In 1971 a team from a tiny high school in the Midwest with an unorthodox coach, whose job was saved by his players' parents, went all the way to the state final. Hoosiers, anyone?
This is an article from the June 28, 2010 issue
Out in the corn country of central Illinois the clouds stretch forever, thick and soft, as if painted onto the sky of an old-time movie set. Below them lies Highway 51, two lanes that'll take you to Chicago in three hours or St. Louis in two if you really gun it. Years ago you had no choice but to drive though each of the rural outposts along the highway, but now the road has bypasses, so the towns wash past, invisible but for a water tower, maybe a church spire. Moweaqua. Radford. Dunkel. They're just names on turnoff signs.
It's worth pulling over here, though: exit 42, outside Macon, population 1,200. Head into the P&V Quickstop, with the pay phone out front. Look up, past the tank-topped blonde at the cash register, the one with the sad eyes who's working her gum as if she needs it to last the whole afternoon. Keep looking, above the dusty disposable cameras and the COPENHAGEN sign, and you'll see it, up on the highest shelf, scuffed and dulled, its miniature batter frozen in mid-swing.
The cashier doesn't even know the trophy is there, just shrugs and chews when you point it out. Then again, she's never heard the story of the Macon High Ironmen of 1971, knows nothing about their unlikely coach and the most improbable, magical season in the history of Illinois high school baseball. Plenty of people around here don't.
After all, a lot's changed in Macon since then. Many of the family farms have been bought up by big business. Commuters moved in from Decatur, 20 minutes up the road. Schools consolidated. When Macon High became Meridian High in 1994—the same brick buildings with new signs slapped on them—the basements and trophy cases were emptied of memorabilia.
So now the story must live on in other ways. Through the trim, white-haired man at the Whit's End diner, the one with stacks of old news clips. Through the quiet man surrounded by books at his farmhouse seven miles down the road. Through the stooped newspaper reporter up in Decatur. Through the third base coach in the dugout of the Atlanta Braves. Talk to them and you'll understand the power of that trophy.
Macon High principal Bill McClard had no idea what to make of Lynn Sweet when the new English teacher showed up in the spring of 1966. Nobody in town did. Sweet was 25, thin and handsome, with a wide face, thick dark eyebrows and a crooked grin that gave the impression he was on the verge of cracking a joke, which he often was. His hair was short then, and he had yet to grow his signature Fu Manchu mustache, but he boiled with rebellious energy. An Army brat, he'd attended high school in Champaign, Ill., and dropped out of college twice before graduating from Southern Illinois with a degree in English. He drove a maroon Mustang convertible—that is, when he wasn't tearing around on a Triumph 650 Bonneville motorcycle. Even though his father served a tour in World War II and two in Korea, Sweet was progressive in both politics and lifestyle. He listened to Santana, smoked grass, read Aldous Huxley and cultivated a teaching style light on discipline and heavy on discussion.
Sweet often let students read what they wanted, believing it was better for a kid to pore over 2,000 words about rebuilding motors in Popular Mechanics than to pretend to have studied 2,000 in The Odyssey. He required students to memorize 10 esoteric vocabulary words a week and quizzed them on the Sunday funnies because then he knew they'd at least picked up a newspaper. If he felt the kids didn't get Macbeth the first time through, he'd ask them to read it again a month later, so they could see how literature can blossom. What's more, he taught novels such as Brave New World and plays such as Inherit the Wind, which may be classroom staples today but bordered on radical in Macon, a town that in 1966 was still stuck in the Eisenhower era. Men wore their hair short, women wore their skirts long, and church on Sunday was by no means optional. Likewise, teaching and coaching were considered one-way conversations. When Sweet arrived, many of his colleagues kept paddles on the wall under signs such as BOARD OF EDUCATION. Once a week or so a line of miscreants would head to the gym to be enlightened the old-fashioned way.
You can imagine how Sweet and his beat-philosopher ethos, not to mention his insistence on treating students as equals, went over with townsfolk and school administrators. "If you'd wanted to sign a petition to get him fired, you'd have gotten some signatures," says Jack Stringer, who taught industrial arts. "But after baseball? Forget it."
That Sweet ended up as the baseball coach was purely a matter of chance. He'd never coached the game and hadn't played in high school or college, though he had pitched in a handful of semipro leagues in which if you threw a good game you were rewarded with beers down at the tavern. But when Macon baseball coach Jack Burns stepped down before the 1970 season, the school budget was too tight for a new hire. So McClard went looking for volunteers among the 18 teachers on staff. The carrot: a 3% raise, or about $130 extra per year. Sweet figured why the hell not.
It was not exactly a plum gig. Illinois is basketball country, and Macon was no exception. If the baseball team drew a dozen fans, it was considered a big turnout. Then again, it was hard to expect more from a school of only 250 students in a town so small that the mayor, an amiable fellow named Wayne Jones, was also the school janitor. Indeed, the pool of varsity athletes at Macon was so shallow that, one baseball player remembers, "we had to play football and basketball as well, or there wouldn't have been teams."
Not surprisingly, Sweet's baseball budget was almost nonexistent. He doubled as the team bus driver and had no assistants, other than the players' parents. One reporter described the Ironmen's uniforms as "World War II rejects," and the school provided no headwear. A player's father who worked at Caterpillar scored some free hats, so the team took the field wearing green CAT DIESEL POWER caps.
