It’ll take more than getting hit by a stray baseball and eight stitches to the face to keep Bob Warn away from the ballpark that bears his name.
The man who coached Indiana State University’s teams for 31 seasons has been a Sycamore fan since his retirement in 2006. Even in that role, his nickname, “Baseball Bob,” proved valid.
As Warn and his wife, Bonnie, sat in their first-row seats behind home plate watching Wednesday afternoon’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament game between ISU and Illinois-Chicago, a foul ball sank into the protective netting, which gave way just enough to strike Warn under his right eye.
The ball’s impact hit on a frame of Warn’s rimless sunglasses, cutting the 77-year-old former coach’s face under this right eye.
“You just can’t escape the game — the ball just finds you,” Warn quipped Thursday morning.
He was taken to Union Hospital — by ambulance, as a precaution — and received eight stitches. A CT scan showed no bone fractures, he didn’t have a concussion and his vision remains solid.
“It’s a good thing he had the sunglasses on,” Bonnie said. “Otherwise, it would’ve hit him squarely on his cheekbone.”
Fewer than 24 hours later, Warn was preparing to go back to Bob Warn Field with Bonnie to watch the Sycamores, the tournament’s top-seeded team, play No. 7 seed Belmont at 4 p.m. Thursday.
Later when he arrived, MVC Tournament fans gave Warn a healthy round of applause.
Warn sensed the irony of Wednesday’s mishap. The man who coached 1,966 games in his career understands better than anyone what a stray baseball can do. He often reminds folks sitting around him at games of those risks, telling those in the front row not to lean toward the netting. Warn got hit by the foul ball into the netting as he turned to talk to friend David Hayne, sitting to his left.
“[After] all the warnings I’ve given people in that front row, I should’ve paid attention myself,” Warn said Thursday morning.
“We’ve even had our kids and grandkids sit there,” Bonnie said, “and we’ve always told them, ‘Don’t lean forward.’ You know, it’s probably just one of those things. It’s an accident, and accidents happen.”
ISU’s facility and athletics staff worked to further secure the netting following Wednesday’s games.
“We tightened the nets last night, spent about two hours doing so,” Sherard Clinkscales, ISU’s athletic director, said Thursday. “We should be fine.” In addition, the public address announcer at Thursday’s games reminded fans to watch for foul balls.
It was a relief to hear Warn’s sense of humor intact Thursday morning, and to know that he emerged from the injury without more serious problems.
Warn reminisced about taking some pretty hard shots from sailing baseballs in his coaching days, including one off the bat of a future major-leaguer.
In 2000, Sycamore shortstop Clint Barmes fell into a slump and Warn aimed to pull him out. The coach offered to throw extra live batting practice to Barmes. “He hit a screaming line drive” that struck Warn in the ribs, breaking three.
Indeed, Barmes could hit and later played 12 big-league seasons with Colorado, Houston, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Kansas City. A Barmes hit, especially at the college baseball level where lively aluminum bats are used, had plenty of exit velocity, to use 2023 statistical lingo. And broken ribs, in general, hurt.
“Broken ribs are devastating,” Warn recalled. The ambulance ride to the hospital got bumpy and Warn asked the drivers if they could take a different road.
Another batting practice line drive hit Warn during a game at Wichita State, and he wound up with broken ribs and another ride to a hospital there.
“They really can’t do anything for broken ribs,” Warn said. So, he rejoined his team for the series’ remaining games.
Perhaps his most high-profile collision with a baseball happened at the pinnacle of ISU baseball history.
Warn’s Sycamores advanced to the College World Series at Omaha, Neb., in 1986. He was throwing batting practice to ISU slugger Jeff Buell. As Warn released the pitch, his follow-through left him exposed from the protective L-screen used for batting practice. Buell hit the ball, which struck Warn in the ribs. Again, three were broken.
“They told me I wouldn’t be able to suit up,” Warn said of the medical team’s recommendation.
Anyone who knows Bob Warn has to be chuckling at that statement.
His Sycamores were about to play in the College World Series at venerable Rosenblatt Stadium, home of the CWS until 2010, when Omaha’s new stadium replaced it. A historic setting. A rare opportunity for a mid-major university program. A plateau Warn and his players longed to reach.
Not suit up?
“I said, ‘I’ll be damned if I’m not standing out there at third base, even if you have to prop me up,’” Warn said.
He was out there. And though his Sycamores got eliminated with losses to Florida State and Oklahoma State, they set a standard for the ISU program to reach the highest national stage for their game, just as did ISU’s 1977 NCAA championship men’s gymnastics team, 1978-79 NCAA finalist men’s basketball team and individual NCAA champion athletes such as wrestler Bruce Baumgartner and sprinter Holli Hyche.
Thirty-seven years after that College World Series trip, the current Sycamore team — coached by a member of that ‘86 squad, Mitch Hannahs — is trying to climb the postseason ladder, too.
The Sycamores, ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams in multiple polls, beat UIC in Wednesday’s game, lifting their season record to 39-14. They should get a berth in the upcoming 64-team NCAA Tournament, regardless of the ongoing MVC Tournament’s outcome. However, the conference tournament champ gets an automatic berth, and ISU has a shot at that.
The NCAA Tournament field and sites will be selected Sunday and Monday.
Warn likes their chances.
“I think they’re coached by one of the finest coaches in the entire country,” Warn said of Hannahs. “He knows how to handle adversity, and they look to him in the right moments, and I think Mitch is the best the university could have. And, [the team members] seem to be in it for one another, and that sets up a lot of good things.”
If ISU makes the NCAA field, and hosts a regional, it would be played at Bob Warn Field from June 2-5. No doubt, Warn will be there. His stitches could be mostly healed by then.
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