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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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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.

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