To call the site where the team played a field would be generous. Home plate abutted the industrial arts building, and there were no outfield fences unless you counted the football goalposts in deep left and the cornfield in right—which, at about 400 feet, was considered in play. The mound was a flat patch of dirt, and once a season Sweet would tell the players to take five-gallon buckets and comb the infield for rocks. The buckets were filled in no time.
What the Ironmen lacked in amenities they made up for with teamwork and talent. Hailing from Macon and the minuscule town of Elwin (pop. 80) six miles up Highway 51, they had been playing with or against each other their entire lives, beginning in Little League and sandlot games. There were the Otta twins, Dale and Dean, the former thin and fast, with a rocket arm at shortstop, and the latter thick and imperturbable, a catcher known to stop pitches barehanded. There was David Wells, the wiry leftfielder, so strong that he played noseguard at 145 pounds. Stocky first baseman Jeff Glan, quiet and dependable, was also Macon's quarterback and point guard. Second baseman Mark Miller was probably the best fielder and goofiest teammate, fond of telling long, animated jokes that had even Sweet roaring with laughter. And then there was Steve Shartzer.
The team's best hitter and pitcher and its emotional leader, Shartzer grew up in Elwin, the son of a railroad engineer and an Illinois Bell telephone operator. When he was little his parents noticed he wasn't like most other kids. His father, Bob, believed it was important to teach children to fight for even small victories, so he never let young Steve win at checkers. What he hadn't expected was how hard the boy would take it, crying as long as 15 minutes after a loss. Steve was so competitive that, even in high school, you beat him at Ping-Pong or Wiffle ball at your own risk; he would knock on your door the next day, and the one after that, until you played him again.
On the mound the righthander's strategy was, as he puts it, "Here she comes, boys, right down the middle, the best I got." His fastball could reach the upper 80s, if not touch 90. Every time he threw a curveball he let out a prodigious grunt, telegraphing the pitch. Whether due to the speed of his fastball or the infrequency of his curve, however, most opponents never caught on.
As a hitter, Shartzer was a fierce self-critic and obsessive stathead; after every game, says Sam Trusner, then the equipment manager, he could set his clock by Shartzer's phone call to fact-check the scorebook before he called the numbers in to the newspaper. Three of four, two RBIs, right?
In many ways Shartzer and the laid-back Sweet were opposites, yet they would go on to be as close as brothers. Sweet had this effect on all the kids, even if—or perhaps because—his methods were so unconventional. He threw BP and played pickup games with the boys; other times he let them run their own practices, watching from the bench, so they'd feel empowered. During games he let the players signal him if they planned to steal; if he disagreed, he'd shake them off. "I don't measure success in terms of wins and losses," he told a reporter some years later. "I think there's a lot to be learned in defeat. I guess I really determine success by how much the kids enjoy themselves. I mean, all it is is a sport and nothing else, right? Games [have] become a semireligion."
Make no mistake, though, Sweet knew what he was doing. His first act as coach was to double Macon's regular-season schedule, to 18 games, to provide better competition and compensate for the rainout-prone springs of central Illinois. He also knew talent and how to use it. His first year the team finished 18--2 and won the district championship for the first time in a decade.
The celebration would be short-lived, however. Two days later the boys were called into the principal's office for some bad news: The school had forgotten to forward the correct roster to the state high school association before the regional championship, which meant that Brad Roush—who'd joined the team when his track season ended and pinch-hit in the championship—had been ineligible. The result: Macon was disqualified, its season over.
The players were crushed. As for Sweet, he learned later that summer that he wasn't being asked back as coach.
If it seems peculiar to fire a coach who'd just gone 18--2, well, it wasn't hard to read between the lines. Sweet was vocally against the Vietnam war. He lived in a 55-foot trailer out at Arrowhead Park, and when he was single he was known to bring attractive female friends in from Champaign. He made no secret of his affinity for a good time. On his first day at school the superintendent, Roger Britton, had told him, "We have three taverns in the town, and as teachers we don't drink at them." Sweet immediately checked out all three and within two years was a part-time bartender at one. Worse, he had a habit of tweaking school administrators if he felt they were being reactionary. Now Sweet couldn't help but wonder if his job as an English teacher was in jeopardy as well.
Sweet claimed to be O.K. with not coaching, but when the players and parents heard about his firing, they were incensed. Sweet was like a folk hero to the boys. What's more, the '71 team had a chance to be really good. So the parents took their case to the school board. That winter a board member showed up at Sweet's trailer one night to ask him what he thought about coming back as baseball coach. Sweet smiled and said, "O.K., don't see why not."
He had nearly all his core players back, along with a talented sophomore named Brian Snitker, who wore thick black glasses and a batting helmet even when playing rightfield. The Ironmen started the season strong, winning five of six, though their appearance still didn't impress anyone. Macon had no first base coach, so a spindly freshman named Jimmy Durbin did the honors. The scorekeeper was another freshman, though this one had pigtails. (Barb Jesse, the only girl scorekeeper anyone in the area had ever seen.) When Illinois baseball officials outlawed Macon's Caterpillar hats, claiming they amounted to an endorsement, the players covered up the logos with peace signs.
