If it’s possible to have a dream season and a nightmare season at the same time, the 2021 La Salle Explorers baseball team has pulled off just such a feat.
Start with the dream, which is easier if you forget the nightmare. If you stopped by DeVincent Field on La Salle’s campus this past weekend, you saw the energy. Meaningful baseball naturally conjures up its own energy. Friday, two local college baseball teams fully stood at the dugout rail, full of chatter. Last inning? First inning, first place in the Atlantic 10 North on the line between La Salle and St. Joseph’s during this past weekend’s four-game series.
“Good pitch … good pitch.”
“C’mon Babe …”
“C’mon Scan …”
Friday’s opening game featured a pitching duel that swerved La Salle’s way, all runs coming from a couple of home runs. The Explorers kept first place to themselves, a 5-0 series starter keeping their crazy 2021 mojo alive.
Baseball is supposed to be a game played without a clock. Never over till it’s over, all that. Just don’t tell that to La Salle’s baseball team. Their clock has been ticking all season.
Last September, La Salle announced it was cutting seven sports at the end of the academic year. Four men’s sports: baseball, swimming and diving, tennis, and water polo. Three women’s sports: softball, volleyball, and tennis.
Swimming and diving just got a reprieve. Baseball, aiming for a similar stay of execution, isn’t getting that call.
“Representatives of the baseball program presented a case on April 15 to a committee of the University’s Board of Trustees,’' the school said in a statement last week. “Based on the case presented, a request to reinstate the program will not move forward to the full Board and the University considers this matter closed.”
As the clock ticks louder, La Salle has had a baseball season for the history books, whether the book was closing or not. A school record for victories now at their fingertips, best A-10 season ever a foregone conclusion. After taking three of four this weekend from St. Joe’s, La Salle’s record improved to 29-10 overall, 12-4 in the A-10, with eight regular-season games left to get to a school-record 31 wins set in 1985.
Did Explorers coach David Miller know, coming into this year, that his guys had a shot to do something a little special?
“Believe it or not, I did,’' Miller said. “We had three nationally-ranked recruiting classes in my first three years. I had a five-year plan. Our plan was to be at this level next year. This is Year Four. What I feel is, when the news broke that our program was being cut, these guys got angry, they got motivated. We just had to push it up – five-year plan gets rushed into four.”
Miller points out that nine players transferred out after the fall semester. Lost three good pitchers. The starting shortstop and third baseman both left.
Didn’t matter. The replacement starting third base, Will Binder, a freshman from Holy Ghost Prep, hit a fifth-inning two-run home run Friday that broke the scoreless tie. (La Salle hadn’t gotten a hit before the fifth.)
“To these kids, there’s no tomorrow,’' Miller said afterward. “Every day, you’ve got to go out – you’ve got to bring it, you’ve got to mentally be exhausted at the end of a day.”
Easy to wonder if they can put it aside.
“No, right now ... these guys are playing to win the conference to spite La Salle,’' Miller said. They’re playing to show La Salle, you made a mistake, and deal with it. That’s the way these kids feel. They feel like the home they chose, the school that they chose, to want to come with, has abandoned them.”
Just then, that day’s starting pitcher, 6-foot-6 senior Colin Scanlon, a St. Joseph’s Prep graduate, walked by. Scanlon had been masterful. Eight innings, five hits, seven strikeouts, one walk. A couple of Hawks that had reached scoring position when the game was still scoreless had been stranded by Scanlon.
A La Salle parent, finding out he was talking to a reporter, mentioned a sort of a screw-you by these players toward the university itself as a driving force.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily say screw you, because up until this year, it’s provided me a great home and great friends,’' Scanlon said. “But to slap us in the face like that, after the team we had last year, and look what we’re doing this year, and still not have second thoughts about it, is pretty insulting.”
Was there a firm dollar given that could have saved baseball? That’s a little murky. Anyone who follows the finances of college sports knows that revenues and expenses get counted in all sorts of ways. James Santore, a class of 2016 baseball graduate leading the effort to save the sport, brought up that, how counting tuitions, the sport brings in over $550,000 in net revenues to La Salle. He was told by the school, Santore said, that tuition money doesn’t come back to the athletic department so that’s not how the accounting is being done.
