TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — It’s two hours before the game Friday morning and the line to get into Bob Warn Field to watch the Indiana State Sycamores play baseball is steadily growing, including the shirtless guy with the words Roll Trees painted in blue on his chest. Looks like a full house for this regional opener, but everyone has known that was coming for days, back to when tickets went on sale at 4 p.m. Tuesday and the grandstand seats were all sold... in 38 minutes.
Inside the park, they’re getting ready for a crowd of more than 2,000. To give the out-of-state visitors a local taste, tenderloins have been added to the menu. “It’s an Indiana thing,” one of the concession workers says.
Baseball fever has come to Terre Haute.
Junior pitcher Matt Jachec is to start Friday against Wright State and had said the day before the local fervor was “unlike anything I’ve ever seen. If you walk outside with a baseball shirt on, you’re getting noticed, you’re getting looked at. That’s never happened before.”
The same for senior assistant athletic director John Sherman, an alum and long-time administrator: “You go in the coffee shop, any convenience store or gas station, especially if you’re wearing an Indiana State item, that’s what they want to talk about.”
It’s not like Terre Haute hasn’t seen baseball achievement before. A mile down the street from the ballpark is the former site of Gerstmeyer High School, where a kid named Tommy John once went 28-2 as a pitcher, scored 47 points in a basketball game and was class valedictorian. That was before he became immortal because of surgery on his pitching elbow.
It’s not like the city hasn’t had excitement bubbling around an Indiana State team. A few blocks southeast is the 15-foot statue of Larry Bird, going up for a jump shot. Also, the 1986 baseball Sycamores advanced to the College World Series, including a freshman named Mitch Hannahs. He would graduate with a career batting average of .376, and for the past 10 years has been the coach.
It’s not like this place is a stranger to postseason competition. It’s hosted 16 cross country national championships.
It’s not as if there aren’t other reasons for civic pride. Did you know the original classic Coca-Cola bottle was designed in this town?
But there is something about this weekend that has become the perfect storm to inspire the masses. The home team has built a 42-15 record with a sound approach — Indiana State comes into Friday No. 1 in the nation in defense and No. 5 in earned run average — and is so accomplished that the selection committee granted the Sycamores a regional for the first time ever. Not even Bird’s basketballers got to host an NCAA tournament game.
Wright State, Iowa and North Carolina have been sent here. Maybe a regional at, say, Vanderbilt, is as annual a June event as Father’s Day, but Indiana State was sweating out every second last Sunday before word came it would get the chance.
“I was at a fundraiser and every person was like, `did we get it, did we get it?”’ Sherman said. “I went and found myself a quiet corner some place. For a guy who’s been around here as long as I have, it’s kind of a surreal moment. My wife finally said `are you going to join the party?’ I said `I’m fine right here, I’m just waiting for the call.”’
There is nothing quite like hosting the first time, especially in a place far from the college baseball sunny holy lands. Like all other northern programs, Indiana State fights an enemy that is unknown to the powers in the South and West. The first half of the season has a lot of bad news from the Weather Channel.
“We had good crowds during the season but you’re also playing in cold weather most of the time,” Sherman said. “We had Michigan State here and it was like 33 degrees with the wind chill factor. We’re a cold-weather place, we don’t get to play 40 home games a year.”
Hannahs has talked about changing the culture at Indiana State and raising the bar. “That’s what we’re trying to do,” says pitcher Connor Fenlong, who has helped the cause with four complete game shutouts. “He wants to make sure we know what we’re doing for the community,” Jachec says of Hannahs. “It’s more than just baseball.” Hannahs has mentioned that all this buzz is further evidence of how a midwestern program can move up the ladder.
“I think a lot of us have proven that if the season is back a little bit (on the calendar), we have the ability to draw fans, too, if we put a good product on the field. So I think from a lot of different angles this has really been a great thing for Indiana State and Terre Haute.”
Yeah, but while this big party is going on in the community, what would happen on the field?
“This team’s not used to a lot of attention,” Hannahs said the day before. “I think when you have a week of it you’ve got to be careful because you spend a lot of time doing interviews, a lot of time talking and you forget there are games still to be played, I don’t know how some of the power-5 football teams live. The media they must go through, and they still have to play a game.”
The standing room crowd at the rails is three deep and the temperature is 91 degrees Friday when Jachec throws the game’s first pitch to Wright State’s Andrew Patrick. Check swing, nubber in front of the plate, easy throw to first for catcher Grant Magill. The Road to Omaha has officially come to Terre Haute.
Three hours later the big crowd is sun-baked, weary, but in delighted full roar as Indiana State scores three runs in the eighth inning to rally past Wright State 6-5 and not kill the mood. The Sycamores survive a wobbly start, falling behind 5-2 as the vaunted defense commits two errors and Jachec gives up two home runs. Such an enthused audience, such a big moment, you wonder if maybe it all was a tad too much at the beginning.
“Obviously there was a little bit of emotion and the hardest thing for young guys is to get away from playing with emotion,” Hannahs would say afterward. “They get so emotional that it kind of grips them. I felt like more than jitters, it was a little bit of emotion taking us over.”
But reliever Zach Davidson shuts down Wright State and the Sycamores chip away, until Magill’s soft bases-loaded single into right in the eighth puts them in front. It has to be a particularly frustrating way for the Raiders to lose, laboring all day in the hot sun, building a lead, and then getting beaten by a blooper. “You’re thinking what if I was playing a couple of steps that way?” says second baseman Gehrig Anglin, who tried but couldn’t quite get to Magill’s ball. “But you can’t really be that mad about it. That’s just baseball, right? At some point you’ve just got to accept reality, keep your head down and go back to work.”
Indiana State had gotten away with its mistakes. “That wasn’t the way we drew it up by any means,” Hannahs says. “I told our club we didn’t play real well. But sometimes toughness and fight and resiliency trumps that, and I felt that’s what happened today.”
So the crowd, having done its part to push the Sycamores through trouble, goes home happy. ISU! ISU! is the loud chant at the end, as the players walk along the rail to share high-fives. “I can’t express how grateful we are that the community’s coming together like they are,” Magill says later.
The blue-shirted customers will be back Saturday night, with Fenlong and his shutout resume on the mound. Indiana State will continue its quest for national recognition in its own friendly confines. Or as Magill, the hero of the hour, says, “keep playing until we get the ball taken out of our hands.”