It was a tight group: Sweet's roster ran to 13, but he used only nine players, including the two pitchers. The first was Shartzer, of course. The second was his opposite, a quiet righthander with a thin face and thinner legs who seemed incapable of keeping his shirttail tucked in. His name was John Heneberry.
Whereas Shartzer threw heat followed by more heat, Heneberry's arsenal consisted of about five kinds of curveball, few of which broke 65 mph. He'd grown up throwing dirt clods and walnuts on his grandfather's farm in Decatur. Then his father, Jack, built a backstop in their backyard out of a couple of steel posts and chicken wire. It was all Jack could do to keep a bead on his son's drooping, darting hooks. As Jack recalls, John threw a no-hitter in his first Little League game. After the family moved to Macon when John was 10, he so frustrated opponents that he earned the unofficial nickname Ain't Got S---, which is what frustrated batters would mutter as they repeatedly swung at and missed slow pitches in the dirt.
While Heneberry and Shartzer got by on deception and pure effort, respectively, centerfielder Stu Arnold was the team's natural. With dark hair, high cheekbones and delicate eyes, he was Macon's teen idol: the lead in the school play, star of the choir, halfback on the football team and school-record holder in the 400 and the pole vault. The boys called him Chip Hilton, after the hero in the popular series of books, and Heneberry used to joke that he should have to buy a ticket just to see Arnold play. Arnold was the key to Macon's defense, so fast that Shartzer's strategy was often to "get some air under the ball" knowing that Arnold could run down most anything in that fenceless centerfield. Arnold was also a key to the offense, the team's best power hitter and base stealer.
By midseason the Ironmen were cruising through their conference schedule, destroying Moweaqua 23--2, crushing Maroa-Forsyth 15--5. Increasingly the team was taking on the personality of Sweet, who had grown out his hair and added the mustache that made him look, as one reporter put it, like a combination of "bad Mexican hombre, a fun-loving Joe Pepitone and a collegiate peacenik." Sweet's hair was tame by today's standards, but in Macon in 1971 it bordered on scandalous, and the boys loved it. They grew out their own mop tops, aped his nonchalance, worked hard at mellowing out. Shartzer began toting a tape player to games so the team's music could travel from the bus to the bench. And thus small-town Illinois parents arrived at games to see a bunch of kids warming up to Jefferson Airplane and the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Sweet also fostered a sense of community. Whatever the boys did, they did together. They parked at the Country Manor restaurant on Friday nights, sitting on the hoods of their dads' Ford Fairlanes and watching the girls go by. They played penny poker in their parents' basements, held informal drag races on quiet country roads and egged on Miller, their second baseman, when he climbed the 200-foot grain elevator in the center of town and, on the way down, fell the last 30 feet but managed to land without hurting himself. But mostly they played baseball. An hour after practice a half dozen players would be down at Macon's grade school or in the street or, if there was no one else around, taking BP next to the high school, where the only sounds were the crack of the bat and the thud of the ball detonating against the brick buildings.
Macon finished the regular season 12--3 and headed into the district tournament in early May bursting with confidence—until, that is, the players learned who their first opponent would be. Mount Zion had beaten Macon twice during the season, both times so convincingly that at the tournament Mount Zion's coach trotted out his No. 2 starter against the Ironmen. It proved a fateful decision: Macon scored two early runs, providing a cushion for Shartzer, and went on to win 8--2.
Two days later the Ironmen played for the district championship against Blue Mound, and again they dominated, winning 10--0 behind Heneberry's one-hitter. Afterward the umpire walked over and asked permission to talk to the team. He gazed at the scraggly boys and shook his head. "I'd never heard of you guys, but I've umpired all year and you all are the best team I've seen by far," he said. "I'll be following you guys." He wasn't the only one. With each win, Macon's fan support grew as parents, students and townspeople began talking about the upstart Ironmen team and its quirky coach.
Their expectations remained modest, though, in large part because back in '71, Illinois's state baseball tournament was still an all-comers event, meaning schools battled one another regardless of size. Thus each of Macon's opponents appeared more formidable than the last. Next up, in the regional tournament, was Decatur Eisenhower. Behind Shartzer's three-hitter, Macon cruised again, 6--0. Then it was Mount Pulaski for the regional championship, the furthest any Macon team had ever advanced. Arnold ignited the team with a two-run shot in the fourth inning off Dennis Werth, who went on to play first base for the Yankees and whose stepson, Jayson, is now the Phillies' rightfielder. The Ironmen won 9--4.
Now they were really rolling. Against Potomac in the sectional tournament at Champaign, Arnold homered for his third game in a row, ending a 26-inning scoreless streak by Potomac's ace, Mark Carley, and Shartzer threw a two-hitter in a 9--0 victory. That sent Macon to the sectional championship game against Bloomington, a school with as many kids, 1,200, as Macon had residents. DAVID MEETS GOLIATH read the headlines, and it wasn't much of an exaggeration. The winner would advance to the state tournament, and no school as small as Macon had ever gone there.
Come game time, the air—warm and thick with the onset of summer heat—was filled with the sounds of Bloomington fans. They banged cowbells, taunted the Ironmen as "country rednecks" and shouted, "Where did you learn to throw that curveball, out behind the barn?" If only the Bloomington folks had known just how threadbare the Macon operation was. A broken bat in the third inning left the Ironmen with only one, so Trusner, the equipment guy, raced to the Bailey & Hines sporting goods store to buy four more. In the meantime the Macon hitters made a big show of taking their lone bat back to the dugout, then pretending to assess an unseen stock of choices before pulling one out of the bag.
