One of the hundred or so things I'd like to do on this blog is interview the people around college baseball. To that end, I asked Tom of the excellent blog, The Baseball Zealot, to participate in a little email question and answer session. In addition to following his beloved Cubs, Tom is a fan of the Illinois baseball program. Tom graciously agreed and here are the highlights of our Q & A.
BTH: How long have you followed Illini baseball?
Tom: Off and on, I’ve followed the team about 5 years and I’ve followed them more intensely the last three years. I also enjoy keeping track of the Illini alumni such as they go on to better things. I was very pleased to see that former Illini catcher Chris Robinson was traded to the Cubs organization. Word from the Illini camp is that he will start out in Cubs’ spring training and will most likely play in Single A Daytona.
BTH: Last year was Coach Hartleb's first at the helm at Illinois . While it's premature to make too many assessments based on a single campaign, what impressions did his initial season leave with you?
Tom: Hartleb was hired as head coach on the heels of a Big Ten championship and the retirement of Itch Jones, who had been head coach for 15 years.
Those were some big shoes to fill, in my opinion. On top of that, many from that 2005 championship team graduated, leaving the 2006 team with some inexperienced players.
That all said, I thought Hartleb did a fantastic job. They played .500 ball and made the Big Ten tournament.
Hartleb will be the first to share any success his team has with his coaching staff as well as his players. That seems to be how he operates. He’s not a micro-manager rather he will delegate his coaching duties to his staff. I get the sense from the players that they like that about him.
I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that 2006 was a “rebuilding” year but 2007 will definitely build on the successes of last year.
BTH: Are you pleased with the direction of the program?
Tom: Overall, I am pleased with the direction with the program. They are competitive in the Big Ten and have an eye for the future.
In addition, the Baseball program at the University of Illinois has a commitment to the local community. I see that during the off-season with their baseball clinics all the way to the last game when they call the kids on the field for a little wiffleball after the game. I don’t think that building community can ever be underestimated for any college team and I think Illinois knows that. Anyone who had any interaction with the players knows that when they meet with the public, they represent the team (and for that matter, the University) and they act accordingly. They’re a great bunch of guys.
The only thing left (other than a College World Series title, of course), is to fill more seats.
BTH: What should be the team's strength in 2007?
Tom: Coach Hartleb stresses the fundamentals. The team is full of speed (four players over ten steals in ‘06), solid defense, and they have the ability to get on base. Once they get a runner on, they know how to get him to scoring position and get him home. Call it small ball, I guess but it works for this team.
All three third-team All-Big Ten players are returning from last year, shortstop Shawn Roof, outfielder Ryan Snowden and secondbaseman Ryan Hastings. Also, thirdbaseman Mike Rohde, who always seems to find a way to get his name in the news for all the right reasons will be back.
BTH: Their potential weakness?
Tom: Losing Brian Blomquist and Matt Whitmore has got to hurt the Illini’s pitching staff a little but I’ve heard from a player that a few of the pitchers replacing them have good stuff so hopefully they know something I don’t.
Last year, power was a bit of an issue. Especially homerun power (23 to opposing 35). Losing 2006 homerun leader Dave Schultz (who will be a volunteer assistant coach in 2007) won’t help either.
BTH: Are there any newcomers we should watch for? How about returning players you anticipate having a breakout season?
Tom: Outfielder Nick Stockwell who had 7 at-bats all of last year, led all players in hitting in this fall’s Orange-Blue series. I don’t think that guarantees him a starting spot but it doesn’t hurt his chances for more playing time.
Kyle Hudson who played half the season last year but hit .375 may get more playing time in 2007. Hudson is on the Illinois football team, by the way.
Freshman catcher Joe Mercurio probably won’t steal any playing time from regular backstop Lars Davis but he’s someone to watch in the future. I sat behind home plate during the Orange-Blue Series in the fall when Mercurio was behind the plate. He’s an intense player and quick behind the plate.
BTH: What are your expectations for this year?
Tom: With a large graduating class in 2005, the 2006 team had very few returning starters and still managed to play pretty much .500 ball even in conference play. With all that, we can expect the 2007 team to be stronger and more experienced.
Will they compare with the perennial powerhouses of Michigan and Ohio State ? Time will tell. But I’m sure they’ll have fun and will give it their best shot.
BTH: I think I know the answer to this one, but I'll ask anyway. What would be a bigger thrill: The Cubs in the World Series or the Illini in Omaha ?
Tom: Let me answer this delicate question this way. My perfect season would be this: The Illini would win the College World Series, Shawn Roof would be drafted by the Cubs (where he would eventually join former teammate Chris Robinson) and the Cubs would win the World Series.
One thing is for sure. If either team made it to their respective World Series, I’d be there.
Thanks for opportunity to talk about the Illinois Baseball program and Go Illini!!
I'd like to thank Tom for participating in my very first interview. He's a great fan of the game both pro and college. The Baseball Zealot is an insightful baseball blog and Tom and the lads crank out TBZ Radio, as well. I encourage you to check out their multi-media empire. Again, thanks, Tom.