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THE MAGICAL SEASON OF THE MACON IRONMEN
CHRIS BALLARD
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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It is April 2010, and Dale Otta, still trim and fit, is sitting at a table in his modest house outside Macon, leafing through old yearbooks. On his table he has spread out artifacts from that 1971 season, photos and clippings and the like. He explains how the trophy ended up at the P&V after Macon High consolidated—no one could think of a better place to display it—and says he hopes it will have a better resting spot someday. He can get lost in the memories, and he often does. He is jarred back to the present by the ring tone on his cellphone.

Well I was born in a small town

And I can breathe in a small town

Gonna die in a small town

Ah, that's prob'ly where they'll bury me.

He excuses himself to answer it. There on the table, the faces stare back. All but one of the nine starting Ironmen played baseball in college. Otta played one year at Kaskaskia Junior College in central Illinois and then settled into a quiet life, working 36 years for Caterpillar, trading in his peace-sign cap for one from Cat Diesel. Now 57, Otta hopes to retire at 59. He lives a mile out of town and goes in frequently, though it's not the same as before. "Back then, you knew everybody [there]," he says. "Now I hardly know anybody."

As he talks, the rest of the lives unfold.

If there was one player who seemed destined for greatness, it was Stu Arnold. He ended up at Millikin University, in Decatur, where he set a school rushing record as a halfback and was all-conference as a centerfielder. As the story goes, he tried out for the Cowboys as a punt returner but didn't make the team. "He was going to be successful at whatever he did," says Heneberry, and indeed Arnold ended up in Indianapolis, a well-off stockbroker. Then, one morning on his way to work, he inexplicably pulled out into oncoming traffic. He crashed and died at age 39.

As for Heneberry, he played a little at Kaskaskia as well, married and took a job as a salesman at a lumberyard, where he's been for 36 years. He looks eerily like his high school self, still lanky, with combed-down hair that's now slate instead of brown. All those curves took a toll on him; these days he can't throw a snowball without his arm throbbing. "It's O.K., though," he says. "I wouldn't trade that season for anything."

And the one who made it to the Braves' bench? It wasn't Shartzer but rather Snitker, the sophomore rightfielder with the sweet swing, thick black glasses and lead feet, the one about whom Shartzer joked, "There's dead people that can outrun him." Snitker played at the University of New Orleans, was drafted by Atlanta and, when his minor league career stalled, accepted a job managing the Braves' Class A affiliate in 1982. Over the next 30 years he worked his way up to big league third base coach; he's considered a candidate to take over as manager when Bobby Cox retires. Talk to people in baseball about Snitker, and it's funny—they cite many of the qualities once attributed to Sweet: easygoing, brings out the best in players, sneaky smart.

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