Maybe it was the lack of bat choices, or the heat, or the heckling, but for the first time in weeks, Macon's offense stalled. The Ironmen dropped behind 2--0 before Heneberry, hitting out of the nine hole, stroked a bases-loaded single to tie the game in the fourth inning. An inning later Shartzer laced one to the fence in left to make it a 3--2 lead. Then came the moment that decided the game.
Bloomington had a man on second with two outs in the seventh and final inning. Heneberry was still on the mound—Sweet didn't use relievers, believing it built a pitcher's character to fight through tough situations—and Bloomington's lefthanded slugger, Mike Abfalder was at the plate. Heneberry threw his best pitch, a curveball inside, and Abfalder turned on it, hitting a laser that Glan, the diving first baseman, couldn't get a glove on. But Miller had played deep at second, and taking two quick steps to his left, he reached back to grab the ball, as if snagging a passing bullet. There was only one problem; upon turning to throw to first, Miller saw no one there. Glan was still prone, a plume of dust encircling his head, and Heneberry, caught up in the moment, had forgotten to cover the base. The Bloomington batter was steaming down the first base line. With no other choice, Miller sprinted toward first, beat the runner by a split second and kept running all the way to the team bus. Of the 370 teams that qualified for the postseason, eight were going to state. Macon was one of them.
The players leaped and hugged and woo-hooed as only 16-year-old boys can—all except Shartzer, who stood gripping his left wrist and grimacing. Rounding third in the fourth inning, he'd realized he wasn't going to beat the throw home, so he did what any supercompetitive athlete would: He vaulted the catcher. Shartzer scored, but at a price. In breaking his fall, he fractured a bone in his left hand.
There are moments in a boy's life that are seared into his memory. For the Ironmen, one was the first time they saw Meinen Field at Bradley University in Peoria, site of the state tournament. Like Little Leaguers arriving at Yankee Stadium, they walked onto the lush grass and took it all in: the bleachers, the towering foul poles, the combed infield dirt. A couple of the boys, never having seen a raised mound before, giddily ran over to throw from it.
The team's hotel was almost as awe-inspiring. Called Jumers Castle Lodge, it looked like what you might get if a Sheraton mated with a Medieval Times restaurant. To the Macon boys it was otherworldly. The Otta twins, who'd never stayed in a hotel, walked the entire grounds. Wells, whose family rationed water on its farm, went into his shower and didn't come out for an hour. Others simply gathered around the color televisions and stared, transfixed.
So unexpected was Macon's tournament appearance that even the organizers were caught off-guard. In the program there was a photo of every team but the Ironmen. And if you hadn't known better, you'd have thought Macon had mistakenly sent its jayvees. Whereas most teams had some players built like men—6'1" or 6'2" and 180 to 200 pounds—Macon had no one over six feet or 160 pounds (and only Shartzer at both).
Sweet's strategy was to isolate the boys. That's why he chose Jumers over the Holiday Inn, where almost all the other teams stayed. It's why Macon skipped the welcome banquet. And it's why Sweet suggested that the players just relax on the eve of their quarterfinal against Nashville High. And so they did, goofing around while Sweet and his wife, Jeanne, whom he had married the previous fall, ordered up steak dinners. All but one player, that is.
Down one of the hallways, Shartzer lay on his bed, staring at the white perforated ceiling tiles. He'd asked that no one bother him so he could focus completely on the game, which he saw as not only an opportunity but also a responsibility. To Shartzer, all Macon was counting on him. No one had appointed him captain—Sweet, naturally, didn't believe in captains—but as Shartzer said, "No one elected me to carry the flag, but I took the damn thing and said I'm not going to fall on it." In this case he'd have to carry it with just one good hand.
The next morning Shartzer and Sweet headed to Bradley's medical center, where the doctors wrapped Shartzer's hand in gauze and tape so he could play. Within half an hour Shartzer had cut it off with a pocketknife, giving tournament umpires the excuse that it was "restrictive." Then, wincing in pain, he slipped his glove over his left hand and trotted out to the mound. If the fracture affected his pitching, no one could tell. Shartzer threw seven innings of four-hit ball, striking out eight, and Snitker drove in two runs in a 5--0 win.
Macon had advanced to the state semifinals. And everyone knew what that meant: Lane Tech.
Imagine a high school with an enrollment of 5,200 students. Now imagine they are all boys raised in the athletic petri dish of Chicago. This was Lane Tech, the juggernaut of Illinois high school baseball. Its coach, Ed Papciak, had taken the team to the state tournament four times, including the previous season, and it had won the whole thing twice. A pretournament poll of sportswriters across the state made Lane Tech (32--5) a heavy favorite to win the title, thanks largely to senior pitcher Mark (Wronk) Wronkiewicz, who was 10--1, stood 6'3" and 210 pounds and hit the type of titanic shots that even Arnold couldn't run down.
