By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa Sports Information Department calls it Hellerball and this phenomenon was on display before a large and appreciative fan base on Sunday at Banks Field.
Okay, phenomenon is probably an exaggeration, but the results from Hellerball have been close to it.
And that was never more apparent than on Sunday when Iowa catcher Tyler Cropley launched a ball into orbit to defeat Big Ten leader Michigan with a walk-off home run that will be remembered forever by those who were fortunate enough to have seen it person.
Banks Field was energized after Sunday’s 7-5 come-from behind victory that improved Iowa’s record to 26-14 overall and 9-7 in the Big Ten. Many of the fans hung around after the game to rejoice and marvel over what they had just witnessed.
Cropley’s blast was the latest in a growing list of milestone moments and pivotal victories that have occurred since Rick Heller was hired to coach the Iowa baseball team shortly after the end of the 2013 season.
The 54-year old Heller has turned a program that languished in mediocrity for years into a Big Ten contender.
Four consecutive 30-win seasons, a Big Ten Tournament championship in 2017 and two NCAA Tournament appearances highlight what Heller has accomplished in his first four seasons as head coach.
His current squad is poised for another 30-win season heading into Tuesday’s game against Missouri at Banks Field.
A third trip to the NCAA Tournament is also well within reach, thanks to Hellerball.
But what exactly is Hellerball besides a promotional phrase?
I asked that question to Ray Gilmore, who sort of grew up around the Iowa baseball program, first as a bat boy under Duane Banks in the 1980s then as official scorekeeper and now as the public address announcer for home games.
Gilmore paused for a few seconds before giving his version of Hellerball.
“You’re going to play hard one-hundred percent of the time,” Gilmore said. “You’re going to go out on the field knowing you’ve got a great chance to win and you’re going to take the extra base when it’s there, you’re going be locked in all the time."
Gilmore described Hellerball as more of a mindset than a strategy or style of play.
“I think so, that’s what my belief of it is,” Gilmore said.
Belief is a big part of it.
The Iowa players believe they can win because Heller builds that confidence and creates an environment in which winning becomes part of the culture.
Heller created that same winning culture for his alma mater Upper Iowa University and for Northern Iowa and Indiana State as he climbed the coaching ladder.
“I think it’s just he knows how to win,” Gilmore said. “He’s won at places that a lot of people can’t win at.
“He just instills a belief, and the players that were here when he came in bought into it right away because they knew he had won. It’s just the whole coaching staff has instilled the belief; you have the ability, we’re just going to let you play. He believes in the guys and I think that’s a lot of it.”
Heller is always quick to praise his assistant coaches because he knows Hellerball wouldn’t work without help from associate head coach Marty Sutherland, assistant coach Desi Druschel, volunteer coach Sean More and Director of Baseball Operations, Nic Ungs.
Gilmore said the staff has a great chemistry that trickles down to the players.
"They just all seem to enjoy each other and the team always comes first," Gilmore said. "Rick has a lot of respect for his assistant coaches and that helps to create a winning enviornment."
Of course, winning helps to build chemistry, but Heller took over a program in 2014 that hadn’t won anything significant for years, and yet, the players still embraced his message and the turnaround was immediate.
Iowa’s style of play under Heller is sort of hard to describe because his teams do whatever it takes to win.
His teams can hit for power as demonstrated so brilliantly by Jake Adams last season when he led the nation with 29 home runs. But they also can manufacture runs and rely on defense, aggressive base running and pitching to win games.
What doesn’t change is Heller’s approach to the moment. No matter the circumstance, his glass is always half full.
Heller doesn’t dwell on defeats or fester in the misery of losing. He just moves on to the next challenge, and that was never more apparent than this past Saturday after Iowa had lost to Michigan 10-2 in the second game of the three-game series.
To say that Iowa performed poorly on Saturday would be putting it mildly.
And it continued on Sunday when Iowa fell behind Michigan 5-0 after just an inning-and-a-half in the rubber match.
But instead of unraveling, the team chipped away at the lead and turned what looked like a sure defeat into an incredible win that clinched the series.
Gilmore credits Heller for pushing the right emotional buttons when the players were upset and frustrated after Saturday’s loss.
“He’s positive all the time,” Gilmore said. “Even after Saturday’s game, I’m sure he didn’t get after the guys too bad. Instead, it was reinforced that today is another day, get rid of it and we’ve got another day to play.
“That’s just the way he is. He doesn’t get negative, and I think that’s a lot of it.”
Heller’s optimistic approach has been tested this season by the weather, by injuries and by some tough circumstances on the field, like trailing Michigan by five runs on Sunday.
“That’s definitely something coach talks about, we’re going to battle adversity all year,” Cropley said after Sunday’s victory.
Another key to Heller’s success, according to Gilmore, is that Heller doesn’t micro-manage his players.
“He gives the players freedom, but if somebody gets out of line, he will put the hammer down,” Gilmore said.
And speaking of the players, their talent is arguably the biggest key to Hellerball because coaching and attitude only go so far.
With players like Cropley and right fielder Robert Neustrom and pitchers Nick Allgeyer and Zach Daniels, Heller has surrounded himself with enough talent for Iowa to be a legitimate contender.
He has made Iowa baseball relevant again, and that’s why Big 12 power Oklahoma State is coming to Iowa City for a three-game series on Friday through Sunday.
These are funs times for Iowa baseball fans because there is nothing more enjoyable than winning.
And when you think of Hellerball, winning is the first thing that should come to mind.