By John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA – Spurred by passion, fortitude, and a wealth of strategies taught by their college professors – and buoyed by the appearance of a nationally popular figure – students at La Salle University organized a desperate plea to counter the administration’s recently announced plans to eliminate seven athletic programs – namely baseball – at the end of the school year.
Thursday afternoon’s crowd of approximately 150, all wearing COVID-19 mandated masks and mostly comprised of current students, alumni, and the entire La Salle baseball team, created a sea of blue and gold outside the off-campus Explorer’s Den restaurant.
There, mega-popular Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, multi-tasking as he partook in his nation-wide series of pizza reviews, listened to numerous students lament La Salle’s decision to axe baseball, men's swimming and diving, men's tennis, men's water polo, softball, volleyball, and women's tennis, thus dropping the school’s athletic programs from 25 programs to 18.
“I played sports growing up,” said Portnoy, wearing a cloth mask adorned with the words La Salle University baseball. “It’s lame to get rid of it without a real excuse. It’s easy to save it if you want to save it. That’s the bottom line, really. It’s something that’s very easy to fix.
“Don’t just go quietly into the night. If you put pressure on people, you’ll generally get what you want – when it’s reasonable . . . and this is reasonable.”
While acknowledging the challenges of running a university with financial efficiency, baseball players and coaches refuse to abandon hope that their program can still be saved, albeit with creativity and imagination.
Asked to summarize their concerns, student athletes and coach Dave Miller questioned why they were told about the drastic decision in such shocking fashion. They said that, although they were aware La Salle faces challenging dilemmas, so too does every college in the country.
“I grew up in this town, less than probably 10 miles away from La Salle,” said Miller. “As a kid, I went to all the Big 5 Philly games. I loved to come out and support the team in the 90’s. There’s just so much passion and energy in the city.
“When I was asked a few years ago to take over this team and build it into something special, it was the easiest decision I ever had to make because I loved this school as a kid. I promised the (baseball players) I would help them build a legacy . . . it’s just sad to see there’s a chance it could all come to an end at the end of the season.”
Miller said he received supportive messages from local competitors such as St. Joseph’s, Temple, and Villanova, among others. La Salle players such as Ryan Guckin, Tatem Levins, Nick Divietro, Haverford School brother alums Tommy and Pat Toal, and Neumann-Goretti grad Joe Messina, echoed similar sentiments.
“This is more than just La Salle baseball, this is Philadelphia baseball,” said Messina. “There’s so much history, tradition, and community here. This affects all of us. If La Salle wasn’t here, who knows what my path would have been like? This affects a lot of younger kids extremely. We can only pray now for the best.”
Even the local residents are hoping that La Salle’s brain trust reverses its decision.
“The students are really nice and generous,” said Tameka Wilson, who lives two blocks from the school. “They’re very polite to the neighbors . . . no problems at all. Respectful. It keeps kids off the streets, and I think it would be sad to take that away from them.”
Most students expressed bewilderment because of the letter sent by administration on Sept. 29 that lauds La Salle for taking “considerable pride in our athletic programs” and recognizes “the passion and energy that stem from cheering on the Blue and Gold” and that “our student-athletes are well-rounded representatives of our community . . . embodiments of our nearly 160-year-old mission to transform lives through a commitment to social justice and high-impact education,” yet further states that “this action will provide a better overall experience for La Salle's remaining student-athletes and create a more sustainable environment for the University's athletics department.”
“How can this be better in any way?” said a La Salle underclassman athlete who preferred anonymity. “Think about it. It’s heartless to say that this is ‘good’ for the community. What does that teach us? That when the going gets tough, you just throw someone out on the street? How is that part of the mission?
“I don’t think the school really thought it through and hopefully will recognize that there are avenues available other than just dropping baseball as well as the other sports. That’s not the ‘La Salle way,’ or at least I didn’t think it was.”
Numerous baseball players matriculate as majors in La Salle’s prestigious School of Business and are desirous of employing some of the financial strategies they learned under the tutelage of professors and administrators.
How, they wonder, can they discover a plan that would transform hopeless gloom into realistic sustainability?
“My biggest point was that the kids from the baseball team that would be torn away from this university are going to be the kids that go out and make money because they’re getting the education from one of the best wings of the school,” said aforementioned Tommy Toal, who is a senior academically but has junior athletic eligibility. “So it’s really important. We all want to stick around. We all want to get that La Salle business degree, and we all want to go make money and contribute back to the school that we love.”
Alumni also felt the sting of losing a measure of their identity.
“It was definitely shocking,” said 2016 La Salle graduate and former baseball player James Santore, who helped organize the awareness effort. “The thing I compare it to is like a death in the family. It felt like a piece of me was taken away.”
Despite the disappointment, Santore believes his alma mater can still make amends.
“To the school, we want them to know that we are not mad at them,” said Santore. “We’re not anything besides wanting to work with them. Everything that has helped out with this is something I learned in the business school.
“In high school, I was very introverted. I wasn’t that person who could go and talk to people. I went to La Salle and was able to break out of my shell and be able to do this type of stuff to really make a difference. To see not only myself but also my friends and teammates be able to step up using all the stuff we learned – using our relationships and our passion to be able to make a difference now – is the best thing in the world. We’re just trying to make this happen and reach our goal to save this program.”
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)