- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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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.