CHAMPAIGN — Ty Weber arrived at Illinois in June 2016 to get a jumpstart on his college baseball career.
He had just graduated from Menomonee Falls (Wis.) High School as an all-state selection. The 6-foot-4 right-hander had also just been drafted in the 34th round of the MLB draft by the Cincinnati Reds that same month.
Those successes didn’t alter the fact that Weber came in as a quiet freshman. He put in his work, but said he mostly watched his teammates from a distance rather than jumping in vocally.
That’s how most of Weber’s Illinois career progressed. He turned into a lead by example — do as I do — type player. And thrived. A regular in the Illini rotation his first three seasons, he put together his best year as a junior, going 4-3 with a 3.28 ERA and .220 batting average against in 2019.
Weber felt a change this season. He approached his senior year feeling more comfortable to do more than lead by example.
“I really felt like I could take a leadership role and help the younger kids, younger players, and give them knowledge that I could have used as a freshman,” Weber said. “I think my time at Illinois has really grown me more as a person than as a player. It’s a weird feeling looking back now and potentially saying my time is done. I’m just hoping, if that is the case, I’ll have a positive impact on many of the younger players for years to come.”
Weber’s Illinois career is in limbo. The senior right-hander might have pitched his last game in what turned out to be a rough outing in the Illini’s March 6 loss at Elon. Illinois’ season — and all remaining NCAA winter and spring sports — were canceled in response to the global health threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The abrupt end to Illinois’ 2020 season cut short what was turning into an even better season for Weber than a year prior even with the rough start against Elon. He was 2-0 with a 1.31 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 15 to two.
Illinois coach Dan Hartleb saw a shift in Weber on the mound this season. Weber was always a strike thrower. It’s why he started 14 games as a freshman and held on to that spot in the rotation for three more seasons.
This spring, though, Hartleb saw Weber begin each start with a plan to execute and get outs each and every pitch.
That growth mirrored Weber’s development as a leader.
“It’s always been one of those things when you’d say something to him about leadership it was always kind of one of those, ‘I lead by example’ type things,” Hartleb said. “This year he was a great leader. I thought our leadership this year was as good as it’s been, and a lot of that goes back to Ty and his willingness to want to lead.
“He’s not afraid to talk about things that maybe weren’t great leadership things in the past. Both vocal, the way he goes about his business and his presence. He has a great feel for people and things that are going on and things that need to be taken care of.”
That shift in leadership styles isn’t always easy. It takes a certain type of person and personality.
“The guys that lead by example, those are guys — and I’m not saying this is bad — that take care of themselves and hope people follow them,” Hartleb said. “It’s much more difficult to be vocal and challenge people and/or be willing to have a hard conversation with a group or person. Ty just has a great feel of how to navigate that. You can still be somebody’s friend, but push them or call them out and get in a situation where they’re being productive.”
Season cut short, though, Weber returned home last week to Wisconsin. He’s evaluating his future, which could include another season at Illinois should the NCAA follow through on its recommendation that spring sport athletes receive an extra year of eligibility. Playing professional baseball is still a goal, too, and Weber has put off any decision one way or the other until he has more information.
Weber is still keeping up his physical training — still throwing every day — and trying to maintain a schedule like Illinois was still in season.
“Having the mentality of acting almost if you are in season doing sort of the same routines you’d be doing right now if we were still on campus and still playing is the mindset our coaches gave us in our check-out meeting last Friday,” Weber said. “That’s the mentality that I have.”
Waiting to make a decision on his future also has put Weber in a bit of reflective mood. Thinking about his three-plus seasons at Illinois are the only baseball conversations he said he wants to have with his family at this point. He hit on the good (dueling with Texas A&M’s Bryce Miller in an Illini win last month) and the bad (unknowingly pitching in the Big Ten tournament as a sophomore while he had pneumonia).
Weber also reflected on how he wound up at Illinois in the first place. He was always going to have to leave Wisconsin if he wanted to play high-major college baseball. The state has just a single Division I program in Milwaukee.
Weber’s eventual path to Illinois after also considering Missouri, Minnesota and Iowa started with a connection in Champaign. Being fall teammates with former Champaign Central standout Jake Snider for Hitters Baseball put a rather notable dad — then-Illinois hitting coach Eric Snider — in the stands during a game in Weber’s sophomore year.
“I was pitching a game and Coach Snider was there just watching his son,” Weber said. That team also included future Illini teammates Doran Turchin and Cyrillo Watson. “He talked to me after the game and said they had interest. From there, it took off. Moments like that, I’m grateful for to have the opportunity to play here. I’m glad with my decision. If I could do it again, I would definitely come here.”
Getting to know Ty Weber
More on Illinois senior pitcher Ty Weber off the mound:
Favorite athlete: Christian Yelich
Favorite sport besides wrestling: Football
Three people I’d like to have dinner with: Jimmy Fallon, Seth Rogan, Dwight Schrute
TV show: The Office