BLOOMINGTON — As freshman righty Gabe Bierman pitched the final three innings of Indiana’s Big Ten title-clinching win over Rutgers, the memories of his youth crept in.
Of throwing the ball as hard as he could against his grandparents' fence. Of playing catch with dad in the backyard.
Bierman lost his father, Douglas Bierman Jr., just two days earlier on May 16. Dougie, as he was known by family and friends, passed suddenly at age 49 in Elizabeth, where he owned a concrete and construction company and spent his free time fishing, golfing and watching his son play baseball.
“It was like an out-of-body experience,” Bierman said. “When I threw that last pitch and I felt like I was looking at myself, knowing that pitch he was just right there next to me.”
Like Gabe, Doug Bierman was once a promising young pitcher, a lefty who starred at Floyd Central High School and went on to pitch in college at Indiana State and Southern Indiana. But, eventually, the focus of his life shifted from his own big-league dreams to working and raising a family.
Through it all, Gabe said, his father rarely missed a chance to watch him pitch, even if it meant driving two hours each way to and from southern Indiana to Bloomington. Gabe told his father when his college career began his goal was to make him proud.
“He started coming when I was 12, and he came to almost every single game since now actually,” Gabe said. “Every time I let him know that I had a game he would always be there. It’s just like special to see him, and I love looking at him and tipping my hat because I know he’s up there, proud.”
The last time Douglas watched his son, Gabe started and threw two innings against Louisville, allowing two runs on four hits with one strikeout.
“He said I was lights out,” Gabe said. “I didn’t get to see him after the game because it ended so late. I’m pretty sure that night he got home at 2 in the morning.”
Born and raised in Jeffersonville, Gabe Bierman was recruited to IU after four standout years at Jeffersonville High, where he set school records for strikeouts in a game (15) and a season. He’s had a breakout freshman year at IU, emerging as one of the top young pitchers in the Big Ten with a 3-0 record with a 3.73 earned-run average. Earlier this month, Bierman earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors, tossing 4.1 scoreless innings with a save in outings against Kentucky and Michigan.
Bierman has taken on a variety of roles in 17 appearances, from spot starter (5 starts) to closer (1 save), while striking out 42 batters in 41 innings.
“The ability for him to be resilient and his toughness, those things have always been there,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “Obviously, for his ability to handle the last couple of weeks and for him to still be able to go out and compete, you can see the things that he’s emotionally been capable of.
“But what he’s physically done has allowed him to have a lot more success as we’ve gone. He’s gotten so much bigger and stronger. The variation of pitches, the four-seam with the sinker, obviously the change up, now with the slider addition, all of those variation of pitches is his strength and has allowed him to really be a go-to guy for us. You’ve seen us put him in the biggest situations.”
Bierman will get a chance to pitch again across the river from his hometown when IU begins NCAA Tournament regional play in the Louisville Regional on Friday at Jim Patterson Field against Illinois State. Memories of his dad, Bierman said, will continue to provide inspiration, and he’ll have a loud cheering section with his mom, five siblings and friends from Jeffersonville in the stands.
“I’m ready,” Bierman said. “It’s going to be a fun time, and I’m going to have a lot of family there supporting me. That’s all I really need is support.”
Bierman wants his father to be remembered as someone who cared about people and about his family. Often, Bierman said, his dad would set aside portions of his paychecks to different charities. Bierman said his dad looked out for others less fortunate, while looking out for his family as well.
“He loved being around us,” Bierman said. “And I promise you, if I have kids one day, I’m going to be there with them, no matter what. Just so selfless and people loved having him around. I just want to be that person.”