Robin Cooper spends his summers in Louisville, working at Churchill Downs. In the fall, he is in Indianapolis, assisting his son, Brett, who is head football coach at Perry Meridian High School. In the winter, he heads to the warmth of Florida.
Clearly, Cooper has moved on from his days as a standout athlete at Bloomington High School. Yet, 50 years after the fact, part of his baseball past is with him wherever he goes.
It’s that way for everyone on the 1971 BHS baseball team. A state tournament qualifier in 1970, the Purple Raiders needed one more win to earn a return trip in 1971. They were denied by a 3-2 loss to tiny Macon in the sectional finals. Macon went on to place second in the state, becoming the smallest school to reach the championship game in the one-class system.
Macon’s miracle season has become famous, chronicled in a Sports Illustrated article and, in 2012, a book called “One Shot At Forever” by Chris Ballard. An entire chapter is devoted to the Bloomington game on May 28, 1971 at Champaign’s McKinley Field.
The chapter’s title?
Cooper and Macon star Steve Shartzer, both seniors, were rivals from American Legion ball in the summers. When they met with a berth in the state tournament on the line, Shartzer and his teammates knew all about Cooper.
“Steve Shartzer, he was a tremendous competitor,” Cooper said. “I know there were other good players on their team, but he’s the one that I really, really remember.
“It (losing) was a disappointment and certainly I remember it. I think it’s great for Macon. But I didn’t think it was going to turn into what it has turned into. It’s kind of like the basketball team in Indiana that won state.”
That was tiny Milan High School, which was featured in the film, “Hoosiers.” Macon’s run ended in a 4-2 title game loss to Waukegan, but the Ironmen’s journey has become legend.
Tabbed “The Mod Squad,” they wore uniforms that didn’t match and included peace signs. Their coach, Lynn Sweet, was a free-spirited English teacher who became the coach only because no one else wanted the job.
He was loose with rules for his players during a regimented era. He wore long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache.
“He was a dandy,” said Bob Spahn, BHS’ first-year head coach in 1971. “He was a different duck, I remember that. He was unconventional.”
The main reason was a small but talented team that included sophomore right fielder Brian Snitker, now manager of the Atlanta Braves. There also was the element of surprise, thanks to Sweet.
“You didn’t know what he was going to do,” Spahn said. “He might not bunt, then he would hit and run. You just never knew what he was going to do.”
Neither team started its ace in the sectional final. Cooper and Shartzer each had pitched in semifinal wins, leaving BHS left-hander John Adams to go against lanky Macon curveball specialist John Heneberry.
Bloomington plated two runs in the first, but could not score again off the crafty Heneberry. Cooper relieved Adams in the fourth with the game tied at 2-2. Macon got a run in the fifth on an RBI double by Shartzer and held on.
The game’s final out came when Macon second baseman Mark Miller made a terrific play and narrowly beat Bloomington’s Mike Abfalder to the bag. In the book, Ballard describes how Miller continued through a hole in the fence and ran straight to the Macon bus.
Abfalder doesn’t recall the specifics of his groundout, but said, “I do kind of remember the guy running to the bus. We probably walked to the bus with our heads down.”
“He (Miller) probably thought somebody was going to be chasing him,” Spahn added. “But nobody was.”
Macon, enrollment 250, had slain Goliath. Bloomington had more than a thousand students and, after reaching the state tourney in 1970, “certainly thought we were going to go again,” Cooper said.
Senior pitcher/second baseman Dan Consalvo speculated the Raiders may have been overconfident.
“I think we thought, ‘Oh they’re small. They can never beat us,’” Consalvo said. “I think we just got a little cocky.”
Cooper disagreed, pointing to the fact BHS had won tight games over Lexington, a school similar in size to Macon, in the postseason in 1970 and 1971.
“Those were good (Lexington) teams,” Cooper said. “You have to give (Macon) credit. I’ve read some stuff lately that I didn’t remember. But they beat us and heck, they were no fluke.”
Shartzer went on to play at Southern Illinois and spent two years in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system. Cooper played baseball and football at Illinois Wesleyan before becoming a longtime coach.
They were the headliners in a matchup Cooper now considers “a once in a lifetime deal.”
Abfalder, BHS’ senior right fielder that day, attended an event a few years ago honoring the Macon team. He spoke with some of Macon’s former players.
“They were telling me plays I was in that I didn’t even remember,” Abfalder said. “But they remembered me. They were a good team. You get second in the state, beat Lane Tech (in the semifinals) and everything, they earned it. I’d like to have seen them go all the way.”
Spahn said the Ironmen were well-coached and “very sound.”
“They didn’t make any mistakes,” he said. “You could put the ball in play and they’d make a play. It wasn’t one of those deals where sometimes you hit it and just keep running. They made the plays.”
They made history after sending BHS home with a 21-7 record. The Raiders’ seniors had graduation that evening, which meant quick showers and a change of clothes. There was no washing away the disappointment.
“It wasn’t a very happy graduation,” Cooper said.
Fifty years later, Cooper and his teammates can look more fondly upon Macon’s win. They took the Ironmen to the final out -- BHS had the tying run at second base -- a few days before Macon’s 6-4 state semifinal win over Chicago Lane Tech, a perennial power with 5,200 students (all boys).
“Most of the time, I get goosebumps when I tell somebody about it because it’s just a really good story … a true story,” Abfalder said. “You don’t get many of those.”
It has been told and retold over 50 years. And Cooper knows this:
“If I ever go through Macon, I’ll certainly think about that,” he said. “I’m sure I could find somebody who knows something about it.”
Pull up a chair, Big Coop.
The story never gets old.
Randy Kindred is a columnist and retired sports editor at The Pantagraph. Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: pg_kindred