No tomorrow for Temple baseball

Posted: May 16, 2014

TEMPLE BASEBALL coach Ryan Wheeler calls this "absolutely" the most difficult thing he's ever been through.

"They don't give you a manual on how to handle it," he said.

They sure don't.

The university first fielded a baseball team in 1927. This season will be the Owls' last. Last December, the program abruptly learned it had become the victim of athletic-budget cuts that also claimed softball and men's indoor and outdoor track and field. Men's crew and women's rowing were initially out as well, but later survived, thanks to an allocation of public and private funding. Men's gymnastics got a reprieve to continue at the club level after Board of Trustees member Lewis Katz, co-owner of the Daily News' parent company, Interstate General Media, offered to match that sport's fundraising efforts.

This afternoon at Campbell's Field in Camden, the Owls (13-29, 8-13 American Athletic Conference) begin their final three-game homestand against 12th-ranked Houston (40-13, 13-8). They're sixth in the standings. The top eight qualify for the inaugural AAC Tournament, which starts next Wednesday at Bright House Field, the Phillies' spring-training home in Clearwater, Fla. A lot of things would have to happen for them not to make it. They haven't been to a conference tourney since 2008, when they were in the Atlantic 10.

This, after six players - including their top two starting pitchers, closer, shortstop and centerfielder - opted to transfer. The roster is 22 deep, 13 fewer than a program is allowed to have. Also, Wheeler, a Souderton High product who is in his third season, recruited 11 players for next year who will not be coming to North Broad Street.

"Two pitchers who left were on the mound for North Carolina State on TV the other night," Wheeler said. "That's what hurts the most. I believe we were on the right track. Then this all happened.

"I'm extremely proud of them. I tell them that quite a bit. We played [at home] last Friday against Louisville, which is ranked fifth. They threw two kids that you're going to see [in the majors] someday. We lost, 2-0. But we hung in and competed. That's how it's been . . . When I first got here, one of the things I heard was how Temple had always been known as a gritty program. We wanted to bring that back. Even though the time era is different and kids are different today, I think this group has exemplified that to the fullest. Every single day, when they really didn't have to. That says a lot about them.

"As the season unfolded, we'd wonder where we'd be if we had those other guys. There's no ill will, and I don't want to take anything away from the kids who are here. They just had to step up, in different roles. It's been something to watch and be a part of."

Fourth-year junior righthander Phil Gianakos is one of the underclassmen who stayed. A mechanical engineering (biomechanical) major, the Central Jersey native is scheduled to graduate in December.

"I came here for the education, so I might as well finish that off," said Gianakos, who redshirted as a sophomore after underdoing Tommy John surgery and would have a season of eligibility remaining. "I'm still losing something that I've been doing my whole life, that Temple took away, just like that. Guys were all over the place this season, with what they were going to do. It's a sad situation. But once you hit the field, you kind of forget about everything off the field. You show up and play, like always. I think we've done great for what we've had to do.

"We've battled with everybody. Whatever the results were, we gave it our best. We can live with that. We just needed some more players, with the ones we lost. But we really came together as a team. We knew we had to rely on each other. We learned a lot about ourselves, and trust. We've formed a bond that's really unique."

They're not seeking sympathy. Besides, who from the outside can truly understand their journey? You have to be there, living every moment for whatever it's worth. Someday, they'll probably look back and appreciate how it only made them stronger. But for the time being, the reality can be burdensome indeed.

"I hope we'll have a reunion 10 or 20 years from now," Wheeler said. "We're always going to have each other. That's special. But I've been dreading the day [it finally ends] since the announcement. You put so much into it. You spend 9 months together, and for 6 of those months, it's almost every day. It's hard when any season ends. But this one's going to be different. I've thought about it quite a bit. It'll be emotional.

"I don't know if it's going to hit me until a week or 2 later. I've literally been dealing with this every day for 6 months. I just joked with my assistants, 'What are we going to do on July 1?' We kind of looked at each other. We're not sure. That's hard.

"I believe things happen for a reason. I still don't know what the reason is yet. But I keep preaching to the kids that there's something bigger and better that can come from this. Early in the season, we were in a losing streak, and I could sense that their body language was, like, 'Woe is me, this is awful.' I said, 'We're not going through the season this way. You have to turn the page, move on.' That sort of became one of our little sayings. You're going to face greater adversity when you get out in the real world. How are you going to react to that?

"You have to keep grinding away," he went on. "It's been awkward. I've tried to use my moral compass, so to speak, as to what's the right thing to do. I don't always know. Life doesn't have to be fair. You can deal with it, or run away from it. We've attacked this season as if it was as normal a season as possible."

When, obviously, it's been anything but. And there's no reference point to offer direction. They can only hope that in some way, they'll be better off for having experienced it. Especially at their age.

"There's so much history that's just almost being erased," Gianakos said. "For us, this is our other family. At least it's just baseball, and not something more serious in life. But it's depressing in a sense, because it's something we're so passionate about. So you cherish every last time you're out there with the guys who are in it with you.

"Only a Temple baseball player could understand the daily grind of getting up, going to class, coming to [the] Ambler [campus] to practice, going back. Those are long days. But we love it. That's why I have so much respect for my teammates. I'm going to miss that, especially if this is my last year of playing ball. I'll probably just go out and practice for the heck of it.

"I still can't believe I'm part of the last Temple baseball team. It's one of those things that's going to stay with me forever."


On Twitter: @mikekerndn

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