The group had raised roughly $500,000 in pledges to save the sport.
“If you gave a $1 or $2 million target, I could work with that,’' Santore said.
A higher number had been thrown around in talks with the school, Santore said, a need for a $9 million raise.
“That’s the number, if you create an endowment, sustains the sport,’' said a La Salle source.
Other than providing the statement, La Salle administrators declined to comment. But one administrator said swimming and diving was a lower bar to get over, with the coaching staff for men and women combining, and with less travel, men and women traveling together.
“It’s like apples to cars,’' the source said of comparing the overall expenses between programs.
According to the Equity in Athletics data reported by La Salle to the Department of Education, baseball’s expenses for the fiscal year ending in 2019 were $249,282, second highest to basketball. Swimming and diving had $60,524.
Here’s something the baseball folks won’t like to hear: According to the La Salle administrative source, the swimming and diving people provided “a really structured” plan, with names of people and their pledged dollar amounts.
“I’m not saying they haven’t raised it,’' the source said of the baseball pledges.
Baseball and swimming/diving were the only sports that attempted to fundraise to save their sports. According to a February story in Swimswam.com, “The first fundraising objective is to hit $300,000 in order to sustain the team’s operating expenses through 2024. … This will provide the athletic department immediate fiscal relief while also providing alumni the time to fund a $2.3 million endowment. This would fully endow the team’s operating costs in perpetuity.”
This story said organizers had already secured close to $500,000 in pledges in just six weeks.
All of this comes against the backdrop of college sports, and colleges in general, bleeding red ink. Last week, for example, the University of Hartford announced it was moving from Division I to Division III, just weeks after the men’s basketball team – coached by a former La Salle assistant, John Gallagher – had gotten to March Madness for the first time. The similarity: Success or failure wasn’t being judged by wins or losses.
While La Salle said these sports cuts were made to give the remaining athletes a better experience, it is hard to reconcile that with the current success of the baseball team. The softball team, for instance, which also lost transfers, was still looking for its first win of the spring after 28 games. The golf team just came in tenth in the A-10. The men’s soccer team was 5-5-1 in an abbreviated spring season. The men’s water polo team was 3-5 but reached the conference title game. The marquee men’s basketball team finished 9-16.
So here we are, the men’s team currently doing the best getting cut, which makes this a story that gets noticed, with CBS3 and 6ABC both doing pieces in recent days.
Does Miller, the baseball coach, find himself having to dial back his own emotions a little bit?
“You know, at this point, after every game like this, I want those guys in that huddle to know how proud I am of them. ... I’m getting choked up right now.”
“When we swept UMass and it became the best start in school history, I had all prepared to come out and give this great motivational speech to the team,’' Miller said. “When we got in the huddle, I couldn’t even get a word out. I just started to cry. All I could tell them was thank you.”
He choked up again.
“I’m a tough guy, but this is bull---,’' Miller said. “These kids deserve better. What hurts me is that this institution can’t come out and say what they actually have. Give us a chance.”
He repeated himself.
“Give us a chance. What’s wrong with having a winning baseball team in your program? That’s what hurts the most. Because these kids want to be here. Not one of these kids has committed to another university yet because they’re all holding out hope that La Salle will come to their senses.”
In the meantime, friends and family come out cheering. One scene Friday: Three guys, definitely older than college age, showed up lugging a cooler. A woman working security engaged a bit with this trio.
“Three beefy guys pulled up with a cooler,’' the security lady said after walking away from them. “I’m like no.”
There were further negotiations apparently, as the beefy guys stayed and the cooler (mostly) stayed closed. You’re probably not going to call the police over this issue, and let’s face it, given all circumstances, what was the school going to do? These guys were cheering for the home team. The school couldn’t exactly ban them from La Salle baseball games for life. The Explorers still have road games and the A-10 tournament, and maybe even the dream of an NCAA tournament. But, the nightmare part, the next La Salle home baseball game is scheduled for … never.