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- PEOPLEAugust 23, 1965
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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.