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June 28, 2010
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?
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June 28, 2010

The Magical Season Of The Macon Ironmen

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?

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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."

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