterward, he said: "I don't know if we did that or not.")
Both the baseball and softball coaches said they knew their final speeches didn't really matter in these final days.
"It's not going to resonate with any of them," said DiPietro, who had arrived four hours before the first pitch to prepare the field.
Both coaches saw how cohesive their teams had become. "As a coach, when that happens, you step back and let them take over," Wheeler said.
The softball game did end with a Temple senior at the plate - swinging, missing.
When it was over, South Florida's players and coaches stood across the diamond and gave Temple's players a standing ovation. Owls players took their dirt souvenirs. They knew: Soon enough you won't be able to tell they ever played softball on this spot.
At the baseball game, that older gent sat alone under those pines, watching the last Temple game there in either sport.
Visitors kept coming over. This was the man the field was named after.
Donald Beales, who had been Skip Wilson's bat boy and remained a volunteer equipment manager, walked over to Wilson with a purpose.
"Coach, that was his 10th strikeout," Beales said about Hockenberry, Temple's pitcher.
"I'm going to introduce him to Eddie Wade," Wilson told Beales, referring to the former Phillies general manager, who is back with the club as a special consultant. Wade had played for Wilson, and later signed a number of Owls.
Temple didn't win this game. Hockenberry kept them in it against the league leader, holding Louisville to two runs, one on a sacrifice fly. Temple threatened a couple of times against Louisville's ace, but the final score was 2-0. Like at the softball game, Temple's last Ambler baseball out was a strikeout, swinging.
Kuehn's pregame talk proved to be on target. Temple beat Louisville the next day in Camden. The 87th and last season ended for good Saturday. Kuehn got the win in a 9-4 victory over Connecticut, but that wasn't enough to advance Temple out of pool play in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
After the last Ambler game, Hockenberry, who had just thrown the first complete game of his career, walked over to talk to Skip Wilson, to pay his respects. "After every game, I go up and say hello . . . I consider him the Joe Paterno of baseball," Hockenberry said. "He could be home drinking coffee, watching baseball on TV."
Five Temple players put a tarp over the pitcher's mound. An assistant coach smoothed the infield. They'd practice there again, but never play another game.
What was the point?
"It's just habit," Wheeler said. "To take care of it, and not leave it in disarray.''