The matchup proved irresistible to reporters, who couldn't get enough of Macon and, in particular, Sweet. COACHING GOES MOD read one headline. The Peoria Journal Star wrote that Sweet "wouldn't stand out in your local commune with his flowing locks and Fu Manchu mustache." Of course Sweet took the opportunity to downplay his team. As a cloud of reporters gathered, he aw-shucksed his way through 20 minutes of questions. "We don't have any training rules," he said. "The kids can skip practice when they feel like it, and they can wear their hair as long as their parents will allow. We don't emphasize fundamentals, we just let them have fun." Lane Tech, he said, "will have to go to sleep for us to beat them." Not that the self-deprecation was new; in a preseason form provided by the Decatur Herald that asked about Macon's weaknesses, Sweet had begun his answer, "Coaching."
With the players, meanwhile, Sweet took an approach similar to the one he'd taken before the Nashville game. He gathered the Ironmen at breakfast in the hotel restaurant. They assumed he would give them an inspirational speech. Instead he looked them over and, in a very serious voice, said, "You know how they talk about someone putting their pants on one leg at a time?" He paused and scanned the room again. "Well, these guys jump into them. Both legs at the same time!" Then he broke out laughing.
The day of the semifinal, June 4, dawned warm and sticky. The game would begin at 9:30, and the winner would play again at 4:30 that afternoon for the state title. Sweet drove the boys over from the hotel. Upon pulling up to the field, they couldn't believe their eyes: Spectators lined the bleachers and overflowed onto the grass. One Lane Tech fan with prodigious muttonchops had brought a snare drum, and you could hear the BANG! BANG! BANG! from a quarter mile away.
It wasn't just a Lane Tech crowd, either: The Maconites were out in full force. Their cars filled three parking lots, and another few dozen fans had packed into a yellow school bus that had left town at 6:30 a.m. It's not an exaggeration to say most of Macon was in Peoria that morning.
It was Heneberry's turn to take the mound. He may have appeared overmatched, but he had one crucial advantage. While the Ironmen had rested the previous day, Jack Heneberry had stuck around to watch Lane Tech's quarterfinal game against Piasa Southwestern. Jack had no particular baseball acumen, but he'd seen enough of his son's games to know the type of hitters the boy could and couldn't get out. Immediately he noticed one player, the Kid with the Big Black Bat, as he described him—Wronkiewicz. He can really hurt us, Jack scribbled in a notebook. Don't even pitch to him. He said the same of Jack Rockwell, the leadoff hitter. But John's dad delivered his best piece of advice personally that evening. "Son," he said, "they really looked terrible against this guy's curveball. Now, this guy's a better pitcher than you are, but when he went to his slow curve, they looked sick"—here he placed his hand on John's shoulder and smiled—"and you have a better slow curveball than he does." Then he gave his son a slip of paper with a scouting report, one through nine.
Heneberry carried that paper in his back pocket as he jogged to the mound to warm up. Around him, his teammates loosened up as Jesus Christ Superstar blasted from the dugout.
I am frightened by the crowd
For we are getting much too loud
And they'll crush us if we go too far
If we go too far.
On the sideline a handful of coaches from the other teams stood and watched and judged. They saw the uniforms and the peace signs and Sweet, smiling and joking with his players, and they stewed. In that era coaches modeled themselves after Vince Lombardi. "If Macon wins the state championship," one coach told a reporter, "it will set back Illinois high school baseball 10 years." Another, anonymously of course, called Sweet "a disgrace to the profession."
The disgrace patted his players on the butt and gathered them near the bench. "Guys, run if you get on base," he said. "Let's see if these big city boys can catch you."
It's hard to steal without base runners, though. Macon's hitters, so hot throughout the playoffs, couldn't catch up to Wronk's fastball. One Ironman after another went down swinging—six strikeouts in a row during one stretch. Worse, in the second inning, Lane Tech went up 1--0 on a sacrifice fly. BANG! BANG! BANG! went the drum.
Finally, in the fourth, the Ironmen scored twice to take a 2--1 lead, which they held until the final inning. Then the strangest thing happened: Mighty Lane Tech, not Macon, cracked under the pressure. The big city boys allowed two hits by the Ironmen, then made an error, then allowed a stolen base, and suddenly the Lane catcher couldn't stop thinking about those Macon runners flitting off first. Arnold swiped second, then third, and the runs started to pour in: 3--1, then 4--1, now 6--1! All Heneberry needed to do was shut down Lane Tech in the bottom of the inning, and Macon was headed to the state final.
There was only one problem: Now Heneberry started thinking about the magnitude of the moment. He plunked the catcher, then gave up a double, then another. Soon Lane Tech was down only 6--3, with the bases loaded and no outs.
Slowly, head down, Sweet strolled out to the mound. The crowd stared, Heneberry stared. Sweet cleared his throat. "So, everybody's looking at me like I'm supposed to come out here," he said. "So here I am."
Sweet patted Heneberry on the shoulder and walked back to the dugout. Then he told Jimmy Durbin, the tiny freshman, to get up and start throwing in the bullpen, even though Durbin hadn't pitched once the whole season and could barely get the ball to home plate on a straight line. "I was going to have some fun," Sweet recalls, "and I thought the guys ought to as well. It was easy to succumb to thinking [the game] was more important than it was and to lose your identity."
