Illini welcome Hartleb back with win
CHAMPAIGN — Shortstop Adam Walton was in the training room Sunday morning at Illinois Field, grabbing a pregame sports beverage and sandwich, when Dan Hartleb walked into the clubhouse.
It was good, Walton immediately thought, to see his head coach again after an absence of three days.
It was better, the Illini sophomore noted, to see Hartleb smiling.
Under the circumstances, that certainly wasn’t a given.
“I’m sure it was nice for him to be here and take his mind off things for a few hours,” Walton said after Illinois defeated Purdue 8-3 to clinch a Big Ten-opening series. “I’m sure it’s a really tough situation he’s going through.”
On Thursday, Hartleb returned to his hometown of Hamilton, Ohio, for the second time last week to be with his ailing father.
The elder Hartleb, also named Dan, has been hospitalized since undergoing surgery about a week and a half ago.
The 86-year-old’s status often has been touch-and-go since.
“We weren’t sure he was going to pull through that major surgery at that age,” the Illini coach said.
He did, but then the elder Hartleb experienced congestive heart failure coming out of anesthesia.
On Thursday, the younger Hartleb joined his mother and sister in making the difficult decision to take his father off a ventilator.
Then they collectively held their breath, hoping that the family patriarch could breath on his own.
“It was a window where he had a possibility of surviving, and he made it through that,” the Illini coach said. “But there’s (still) a lot of obstacles to overcome. He hasn’t been really responsive or coherent. We thought he might be starting to wake up just a little, but (it’s) not where he sees anybody or knows anybody or even know what’s going on.
“Just a tough situation.”
Barring further complications, the elder Hartleb will be moved from Fort Hamilton Hospital to a long-term rehabilitation facility.
“Hopefully we can get him in that situation and he improves a lot,” the younger Hartleb said.
While in Ohio, Hartleb’s team split the first two games against the Boilermakers.
With the aid of his iPad and the internet site GameTracker, the ninth-year Illini head coach kept play-by-play tabs on the goings-on at Illinois Field virtually in real time.
Talk about feeling helpless.
“It was brutal,” Hartleb said. “You don’t have a ton of control in the dugout, but (at least) you have a better feeling for what’s going on. (In Ohio), I had no control. So I just sat there. It passed the time, but it wasn’t fun sitting there watching GameTracker.”
With his father in stable condition, Hartleb returned to Champaign in time to rejoin his team Sunday.
It was a decision made with the blessing of his mother and sister.
“They understand,” Hartleb said. “I could sit over there for months. And they know that my thoughts are there.”
And, when he was in the dugout Sunday, understandably his thoughts weren’t always on the game
“I found myself the past two days sitting in the hospital room and thinking about what’s going on here,” Hartleb said. “I found myself (Sunday) thinking about what’s going on there.
“But we have strong faith, and it could be something that’s hours. It could be something that’s months and years. We just don’t know.”
Neither did Walton and his teammates know beforehand that their coach would be back in uniform Sunday.
His players made sure Hartleb was welcomed back in the best way possible, jumping out to a 5-0 lead in the first two innings and staying in command thereafter en route to their sixth victory in the last seven games.
“We thought he was going to be gone all weekend, so it was nice to see him back and be around the ballpark,” Walton said. “I don’t know that much about it, but obviously we’re another family for him. We’re a support system for him, so I’m sure he comes to the field every day knowing that we’re here for him if he needs it.
“It’s definitely a tough situation that no one wants to be in.”
A situation in which Hartleb knows he could be called back to Ohio at any time.
“It’s a day-to-day thing,” he said. “(I’ll) just keep my phone on and hope anything I get is positive.”