The 12U Illinois Hitmen: Hall of Famers

1980-01-01-00-00-15-1Baseball time is measured in outs. At the beginning of any baseball game each team is given an equal number of outs. Whatever happens in between is independent of a clock.

On April 7th WCB.org spent some time at The Perfect Swing in Downers Grove. On a Thursday night at 9:00 there were dozens of kids from 8-18 packed into the indoor facility. There was a frenzy of live hitting and pitching mixed with the hum of batting machines.

Jim Baranoski was out there that night preparing his son and helping assemble the 12U Illinois Hitmen from Plainfield. We talked about the incredible changes in baseball life since we were 12 and playing in Shorewood’s 1979 Troy Bronco League.

orange_machineiBack in the day we played about 20 games and some kids made the all-star team. The Troy All-Stars would play other area All-Star teams in a couple of tournaments. Maybe an area All-Star team traveled to a national tournament or out-of-state invitational.

The Hitmen were at the very beginning of a 60-game season that would take them across the Midwest and over to Cooperstown for the national tournament in mid-June. Travel baseball has revolutionized the game for players under 18.

After Troy Bronco League Baranoski went on to play at Joliet Catholic and for Missouri Southern’s Hall of Fame Coach Warren Turner. He left Southern as the school’s all-time homerun leader. He’s a baseball lifer.

The weather didn’t break until mid-May but many 12U travel teams managed to blitz about 60 games between about May 1 and early July. That’s about ten weeks of full-time, pedal to the metal baseball. Baranoski and his family were among a clan of about 50 people who followed the Illinois Hitmen daily from those brutal April afternoons to the burning July summer mornings.

I covered high school baseball all spring for WillCountyBaseball.org. Baranoski was preoccupied with the Hitmen and his daughter’s 10U softball team which he also coached. We kept in touch exchanging information and scores about the high school action. Right after the State Finals on June 11th he kept talking about his son’s team playing in Cooperstown.
cooperstown_mainstI expected to hear about the gorgeous fields, a beautiful town, and the Hall of Fame. I did. I also heard about how the Hitmen were playing for the tournament championship.

It turns out that the Illinois Hitmen were one out of 46 teams from around the country competing in Cooperstown’s national tournament. The Hitmen squared off against the nation’s best from places like Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and California. After finishing 4-2 in pool play the Hitmen marched all the way to the Championship game.

sox_hitmen

They lost, but became only the fourth Illinois team in Cooperstown’s history to play in the title game. The accomplishment was enormous and another obvious reflection of the baseball talent in Will County. In July WBC.org caught up to Baranoski and the Hitmen during their last tournament in Crown Point, Indiana.

1980-01-01-00-00-42Their first game was 8:00 A.M. Saturday. It’s hard to dress for an early morning baseball game in funky Midwest weather. Layers are are the key. Every half hour you can shed another garment. After about 10:00 there’s no more need for anything extraneous.

I love the walk from the parking lot to the playing fields. It’s always the same. The professionals are experts in efficiency. The moms carry all the gear. Backpacks and folding chairs are not a problem. The amateurs know they better have their equipment together. The dads make it when they can. A single family may arrive in three separate cars with parents, players, and grandparents all coordinated.

1980-01-01-00-00-07For people who love baseball the show begins long before the action. The Hitmen looked ready to play on that July Saturday, but they were clearly tired. Their season had reached its apex a month ago. They weren’t playing out the string, just a little tired.

They played twice that day and dropped two games in frustration. The first game was a classic youth baseball umpire frenzy of confusion and blown calls. The Hitmen were victims of all of it. They regrouped and played a real tough team in their second game. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t stay above water in the Winner’s Bracket. The Loser’s bracket is no place for miracles – usually.

cooperstown_fieldCooperstown was different for the Hitmen. Nothing seemed to matter. They just kept stroking baseballs out of the modified ballparks and moved on and on.

My favorite part of writing for WCB.org is talking. Talking to the coaches is the best. The first guy I ran into that Saturday morning was a flat out coach. I knew it on sight. We started talking immediately and before I knew it we were discussing the transcendental properties of a multi-sport athlete. Listen closely as the conversation turns to his grandson running the bases:

1980-01-01-00-00-34My next conversation was with two moms. Jeanette Denton was one of the coaches wives; and the other woman I ended up talking to was Tracy Baranoski – the wife of my friend of thirty years. I had never met her; and here I was interviewing her.

We finally met.

As I was leaving the playing fields that afternoon I sat down with Jason McGuigan, whose son Jeremy played on the Hitmen; and whose older son played for the High School Summer State Champion Plainfield South. Jason is a nice guy – the kind of guy you’d want coaching your kid during a 12-year old’s formative summer.

1980-01-01-00-02-32The Hitmen were great. The coaches, parents, and grandparents were awesome. My trip to Crown Point was a highlight of a indescribably joyous season of baseball. I got to cover part the Philip Lawler State High School Summer Tournament later in the summer; but the best part of the year was talking and renewing my three-decade relationship with baseball and friends – some I never knew I had.

The coaches in Will County are simply the best. The access they provided was more than generous. The players are of a different pedigree, and mature beyond their years. The parents, the parents, and the grandparents were a continuous source of renewal. The local fans are fantastic.

I talked to a lot of people; but my conversation with Tracy Baranoski was a special lesson. Baseball doles out its own form of arbitrary justice. After talking with Tracy I knew baseball can’t even get in the batter’s box against the ferocious fastball of life.

Tracy suffers from a rare liver disease; and unless she receives a transplant her life is probably timed in less than outs. But she’s been told that before. Tracy is in the batter’s box, and she’s not afraid.

Tracy Baranoski Go Fund Me Page

In 2016 I got the chance to photobomb Reed-Custer, and coaching legend Jerry Cougill, as he rode off into the sunset carrying his second State Championship. I got to know the special, special experience of Providence baseball and their historic Three-Peat. I learned a tremendous amount of baseball following the monstrous progress of a nasty Plainfield South team and their Hall of Fame Coach Phil Bodine.

To everyone I spoke to – thank you so, so much.

Thank you Tracy. And thank you Will County. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy 2017. This writer can’t wait to revisit the diamonds and see who’s ready to challenge Will County for baseball domination in Illinois.

*Special thank you to superb writer/photographer Joe Bonomo for his Cooperstown photos. Check out his excellent website at No Such Thing as Was.

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