James “Skip” Wilson was the man of the hour last Saturday afternoon, holding court with many former players and coaches.
There was a game going on down on the field, but inside the Diamond Café in Suite 301 at Campbell’s Field, it was a day of reminiscing and celebrating of the 87-year tradition that is Temple baseball.
Hundreds of alumni came from near and far to take part in the festivities – a last hurrah of sorts. May 17 marked the last time that the Owls would take the field in a regular season game after the program was cut along with six other sports on Dec. 6, 2013.
Crew and rowing were reinstated in February, but baseball remains one of the five programs left on the chopping block.
That seemed to be the topic of conversation among the entire group of former Owls. While Saturday also was a chance for ex-players to catch up with people they hadn’t seen in years, there was no getting around the elephant in the room – the end is nearing.
“It’s wonderful,” Wilson said. “I’m really happy. There’s a couple guys here that I’ve played with, there’s another guy here that’s a priest, he played for me and he was good. It’s just a great feeling seeing them and being with them.”
A lot of the memories and moments shared last Saturday revolved around Wilson, the program’s legendary former coach. Wilson coached from 1960-2004 and turned Temple into the Philadelphia area’s premier NCAA baseball institution, carrying the Owls to two College World Series appearances.
Former catcher Matt Lafferty, who served as the team’s captain in Wilson’s final season, sat amongst his former teammates and friends and reflected on that once timeless tradition that now will come to an end.
“It’s important,” Lafferty said. “There’s a big connection because [Wilson] coached for 46 years. I was in his last class and there’s guys that are here that were his first class. There’s that connection and it’s all kind of lost from now on.”
Former Philadelphia Phillies general manager, Ed Wade, played at Temple until 1977 – Wilson’s last World Series appearance. A baseball-lifer, who is back with the Phillies organization, Wade said that it was a cool experience seeing everyone talking to Skip and reminiscing about the old days.
“I can guarantee you can walk around to all the guys that are here right now and ask them about various things that they learned over the period of time, not only the fundamentals, but life lessons that they learned from Skip and the fun that they had,” Wade said.
“Some of the guys who have been to the College World Series will talk about the fond memories of key games, but I think everybody will talk with fond memories about the time that they were able to spend with Skip,” he added.
Bob McCreary, who played at Temple until 1955, has been a part of that connection for more than half of a century. After graduating from Temple, the Glenside, Pa.-native spent two years in the Navy. Once he completed his service, McCreary joined Wilson as an assistant coach until the middle of the 1970s.
McCreary said he was equally as blindsided as everyone else when Athletic Director Kevin Clark made his recommendation to cut the program.
“I thought I would never see the day that Temple dropped baseball,” McCreary said. “[It’s an] unbelievable decision. It disappoints many, many people involved with this sport. It’s a shame.”
One of the reasons given for the cuts was the lack of facilities required to foster 24 varsity sports. Baseball was one of four sports to play their home games at Ambler Campus along with softball and both men’s and women’s soccer.
Prior to playing in Ambler at Skip Wilson Field, the team played at Erny Field in Mt. Airy, Pa., for its first 78 years. Skip Wilson Field lacks many of the qualities that other schools in the American Athletic Conference hold in their facilities.
“The field up at Ambler is a horses— field,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t done right.”
The 2014 campaign marked the first year that Temple played its home games at Campbell’s Field after coach Ryan Wheeler – with the help of Clark – was able to secure the Camden, N.J. ballpark in November for conference home games.
It was thought that the program finally had a true baseball park to call its own. One month later, the program was cut.
“Our locker room was a trailer behind the field,” Lafferty said of Ambler. “We had no locker room other than that trailer. Just to be able to have a place to call home like this and have a nice locker room to get changed in after the games would have been nice.
Though the reason for the reunion was for a reason that few wanted to come to grips with, many said that catching up with former friends and teammates was a wonderful experience. The only problem that came up was how to get all these people back in the same room now.
“We always get together once or twice a year to go see the games,” Lafferty said “And it’s like, what now? Where are we going to find the time to get together again? That’s what sucks about it. We’re watching this game very loosely, really it’s all about getting together and we did that every single year. It’s going to be difficult to do that now.”
Wheeler knew going into Saturday’s game what the atmosphere would be like in his team’s final game. Growing the alumni base was one of his main goals when he took over the program in 2012.
“I’m just blown away,” Wheeler said. “It’s one of the things that make this program special and I’m just proud to say that I was a part of it now.”