Whether it was seeing Durbin throwing those lollipops or just finding his groove, Heneberry climbed back on the mound and unleashed a half dozen gorgeous curveballs—the kind that peak near a batter's ear and then plummet to the dirt—allowing only one more run. With the third out, the Macon fans stormed the field, hopping and running and shouting. Two students tore around in circles, carrying a giant Macon flag. Dale Otta's girlfriend, later to be his wife, raced over and jumped into his arms. Arnold had tied a 30-year-old record by stealing four bases in one game, and Lane Tech had tied a record with five errors in an inning.
Within an hour a story ran on the AP wire, giving the Ironmen their first national exposure. It referred to Macon as "a dot in Central Illinois" and the team as "a bunch of rock music lovers with long hair." It also noted that with the 6--4 win, Macon became the smallest school in state history to make the final, a distinction that still stands today and likely will for as long as they play baseball in Illinois.
You see, seven years later the state went to two classes, dividing schools by size. By 2010 the state had added two more classes, relegating small towns like Macon to tussle with other small towns. But for one glorious afternoon in 1971, the Ironmen had a chance to win it all.
If Lane Tech was the favorite, then Waukegan High wasn't far behind. A suburban Chicago school, it had an enrollment of 4,250 and had been to the state tournament nine times. Its team was deep (27 players), talented and experienced.
By 4 p.m., half an hour before game time, the temperature was in the low 90s and the air was like sludge. Fans doffed their shirts, the concession stand ran out of lemonade. A ticket taker estimated there were 2,000 people on hand, more than half of them rooting for Macon. There was even the familiar Lane Tech drummer; he'd been so impressed by the Ironmen in the semis that he decided to stick around and root for them in the final. So BANG! BANG! BANG! went the drum, only this time for Shartzer and Sweet and the boys.
As first pitch neared, however, Shartzer and Sweet were nowhere to be found. After the Lane Tech win the recently named Area Player and Coach of the Year had returned to the hospital so Shartzer could have his hand wrapped again, only to cut it free almost immediately. No one had heard from them since. What's more, Sweet had all the gear in his car. So the Macon boys borrowed a couple of balls from a kid who lived nearby, and Heneberry dutifully prepared to warm up. His arm was limp from that morning's game, and he doubted he could get the ball over the plate with any snap if Shartzer didn't show. On the sidelines, the parents fretted. It was decided that if necessary Shartzer's father would take over as coach.
With 10 minutes to spare, Sweet pulled up outside the park in the school station wagon. To a roar from the Macon fans, Shartzer jogged to the mound and began warming up.
Once again, the Ironmen struggled early. Hits died in Waukegan's gloves, and without base runners Arnold & Co. couldn't do their damage on the base paths. Worse, Shartzer, after four straight shutouts in the playoffs, was off. He threw wild pitches. He balked in a run. By the seventh inning, Macon's final at bat, the Ironmen had only one hit and trailed 4--0. Their magical run appeared to be at an end.
And then, a glimmer of hope: Shartzer opened the seventh with a single. Arnold reached base on an error and both runners advanced on a wild pitch. Dean Otta grounded out to score Shartzer, then Wells singled home Arnold and stole second to get in scoring position. Now the Ironmen were down only 4--2 with one out, and Glan, the powerful first baseman, was at the plate. In the bleachers the Macon fans rose. The purple flag whipped through the heat. The parents left their seats and lined the backstop. This was their moment.
On the third pitch Glan muscled an inside fastball into shallow left centerfield for a hit. From second base Wells, one of the fastest players on the team, tore toward third and saw Sweet waving him home. Taking a big turn, Wells churned down the line as a Waukegan sophomore named Joe Mirretti fielded the ball in the short grass 15 feet behind second and uncorked a throw home.
The ball stayed in the air for what felt like forever. If this were a movie, one like Hoosiers in which time stands still and the underdogs come through and you feel like leaping out of your chair and hugging the person next to you, that ball would have hung up a little longer, or skidded to the backstop. But real life isn't always like that. "The throw had to be on the money," recalls Sweet. "If the kid had to do it 10 times, we're going to score seven or eight times, but hats off to him."
Had Wells scored, it would have been 4--3 with one out. Instead, it was 4--2 with two outs. The Macon crowd slowly settled back into the bleachers. It seemed a formality when the next batter, Brian Snitker, sent a chopper down the third base line for the final out.
The Ironmen didn't have much time to grieve. No sooner had they finished shaking hands with the Waukegan players than they began receiving congratulations—from their fans, sure, but also from opposing players and coaches. A Decatur radio station, WSOY, wanted to interview them. Reporters lauded them. And the drive home was more of a parade, three miles' worth of cars following the bus, joined by a fire engine at Elwin for the homestretch into Macon.
By the time the team arrived, it was nearly 11. Expecting to go to bed, the boys were instead directed to the school auditorium, on the double. There, waiting in the thick summer heat, were the rest of their classmates. Senior graduation had been set for 8 p.m., but the class had voted to wait. Forty-odd boys and girls in their finest, not to mention countless relatives and friends, endured three hours without air conditioning. When the players arrived, they roared through the door as if bursting through a dam. To cheers, the five seniors on the team walked down the aisle carrying Sweet on their shoulders. For one night—hell, for one spring—Macon mattered.
Not all the players reveled in the moment. The sound of cheers may have echoed down Front Street, past the Macon Motel and 51 Lounge and into the dark countryside, but it did not reach the Shartzers' house. That's where Steve, a junior, sat in his room, head in his hands.
