Four years ago I couldn’t have cared less about the sport of baseball.
It’s strange, really. When I was younger I played t-ball, just like nearly every other kid I knew. I was trash. It wasn’t my sport, I didn’t put the time or effort into it and it fell by the wayside to me. Even weirder, my family is totally one that loves baseball. My dad played in high school and is a huge Reds fan. My mom loves the Royals and my youngest brother is pretty damn good at the sport — I’ve been watching his games since he was 7.
But, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get into it. I’m still am not exactly sure why. I’m a huge stats-head and baseball is the most stats-y of all the sports. Maybe it was just too long and my millennial attention span too short. I really don’t know.
When I walked onto campus as a freshman four years ago, however, that started to change. I began to watch the Iowa baseball team. It was Rick Heller’s first year as skipper of the team and expectations weren’t exactly high. The Hawkeyes hadn’t been good in the sport for years and the idea was that it would take a bit of time for Heller to build something was — fairly — in the air.
Then he brought the team to the Big Ten Baseball Tournament in his first season. Iowa went 1-2, but it was a huge step in the right direction. All of the sudden, this team had an identity. It started to become fun to watch. I even caught a few games on BTN, huddled in front of my dorm room TV.
A year later, Iowa had a truly magical season, making the NCAA tournament. I was hooked. There was something about the program that was addicting. They had a bit of swag, they put up runs and became truly fun to watch.
Last season, of course, Iowa made an incredible run in the Big Ten tournament, making it all the way to the finals, falling in a memorable game to Ohio State. I remember sitting in front of that game with my family. I think we went to church or something that day and I only caught the last four innings or so of the game, but as OSU plated a run in the final frame, a disappointment filled me, the same type that came over me as I watched Michigan State top the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship for football. I didn’t expect that. Suddenly, I realized I was truly invested. I’d never cared that much about any baseball team before.
Yesterday I watched Iowa win a Big Ten Tournament Championship and punch a ticket to the NCAA Championship. It was pretty cool, to say the least. The night before, as Iowa beat Minnesota, I knew I’d have to go cover the game for the Gazette if they won. It was going to be a brutal, nearly 7-hour drive from my parents house in Marion. I wasn’t looking forward to it, to be quite honest.
As the innings dragged on, however, my dad quietly suggested he’d come with me if the Hawkeyes could indeed down the Gophers. They did and at 4:30 on Sunday morning, he woke me up and said it was time to go. So, we did. He drove the entire way to Bloomington (don’t worry, I took most of the drive back), letting me catch up a bit on my sleep. It was sincerely appreciated.
The Big Ten moved up the championship game and we were cutting it close — our arrival was just about 30 minutes before the finale started. As I settled into the press box spot, I caught a glimpse of my dad and the small group of Iowa fans that had made the journey. They might have had an idea, but there was no way they knew exactly what was about to transpire.
Five Hawkeye runs in the first inning probably gave them a good notion. After a tournament dominated by close games in which I had followed religiously, this one certainly wasn’t going to be that. The game dragged on and in the bottom of the seventh, Jake Adams jacked a two-run home run, putting the game out of reach. The next inning, he’d send another past the fence. It was, truly, greatness.
Side note on Jake — we’ve all been witness to something truly special this season. We’ll probably never see a power hitter as prolific as him at Iowa and watching the slugger tie the Big Ten record for home runs in a season was an incredible thing to watch. Every single time he’s at the plate, Adams is a threat. That’s rare.
The game ended and I made my way onto the field along with Dargan Southard (who you all should be following, he’s a great writer and covers the Iowa baseball team better than anyone) I saw pure, undiluted joy radiate from the squad.
That's a happy group of Hawkeyes pic.twitter.com/hUPdivrKk7— Jordan Hansen (@jordyhansen) May 28, 2017
They celebrated for quite awhile. That video was about the third time they came together and started hollering. For nearly 15 minutes, they took pictures with each other, savoring the fact they had done something no other Hawkeye baseball team has ever done — win a Big Ten title. It was, truly, enjoyable to watch.
Writers like when things come full circle. It’s selfish, perhaps. It makes for a better story — things with a beginning, middle and end always do. This was exactly that. Not only for me personally, but for the baseball program as whole.
Suddenly, Iowa is a perennial contender for a Big Ten title. Until the last weekend of conference play, the team was in play for the regular season title. They “settled” for a tournament title. It was honestly a beautiful thing to watch.
There’s no way to know how Iowa will fare in the NCAA tournament. They’ll probably be a three seed in whatever region they end up in, but the simple the fact they will advance into the national postseason (for the second time in three years, something that’s never been done by a team from Iowa City) is special.
I love baseball now and I have Rick Heller and the Iowa baseball team to thank for that.