Leistikow: Hawkeyes lose game, but fans win the day

Chad Leistikow

OMAHA, Neb. — The official result was an 8-7 loss and the end of a baseball season for Iowa.

But that doesn’t tell the full story of what happened Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park.

What happened was thousands of people wearing black and gold poured into downtown Omaha, sending ticket-window lines around the block — in two directions.

At least 90 percent of the 10,530 here Sunday were proud Bumblebees.

This wasn’t a football game, but it felt like it.

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“I-O-W-A!” rang out from the stands like it was the middle of October at Kinnick Stadium.

Some said the line for beer (yes, they sold beer) took as long as 45 minutes.

I wouldn’t be surprised. Remember the Hawkeye-fan takeover that happened in Indianapolis for the Big Ten football title game?

The feeling here was similar, on a smaller scale: passionate fans, going all-out for their team — and seeing a heartbreaking finish.

Iowa fans lined the base lines all the way to the outfield fence at TD Ameritrade Park on Sunday. Attendance was 10,530.

The Hawkeyes lost to Michigan State in football with less than a minute to go. They lost to Ohio State in baseball by a ninth-inning run.

“I knew they would be here,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “I just really feel disappointed we weren’t able to find a way to win that game for them.”

I used Twitter to ask fans about 10 minutes after the game: Was the trip worth it?

It’s an unscientific poll, sure. But none of the dozens of respondents regretted making the trip.

And that was consistent with what I saw Sunday: Hawkeye fans having fun.

One user said, “Worth the 5.5-hour drive, 30-minute wait in ticket line, and constant sweat.”

Another said, “So worth it even though it feels just like Indy. In both cases the team did the unexpected. In both cases so worth seeing.”

Someone else reached out to me, too. Nick Hibbing, the pitching star of the Hawkeyes’ NCAA Regional run a year ago, was in attendance — this time as a fan.

Sunday, he saw the fruits of what he helped build. We exchanged messages about what he was feeling.

“It was incredible to watch these guys battle, not just today, but all week long,” Hibbing told me. “That’s what Iowa baseball will be known for, from coach Heller’s first day on campus. They never give up.”

Hibbing remembered playing at regionals last year in Springfield, Mo., not only trying to beat a top-10 team but overcome the energy of 5,000-plus opposing fans.

“We were in a hostile environment last year traveling to Missouri State,” Hibbing said, “and it was really cool to see Iowa fans turn the table this year and come out in waves.”

In other words, Hawkeye baseball is still climbing.

That's something notable for a program that for decades was lucky to draw a few hundred fans. The Hawkeyes experienced 15 losing seasons out of 17 until Heller was hired three years ago.

Iowa lost the game Sunday. But the program won.

Amid disappointment, Iowa’s seniors found solace in that Sunday.

“I knew something was going to change with this baseball program,” said Tyler Peyton, a Grimes native who was taken in last year’s MLB Draft but elected to come back for another year under Heller. “I think we’ve shown that the last three years here at Iowa.”

Heller remembers turning fans away at Duane Banks Field last year because there wasn’t enough capacity to hold the biggest crowds.

Plans exist for what a new stadium in Iowa City would look like.

A big donor is needed to make that happen. Heller’s working on that.

Sunday helped his cause. The turnout here showed there’s a continued appetite for a successful Iowa baseball product — that 2015 wasn’t a one-year wonder.

The trick now is to keep winning.

Seniors like Peyton, Joel Booker, Calvin Mathews and Nick Roscetti did their part.

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“They left a lot for the guys coming down the road,” Heller said, “and that’s what we need to have happen every year in the program.”

If you build it, people will come. “It” being a winning program, of course.

And someday, maybe more.

“Hopefully in the next couple years we’ll have a shovel in the ground,” Heller said, “and a new stadium.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.