That wild ride home to Macon? It had been different for Shartzer. As his teammates peered out the windows of the bus, soaking in the sight of the crowded streets and the fire engine and the police escort, Shartzer was hunched in the back, lost in himself. The guy who'd pitched two games with one good hand—who'd vowed to pick up that damn flag, who'd spent all season galvanizing his teammates—blamed himself. How can we have this celebration when we just lost? he wondered. When the bus reached Macon, Shartzer remained on it, wedged into his seat. Finally Bob Shartzer climbed the bus stairs and walked to the back. He didn't say anything at first, just sat there for a moment. All those games of checkers that Bob wouldn't let Steve win, all those lessons taught on the living room rug—now he needed to impart a different lesson.
"Son, did you do your best?"
Steve looked up. "Yeah, I did." He paused. "Well, no, I didn't. I made some mistakes, and it hurts."
The father looked at the son. He understood. He put a hand on Steve's shoulder. "Whether you're happy with it or not, you've got to learn to live with the good and the bad," Bob said. "Now it's time to come on out. There's a whole damn town out here that thinks you're a hero."
It is April 2010, and Dale Otta, still trim and fit, is sitting at a table in his modest house outside Macon, leafing through old yearbooks. On his table he has spread out artifacts from that 1971 season, photos and clippings and the like. He explains how the trophy ended up at the P&V after Macon High consolidated—no one could think of a better place to display it—and says he hopes it will have a better resting spot someday. He can get lost in the memories, and he often does. He is jarred back to the present by the ring tone on his cellphone.
Well I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in a small town
Ah, that's prob'ly where they'll bury me.
He excuses himself to answer it. There on the table, the faces stare back. All but one of the nine starting Ironmen played baseball in college. Otta played one year at Kaskaskia Junior College in central Illinois and then settled into a quiet life, working 36 years for Caterpillar, trading in his peace-sign cap for one from Cat Diesel. Now 57, Otta hopes to retire at 59. He lives a mile out of town and goes in frequently, though it's not the same as before. "Back then, you knew everybody [there]," he says. "Now I hardly know anybody."
As he talks, the rest of the lives unfold.
If there was one player who seemed destined for greatness, it was Stu Arnold. He ended up at Millikin University, in Decatur, where he set a school rushing record as a halfback and was all-conference as a centerfielder. As the story goes, he tried out for the Cowboys as a punt returner but didn't make the team. "He was going to be successful at whatever he did," says Heneberry, and indeed Arnold ended up in Indianapolis, a well-off stockbroker. Then, one morning on his way to work, he inexplicably pulled out into oncoming traffic. He crashed and died at age 39.
As for Heneberry, he played a little at Kaskaskia as well, married and took a job as a salesman at a lumberyard, where he's been for 36 years. He looks eerily like his high school self, still lanky, with combed-down hair that's now slate instead of brown. All those curves took a toll on him; these days he can't throw a snowball without his arm throbbing. "It's O.K., though," he says. "I wouldn't trade that season for anything."
And the one who made it to the Braves' bench? It wasn't Shartzer but rather Snitker, the sophomore rightfielder with the sweet swing, thick black glasses and lead feet, the one about whom Shartzer joked, "There's dead people that can outrun him." Snitker played at the University of New Orleans, was drafted by Atlanta and, when his minor league career stalled, accepted a job managing the Braves' Class A affiliate in 1982. Over the next 30 years he worked his way up to big league third base coach; he's considered a candidate to take over as manager when Bobby Cox retires. Talk to people in baseball about Snitker, and it's funny—they cite many of the qualities once attributed to Sweet: easygoing, brings out the best in players, sneaky smart.
Every year, on the drive to spring training in Florida from his home in Atlanta, Snitker pops in a Jesus Christ Superstar CD and listens to it all the way through, smiling at the memories. "It was a great time in our lives," he says. "The relationships, the experiences in that little town were unbelievable. I don't remember a lot and I remember a lot, if you know what I mean."
And Shartzer? He headed to Southern Illinois and finished second in the country in hitting as a freshman. He played in the College World Series and was drafted by the Cardinals after his junior year, projected as second baseman with 20-home-run power. He made it to Double A, then quit the game, went back to school and became a college professor and coach. When his students asked him what happened in the minors, he always answered, "Obviously I wasn't good enough, or I wouldn't have to be standing here teaching you people." But it wasn't really that. By most accounts Shartzer had the talent but might have cared too much. Here's how he explains it now: "When I started coming to the park and it was a job—even though I knew it was; they're paying you for your talents—I never could figure out how to do that."
He went on to tour the country playing fast-pitch softball. He coached baseball for 20 years, first at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala., then at Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga., and he later led a girls' softball team to the state final. ("Wouldn't you know it, we lost in that one too," he says.) His daughter Anna is now a star softball player at West Alabama, and sometimes when he watches her play, so willful and aggressive, he sees himself. There's only one difference: "She can let go of the losses, God bless her."
Shartzer's feelings about Macon remain complicated. Unlike his teammates, who revel in what they accomplished, he can't stop thinking about what they did not. "Probably the biggest disappointment in my career is losing the damn state championship," he says. At 56, he has a halo of gray hair and the hint of a paunch, but he retains that old intensity. More than any of his teammates, he can remember every pitch of that game, every opportunity missed. He remembers the ball he hooked just foul in the sixth inning, the one that would have been a home run—who cares that the reason he hooked it was probably the broken bone in his top hand. He remembers those wild pitches, the balk.
