If the IU baseball season wasn’t canceled, senior Cal Krueger wouldn’t have proposed to his girlfriend. At least not yet.
In late March, Krueger took his girlfriend Sarah Ackerman to his grandmother’s farm in Jasper, Indiana. Overlooking a pond, the IU senior pitched an idea, rather than a baseball. He lowered his knee instead of raising it. In his hand was an engagement ring for his girlfriend of seven years.
Soon after, the couple posed in front of a yellow cutout banner that read, “She said yes,” with coffee mugs printed with cursive “soon to be Mr.” and “soon to be Mrs.” perched in front of them.
“I’m ready for that next chapter of life,” Krueger said.
For his next stage, Krueger decided to give up something that he has never been without — baseball.
On March 12, the NCAA announced that all collegiate competitions would be canceled for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic. For winter sports, it meant wrestling championships and March Madness wouldn’t take place. For spring sports such as baseball, it meant losing more than half a season.
The IU baseball team practiced earlier that day before receiving the news that their season was over.
“It hit you like a freight train,” Krueger said.
An uncertain future became clearer March 30. The NCAA extended an extra year of eligibility to athletes in spring sports, giving seniors another chance to compete. But Krueger had already made up his mind.
“All of us, especially the seniors, are in different stages of our lives,” Krueger said.
Krueger sat down with his family and told them it was time to move on from baseball. He graduated on Friday with an exercise science degree, and IU doesn’t have the graduate program he’s looking for. If he stayed to play an extra year of baseball, he’d need to pay the tuition that wasn't covered by his scholarships for classes he didn’t need. He said he also felt like he was losing his drive in the sport, and playing time wasn’t guaranteed.
Krueger’s decision meant he would leave behind the game that has been with him his whole life. When he was less than a year old, he wobbled in the dugout of Jasper High School, where his father Blake coached. A picture of him gripping a state championship trophy hangs on the wall of the Krueger house.
When Krueger committed to IU, he didn’t know how much he’d be on the field.
“He said ‘either way I’m going to come out of it with an IU degree,’” his father said.
As it turned out, Krueger was selected to the 2017 Big Ten all freshman team. He posted a team best 2.82 ERA over 60.2 innings. He finished the year with a 5-2 record in 22 appearances, including six starts. That summer, he earned a spot in the Cape Cod League, collegiate baseball’s premier summer circuit, which is a pipeline for future draft picks.
In 2018, Krueger pitched exclusively out of the bullpen. In 27 games, he upped his wins to seven with a 3.02 ERA. He struck out 49 batters in 44.2 innings. In the summer, he traveled back to the Cape Cod league, cementing his professional aspirations.
In his junior year, Krueger helped the program transition to first-year head coach Jeff Mercer. During the season, his numbers declined, only pitching in 18 total innings. His struggles made his professional hopes seem more distant.
Krueger had worked with former professional players and knew that chasing his baseball dream would include a demanding lifestyle of long bus rides and a limited income. Only a small percentage of players would see their aspirations to play at the highest level come to fruition.
But that year he made the Big Ten all-academic team and was part of a Hoosier squad that won the regular season conference title.
That spring, Krueger remembers being wide eyed and taking in the scene at the NCAA regional in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Wow, guys,” he said. “Look what we’re able to do.”
He spent countless hours with his teammates making memories he will never forget, while also tallying a 3.75 GPA. This season, the team returned from a road trip to North Alabama at 7 a.m. Krueger had class at 9 a.m.
“When we're practicing and traveling, things can go a mile a minute," Krueger said. "I wish I could slow things down and appreciate them more.”
Krueger was on the diamond with his best friends. That’s what he’ll miss the most.
It’s over now.
Krueger is hanging up the cleats and will focus on his future with his fiance and career. His goal is to work as a personal trainer or a physical therapist. When he finds a job, his newfound time will enable him to log hours in practice and boost his resume. Eventually, he may enroll in graduate school.
Krueger’s career path seemed obvious for two reasons — he has always enjoyed exercising, and he’s invested in helping others.
When he’d come home to Jasper, Krueger would show up at local little league and upper-level practices. He volunteered in reading programs at schools. One week ago, he joined a surprise Zoom birthday party for an elementary school kid that knew Krueger growing up.
“Any kid that comes up, he’ll talk to them like he’s their best buddy,” his father said.
During the quarantine, he’s been leading his family through workouts. At home, the family only has one set of 10-pound dumbbells and one strength band, so Krueger has to get creative. He’s also been giving pitching lessons to kids.
If the Hoosier baseball season wasn’t canceled, Krueger wouldn’t have been able to plan a proposal in March. He wouldn’t have been able to shift his focus to his future beyond baseball.
“He has the best part of his life coming up,” his father said.
On the horizon is June 26, 2021. Not the date of the major league draft, but the wedding day for Cal and Sarah.
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