"We learned a lot about what really matters this week," Lincoln-Way Central coach Sean Bieterman said. "There are more important things than just baseball."
That was the message throughout the week for Central’s baseball team, which blew a late lead Thursday. The game, at Andrew High School, was about much more than standings and stats or wins and losses. This game was about 27 teenagers coming together to play for the 28th member of their team who is gone now but will never be forgotten.
When other members of the Knights baseball team prepared for a doubleheader last Saturday, March 31, they had no idea Tommy Schuman wouldn’t be joining them on the bus ride to Elmhurst.
Schuman, 18, died in his sleep that morning from an undetected cardiac condition. Central coach Sean Bieterman woke up Saturday morning and got the phone call. Instead of meeting his team at the doubleheader in Elmhurst, which was closer to his home, he drove to New Lenox to be with the team.
“We’ve got to stick together,” Bieterman said, driving home the main point he relayed to his team. “We’re going to have good days and we’re going to have bad days, but at the same time it’s a matter of whether everyone is here for each other.”
The team canceled its game April 3 with Stagg so teammates and coaches could attend the services for Schuman, which an estimated 6,000 people attended. So this was their first game back together since hearing the shocking and devastating news. Before the game, a moment of silence honored Schuman. Central players fought back tears through the silence, but when the game started the most prevalent emotions were pride and excitement.
Coaches and players wore a T-shirts with Schuman’s No. 19 on the back, with the front saying “Together for Tommy.” Many players had “TS” written on the back of their hats. The freshman and sophomore teams also wore No. 19. It didn’t matter who was the winning or losing pitcher, or who drove in a run. This day, everyone was playing with the memory of Tommy Schuman.
“Let’s go, 1-9!” fan shouted throughout the game. Everyone carried the captain’s spirit.
About 20 student fans turned out for the game and certainly helped ease the tension. They joked along with the athletes throughout the game, which was close throughout.
After giving up a run in the first inning, Knights starter Matt Doherty settled down and pitched three scoreless innings. Andrew tied the game 2-2 in the fifth before Rick Amaya hit a two-run single in the sixth inning to put the Knights ahead 4-2. That’s when things unraveled for the Knights. With two outs in the final inning, the team gave up a double, four straight walks and a wild pitch that brought in the winning run, losing 5-4.
Players were clearly shaken by the loss, and the coach made it clear. “I’m the only one who will be talking tonight,” he said.
The intensity got the best of the students at the end of the game, which was completely understandable. They fought a stiff opponent and even stronger emotions for seven innings and fell just short. It takes a strong person to keep the focus and togetherness of a group of grieving students, and Bieterman was on point Thursday.
“We weren’t flat at all. We played our butts off all day,” he said. “We want to win this baseball game because we’ve been through so much it’s been such a tough week. These kids deserved better today and that’s unfortunately what we’ve learned all week: It’s not always going to be the way it’s supposed to be. The score at the end of the day is secondary.”
Obviously, the Schuman’s death hurt the team. Not just on the mound, where Schuman was a solid closer, having notched a win in his last game pitched March 29. He made a much larger impact as a teammate and as a friend.
“Tom Schuman made an impact on everyone,” Bieterman said. “Not just this team, but the entire school. He was a special person. He was the type of man I’d like my son to grow up to be."