He still can't bring himself to face the people of Macon. In the last 20 years Shartzer has been back three times. "My daughter is on me real hard," he says. "She wants to go back this summer and meet John Heneberry and see these places and meet some of these people." He pauses. "It's hard, though. They expected me to win that championship game, and I just didn't get it done. In a lot of ways I still feel like I let them down. There's a lot of people who probably think I could use some professional help, but I felt that strongly that I could win that game. I had the ball in my hands. . . ." He trails off.
At first Shartzer didn't want to discuss that season for this story. "This is the second time I've talked about [it]," he says. "I remember I had to go to Atlanta to do some sort of interview deal, and I said, 'This is going to be the last time I talk about this.' It was my daughter who talked me into doing this [story]. I guess I'm kind of weird about it. I don't have to replay this game constantly. It's in my heart and soul. And it will be to the day I die. I'd like a rematch." He pauses. "I guess I'm still upset that we didn't win, and I'm not sure how to resolve that. Maybe old Coach will help me one more time."
How do you measure the legacy of a coach? Bob Fallstrom, who covered the Ironmen and is now in his 62nd year as a newspaperman in Decatur, says Sweet was "so different, and it's partly because of him that people still remember that season." David Wells says he still applies lessons he learned that summer: "[Sweet] had a way of teaching where you learned and didn't realize it." And Shartzer tears up and says, "If I die today, I'd just like to thank him. It was an honor."
Sweet is not an easy man to find. This is how he gives directions to his house outside Moweaqua: "Take a left at Casey's store, go 2½ miles and when you see the church signs, take a right on the unmarked road. Go a mile or so and I'm the big farmhouse."
The house, which Sweet bought in 1982, sits on 25 acres. He calls it his "enclave," a former corn farm that he has transformed into an animal refuge under a state program called Acres for Wildlife. It draws quite a crowd: pheasants, turkeys, coyotes, whole families of deer. Sweet plants blueberries, strawberries and raspberries, tends to cherry trees and stocks his three-acre lake with bass, crappie and bluegill. His barn is thick with the trappings of a life lived outdoors: a hulking John Deere 4020 tractor, five mowers, a wagon, a bevy of bikes.
The old coach spends much of his time in his living room. Here, with windows on three sides, he can sit in his armchair and watch the wildlife and read. What's left of his hair is white, and his goatee is an ashen stubble, but the big blue eyes remain young. At 68, long retired, he spends most of his time with Jeanne. He thought of moving elsewhere, but Jeanne's family lived close by, and, well, Sweet likes it out in the country, where he can hunt and fish. ("I don't catch much," he says, "but that's O.K.—it's the process I enjoy.") Besides, he and Jeanne travel a lot. They visit their daughter in Sacramento, drink wine in Sonoma County. As Sweet puts it, "We don't have a lot of friends, but we know a lot of people."
After that '71 season, however, things were never the same for Sweet in Macon. At first the Ironmen were riding high. In 1972 the school booster club financed overnight trips and the team finally got a bus driver, not to mention new, brilliant purple uniforms. Sweet was offered an assistant's job at Lakeland Junior College but declined it. There were expectations.
By most standards, Sweet met them. Over the next six years Macon would win an astounding 58 consecutive conference games and numerous district titles, though the Ironmen never got back to the state tournament. By 1976, Sweet's last year of coaching, some of the joy had gone out of the job. He had grown his Fu Manchu into a bushy beard, and his dark hair flowed past his shoulders. "Sometimes I just wish we could go back to that first year," he said at the time. "It was just 12 or 13 guys, and all we had was a bunch of baggy uniforms and a lot of fun."
The 1976 team finished 16--9, beat Taylorville to win the district and then lost to MacArthur in the sectionals, Sweet's last game. Just like that, he quit. "The parents were yelling at me too much," Sweet says. "They wanted it to be like it was. We'd always win more than we'd lose, [but] they all expected to go to state, the elusive state. ... " He trails off, looks out at the birds in the yard.
Teaching changed too. In 1994, when Macon High consolidated with Meridian, Sweet was expected to teach a standard curriculum, with an emphasis on grammar drills and test taking. No longer could he have students read Macbeth twice or could he stock the shelves with Popular Mechanics. Four years later he retired. He didn't fit in in the new world. "I was happy in the '60s and '70s," he says. "The world made sense."
Unlike many of his players, Sweet doesn't hold on to memories of that '71 season. There is only one photo of the team in his house. Sweet shows up at the annual benefit in memory of second baseman Mark Miller, who passed away from pancreatic cancer five years ago, but other than that he doesn't see "the kids," as he calls them, too often. "It was a beautiful thing that happened, but it's over," he says. Then he points to his chest. "It's in here now."
This may be true, but it's also still out there. Once in a while Sweet will head up Highway 51, headlights illuminating the new HAWKS sign outside Macon—the mascot that Meridian High adopted—until he gets to the turnoff and pulls into the P&V. He'll walk in and pick up a 12-pack, and when he gets to the counter he'll look up, past the clerk, to the part of his life that's there on the top shelf.