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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.