By Blake Baxter
This is the first story of a summer series on rising senior student-athletes at Eureka College.
EUREKA, Ill. — Jimmy Peterson starts every baseball game the same way, but no one has noticed until recently.
Peterson, an extraverted 21-year-old who just finished his junior season at Eureka College, is a versatile player who can fill just about any role on the diamond. He played seven positions for the Red Devils this spring, spending time in the infield, on the mound and behind the plate. But more times than not, he's in the lineup as an outfielder.
Whether he's stationed in left, right or center, Peterson always makes his way to the warning track and finds a space for his pre-game ritual. Bending down, he takes a finger and writes the letters "AJ" in the dirt, draws a cross and says a short prayer to himself.
Then, having paid tribute to the departed friend he'll never forget, he turns his attention to the game that will forever bond them together.
It's been nearly seven years since Peterson learned that Andrew J. "AJ" Hanlin had died in the hospital following a car accident in McLean County. It's felt like both an eternity and a flash since then, but the memories of their shared experiences remain bright and vivid in Peterson's mind.
"He would always come up to you after the game and give you a hug and say 'Awesome game,'" Peterson said, recounting one with a smile. "Say you were 0-for-4: 'Great game, you know, you looked like you were right on it, you just barely missed.' He'd be positive.
"He was such a good kid. And that's one thing that will never fade from anyone's memories: how good of a kid AJ was."
. . .
Peterson and AJ were friends before they were even in kindergarten. AJ lived in Heyworth, Illinois, and Peterson lived in a subdivision just outside of town. By the time they were old enough, Peterson would ride his bike over and the two of them would meet up at AJ's house to ride around together.
When they weren't trying to impress each other by jumping off small ramps and pretending they were BMX bikers, Peterson and AJ were playing catch or just hanging out, goofing off, being kids.
Baseball, above all else, was what they had in common. They both became passionate about the game at an early age and spent enough time playing to develop some talent. AJ's family affectionately nicknamed Peterson "Baseball Jimmy."
"We were never on the same team," Peterson said of youth baseball. "From what I've been told, it was a draft and all the coaches picked their kid first. That was the gimmie round. And then the first two picks off the board were always me and AJ.
"We always played against each other and just practiced with each other on the side."
Aside from their shared interests and years of friendship, there was another reason Peterson particularly treasured his relationship with AJ. In middle school, he was often picked on and excluded by kids his age. He didn't have a lot of friends, but with AJ, he had someone close by that he always knew he could depend on to look out for him.
"He knew that I didn't get treated the best by my classmates," Peterson said. "He knew I got bullied at Heyworth. He always had my back. He was always there to save me.
"AJ was always that guy that I could turn to."
Over time, though, it became clear that AJ's familiar comfort and protection couldn't outweigh the trauma Peterson had to regularly endure at school. After an incident that escalated from standard schoolyard ridiculing to active threat of his personal safety, Peterson's mother pulled him out of Heyworth to be home-schooled in Bloomington.
As a result, Peterson and AJ didn't get to see each other as frequently anymore. He didn't have a cell phone or social media yet, so it wasn't easy to keep in touch. Their interactions were limited for the next few years. Peterson would stop by AJ's house when he was in town from time to time, but they were far removed from being everyday companions.
Still, there was always the possibility hanging in the air that their travel baseball schedules would collide sometime. And it happened in the summer of 2014 when Peterson was 14.
His travel team, the Twin City Xplosion, was in Heyworth for a tournament and ended up playing against the hometown club. For Peterson, it was a brief but memorable reunion with AJ and some other former friends and teammates from the past.
He remembers lining up for the national anthem and looking at all the familiar faces, and then hearing them giggle and joke around with him when he came up to bat at the beginning of the game.
Peterson got on base and worked his away to third and saw AJ.
"Instantly, he gives me a high five, gives me a hug and goes 'How are you?'" Peterson said. "We start joking around. I actually lifted up the back of his shirt to mess with him. We were joking around like that all game."
When it was over, Peterson and AJ caught up for a little bit and then parted ways, heading to their next game. It's a memory that Peterson says will always stay with him.
