Mike Lopresti: May was a banner months for sports surprises

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Sports: Mike LoprestiMay’s over. You can tell by all the chicken bones that had to be picked up on 16th Street. A fascinating month it was, and not just at the Speedway. Sports are most interesting when you witness things unexpected or rarely seen, and do you realize how many of those just happened? Not all made headlines, but they were entertaining.

And so, an ode to May 2022:

This is the May where the stands were full again at the Speedway, but the sky was empty of balloons.

Where the irony of racing struck down Scott Dixon, who was celebrated for being the fastest man in the field but lost any chance to drink the milk because he was caught speeding down pit road.

Where Marcus Ericsson—from a town in Sweden known for its prison and its shoemaking—won a two-lap trophy dash, meaning the past five Indianapolis 500 champions have come from five different countries and four different continents. None of them North America.

And where Tony Kanaan drove his last Indy 500. Unless he hasn’t. His retirement plans are a little fluid, especially after finishing third. “It’s so lame that people think we’re old at 47, we can’t drive anymore,” he said. “It’s crap. I’m ready to do it again.” Then again, this is the Exit Era, when giants are saying goodbye. Mike Krzyzewski. Tom Brady soon. LeBron James not far away. Nick Saban, Bill Belichick, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Roger Federer. An exodus of GOATs from the stage. Nobody outraces time forever, even at 230 miles an hour.

This is the May the Boston Celtics returned to the NBA Finals for the first time in 12 years, and the pro basketball world found out that a certain ex-Butler coach and Zionsville’s own Brad Stevens is pretty smart in the front office, too. As the new president of basketball operations, Stevens picked his own replacement—Ime Udoka—as Boston coach, traded for a 35-year-old Al Horford and decided to keep Celtics stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum together when plenty of voices were telling him to split them apart. Jackpot all around. That’s his creation now going up against the Golden State Warriors. The road from those heady 2010-2011 days in Hinkle Fieldhouse keeps rising.

IndyCar driver Marcus Ericsson capped off an unusual sports month by becoming only the second Swede to win the Indianapolis 500. The first was Kenny Brack, in 1999. (Photo by Joe Skibinski, courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

This is the May that Indiana lost to Iowa 30-16. No, no, not in spring football. That was a baseball game. The Hoosiers led 13-2 after three innings, then you might say the bullpen had a bit of trouble holding the lead, given that the Hawkeyes scored 28 runs in six innings.

This is the May that, just down the road in Cincinnati, a Reds team with so many Indy customers kept breaking new ground in oddities. They started the season 3-22. They gave up no hits in a game and lost. And one of their outfielders, Tommy Pham, was suspended after slapping an opposing player—over a fantasy football argument.

8 innings, 143 pitches

This is the May that UIndy brought a national championship home to Indianapolis. Women’s lacrosse. And while a good many residents of this state would have a hard time spelling lacrosse, let alone be a knowledgeable fan … and while the championship roster included five Greyhounds from Canada, 14 from New York and New Jersey and the national player of the year from New Hampshire … they’re still Indiana’s champions.

This is the May that a Ball State pitcher was so determined to win a game for the Cardinals in the MAC Tournament, he threw 143 pitches in eight innings against Central Michigan. Alarm bells go off in the big leagues whenever a pitcher nears 100. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw was taken out in the eighth inning of a perfect game because he had thrown 80. But Tyler Schweitzer’s teeth marks were on the mound when he was finally taken out. “It was my game, and I wanted to finish it,” he would say later. “I can’t say I’ve ever seen that done before,” said Sam Klein, the reliever who closed for Schweitzer.

Alas for Ball State, this is also the May where the Cardinals were on the brink of their first MAC tournament championship in 16 years, needing only one more win over a Central Michigan team they had beaten five games in a row. Then the long-coveted NCAA Tournament bid would be theirs. It never came: the sixth time coach Rich Maloney has taken Ball State to the MAC final round, and the sixth time karma had turned on him.

One year, star pitcher Bryan Bullington—destined to be the No. 1 pick in the entire major league draft the next season—was hit in the face by a line drive on the second at-bat of the tournament. Broke a bunch of bones. Last weekend, needing one more win with two chances to get it, the best pitching staff in the league gave up 23 runs to lose twice to the Chippewas. “It’s been calamity after calamity in my career here as far as the tournament goes,” said Maloney, who has been coach of the year six times at two schools but could still make a case for the most star-crossed college coach in the state. “We’ve been so deserving so many times and haven’t gotten there. It’s been painful. It’s been painful.”

This is the May the Colts signed a Super Bowl MVP quarterback, who won’t even start. That’s how much the situation has changed in the position that has become an Indianapolis ejector seat.

Thanks again, Tommy John

This is the May that Thad Matta sought to give Butler basketball a kick-start by turning on the transfer portal faucet. Which means next season’s point guard for the Bulldogs will be a Purdue Boilermaker, and the center will probably come from North Carolina State, and the rest of the lineup might include faces from Akron and Georgia Southern.

This is the May that Indy showed how happy a town can feel about still being the place where linebackers run the 40-meter dash for time. It’s not every city that is so wired for hosting events that there are shouts of glee, “We kept the NFL combine!”

This is the May that a fastball from a Tennessee Volunteer pitcher named Ben Joyce hit 105.5 on the radar gun. Only one pitch has ever been clocked higher—105.7 by Aroldis Chapman for the Yankees six years ago. As of Memorial Day weekend, Joyce had thrown 324 pitches this season that broke 100 miles an hour, and 82 of them at least 103. What’s that got to do with Indiana? Joyce’s velocity was once in the high-90s, but he went in for Tommy John surgery and came out with a flame thrower attached to his right shoulder. Yet another career enriched by the Terre Haute native son whose elbow operation changed the history of baseball.

This is the May that Trayce Jackson-Davis decided he wasn’t going anywhere, and you know what that did for IU basketball fans on the eve of the Indy 500? Ladies and gentlemen, start your Final Four hopes.

That’s how May should be in Indiana. Comes in with baseball games, basketball decisions and Colts conjecture, goes out with a checkered flag.•

__________

Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mjl5853@aol.com.

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