News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 21, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Midwest baseball fans flock to Valley tourney

TERRE HAUTE — As a major sporting event — the Missouri Valley Conference Baseball Championship — began to unfold in Terre Haute this week, a familiar question cropped up.

What’s there to do in this town?

Well, there’s a pretty darned good baseball tournament being played here at a pretty darned good ballpark — the national pastime, top-caliber teams led by a cluster of potential future big-leaguers, warm sun and green grass.

It’s a competition that hasn’t taken place in Terre Haute since “Dallas” and “Three’s Company” topped the TV ratings. That’s special.

Many of the out-of-towners who came to the city to watch their favorite MVC team consider the tournament itself reason enough to be here. Their outlook offers Terre Haute a healthy reminder. While the quest for quality-of-life amenities such as trails, Wabash River enhancements and after-hours vitality downtown absolutely must continue to gain momentum, the community should also remember the existing elements that appeal to visitors.

The MVC Tournament fans like wall-to-wall baseball. They’ll get their diamond fix in Terre Haute for the first time since 1982. The university earned the bid over perennial host Wichita State and others, made significant upgrades to its Bob Warn Field to accommodate the annual eight-team, double-elimination tournament and delivered an all-hands-on-deck effort by its staff to make it happen. A handful of athletic department employees actually slept at the stadium overnight Monday in preparation for Tuesday’s opening round.

The university deserves the credit from the community for pursuing the event. Terre Haute should hope the hometown college earns the bid to do so again in the future.

This is one of those “things to do” frequently asked for by bored high school kids, students on the local college campuses, and corporate scouts considering locating a business here.

Terry and Darlene Elam travel long distances to watch their son, Cale, pitch for the Wichita State Shockers. They drove nine hours from their home in Oktaha, Okla., to Terre Haute, arriving Monday. The next morning, they rose early to watch Cale and his teammates face Illinois State, which turned out to be a 6-0 Shockers loss. Wednesday morning, the Elams were back out at ISU’s sun-drenched Bob Warn Field to see Wichita play Evansville in the loser’s bracket of the eight-team, double-elimination tournament.

Their spot in the first-baseline bleachers at BWF (Bob Warn Field) suited them fine. The ballparks are the centerpiece of their road trips.

Asked what they hope to find in a town they visit, Darlene, an administrative supervisor back in Oklahoma, said, “Just nice places to stay and nice places to eat. I’m pretty much a ballpark rat, and I don’t do much shopping.”

The tournament impressed her husband, Terry, a teacher and coach. “Everything has been real first-rate as far as I’ve seen — the way it’s ran and all those intangibles,” he said.

Fans of the Shockers’ opponents, the Evansville Purple Aces, congregated in the third-baseline bleachers. Behind sunglasses, Linda Pollock sat watching her son, Aces catcher Kyle Pollock, having driven from Clinton, Ohio — a small town near Canton. Like the Elams, Pollock hit town Monday, watched her team lose Tuesday and returned to ISU’s stadium on North First Street as the sun climbed in the eastern sky Wednesday morning. Her sightseeing zeroes in on baseball.

“To be honest with you, we don’t tour the towns much,” Pollock said. “We spend time socializing with our son, usually at the hotel, because we don’t get to see him that much.”

Wednesday’s 9 a.m. game was do or die for Wichita and Evansville. A loss meant one team would head home. “We really do hope to stay up through Saturday,” Linda Pollock said, “if the pitching holds out. We hope to see more of the town.”

Her wish looked possible in the bottom of the eighth inning. Her son smacked a two-run homer to tie the score at 6-6, and she captured his home-run trot on the video camera in her iPad. But the Shockers — the defending champions — struck back with two runs in the ninth and won 8-6.

As with Pollock, the defeat meant Bob and Darlene Kern would be leaving Terre Haute earlier than hoped. They traveled from Galloway, Ohio, just west of Columbus, to see their grandson, Tyler Miller, an Evansville senior, play for the Aces. Bob, a retired policeman, and Darlene, a retired banker, reached Terre Haute on Monday. They’d been here three years ago when Tyler was a freshman. Each time they make a repeat visit, they try to hit favorite spots. Here, they planned to dine at Rick’s Barbecue on East Wabash. The Pollocks also took a short drive through the downtown, and spotted some of the historic houses of worship.

“Terre Haute is a very friendly town,” Darlene Kern said. “It’s very easy to get around, and I like the churches.”

While Evansville and Wichita State dueled Wednesday, Missouri State fans Steve and Lois Cheray watched in the right-field bleachers. They drove seven hours from Topeka, Kan., to see their son, Eric Cheray, catch for the MSU Bears.

And to catch the other MVC games, too.

“We don’t go out a whole lot, other than to eat,” Lois said of their road trips. “We’re not looking for entertainment — that’s what the baseball is. That’s why we came here early today.”

ISU wants to host future MVC baseball tournaments, as Athletic Director Ron Prettyman affirmed Wednesday. Terre Haute should put that priority on its “to-do” list, too.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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