When Tanner Roark was recalled from Triple-A Syracuse a couple of weeks ago, it signified a lifelong goal achieved. At age 26, in his sixth full season of professional ball, he had finally reached the big leagues. And the way that the Nationals schedule shaped up, it meant a trip back to his home state of Illinois, with the chance to perhaps pitch at Wrigley Field, the park he grew up going to as a Cubs fan.
Roark’s brother Dillon took it upon himself to organize an outing for friends and family to see the pride of Wilmington, Ill. return home. A town of 5,757 people about 60 miles to the southwest of Chicago, Wilmington is a tight-knit community, but Dillon never expected the response to the Facebook invitation he put out a couple of weeks ago. Originally expecting just a handful of folks to make the trek, Dillon was overwhelmed when the event took on a life of its own.
By the time Wednesday night rolled around, the Wilmington faithful had filled two buses – 97 people in all – with an estimated 30-50 more caravanning in cars. In all, two to three percent of the entire town’s population, decked out mostly in Nationals red, hooted and hollered for much of the game from the right field bleachers.
“I had no idea it was going to be this big,” said Dillon after the game, standing on the street corner outside the gates, watching his brother swarmed amidst a mob of interview and photo requests.
Of course, Roark wasn’t the star of the evening simply for being on the team. While nobody could have planned it this way, he wound up entering the game in relief in the fifth inning. And while he admitted that the circumstances got to him a bit in his first inning, he escaped with the game tied 6-6.
“It was definitely nerves and adrenaline, both,” admitted Roark. “I know better, to calm myself down on the mound. To stop the hitting parade and just hit my spots.”
Roark returned to the hill for the sixth refocused and under control, striking out the top three batters in the Cubs lineup in order, sending his rooting section into a frenzy. In the top of the seventh, with two on, two outs and two strikes, Scott Hairston blasted a pinch-hit, three-run home run over the ivy-covered wall in left to put the Nationals back in front for good. In so doing, he also made Roark the pitcher of record, helping him earn the win.
Ben Stickel, one of Tanner’s friends “since they were babies,” was grinning ear-to-ear after the game, soaking in the whole experience. Having played baseball with Roark as kids, he could still barely believe what he had witnessed
“To see one of your buddies come out and step on a Major League baseball field, it just makes the story of the town,” he said. “Tanner’s a die-hard Cubs fan, ever since he’s been a little kid. A kid whose team he’s idolized his whole life, comes to Wrigley Field, steps on the mound, comes in and gets a win.”
Just the way everyone drew it up, right?