"That," Peterson said, "was probably the most fun experience I've ever had playing baseball."
. . .
A few months after that gleeful meeting on the diamond, AJ was riding in the passenger seat with a classmate one afternoon when their vehicle was hit by a pick-up on U.S. 51 at McLean County Road 100 North.
At 12:02 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2014, Andrew J "AJ" Hanlin passed away at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal. He was only 15 years old.
Peterson vividly remembers the moment he found out what happened. He had just gotten home from being out somewhere and his mom said to him "Sit down, I need to tell you something. There's been an accident in Heyworth."
"It's the weirdest thing," Peterson said. "For whatever reason, my mind went straight to AJ. I knew. I don't know how I knew, but I knew.
"I remember just sitting down and crying. I remember not knowing what to feel."
Peterson felt an urge to reach out to old friends and people who knew AJ, but he didn't know who to talk to or how to contact them. And, along with overwhelming grief, Peterson says he remembers feeling a sense of responsibility. He desperately wanted to know when the funeral was so he could honor him in whatever way he could.
"'I've got to go,'" Peterson said was his thought at the time. "'I can't miss this. He saved me growing up. He was my source of safety when I was at school, because I had such a bad time there. He was that guy that I could go to at any time. I remember thinking, 'All right, I've got to be there now.'"
The funeral happened to fall near Peterson's 15th birthday. Soon after getting his learner's permit, he drove to the Heyworth Christian Church for the visitation and memorial service. His first experience driving out of town couldn't have come under more tragic or surreal circumstances.
When it was his turn to express his condolences to the family, Peterson remembers AJ's mom saying "Oh, Baseball Jimmy, I'm so happy you're here." He asked her if it would be okay with her if he wore AJ's baseball number, No. 50, in his honor.
"Part of my coping was coming up with the idea and getting excited about asking his mom if I could wear his number at the funeral," he said. "I remember thinking 'I need to do this.' And that helped me being able to accept it."
. . .
For Peterson, baseball has always been an escape.
It was there when he needed to evade bullies, and it was there when he had to process unimaginable loss. He found solace in the familiar routine, a sense of control in his observable progress over time.
"I went out and hit," Peterson said. "I had a net and a tee and a bucket of balls. I'd go hit five, six buckets a day in one afternoon and go back later that night after dinner.
"I would just hit and hit and hit."
Peterson first fell in love with the game at a young age. Growing up, he spent a lot of time at his grandparents' house and he remembers baseball was on their TV a lot. It drew him in, and as soon as he started playing himself, he was hooked.
A constant element of his adolescence, the game is what connects the enthusiastic youngster in Heyworth to the accomplished student-athlete at Eureka College today. His baseball journey hasn't been a particularly straightforward one.
Being home-schooled, Peterson wasn't able to compete in high school baseball. Although the Illinois High School Association doesn't prohibit home-schooled students from participating, McLean County Unity District No. 5 didn't consent to it. Consequently, the boy who had been nicknamed "Baseball Jimmy" had to settle for the travel ball circuit.
Wearing No. 50 on his back every step of the way, Peterson bounced around from club to club, honing his skills and learning nuances of the game.
It gave him the opportunity to play against various levels of competition, but it wasn't the best way to gain exposure to college coaches. Peterson eventually realized that if he wanted to play college ball, he would have to make it happen.
"I started being proactive and creating recruiting profiles and all that when I was 16 or 17," Peterson said. "Going into my senior year, I still didn't have any offers, so I reached out to a close mentor from the (club team the Central Illinois) Legends and said 'I need help with this, can you help me?'"
After contacting Randy Wittenburg, his mentor quickly came through by helping get his name and statistics out to some college coaches he knew. Within a few days, several campus-visit offers had come in. And by December of that year, Peterson was ready to make his choice and commit to Monmouth College.
. . .
Peterson never got much of a chance to demonstrate his talent on the field at Monmouth. As a freshman, he appeared in one game, made one putout and had one at-bat. As a sophomore, he didn't make any appearances and the season was cut short by COVID-19.
He wouldn't transfer to Eureka College until fall 2020, but he'd been thinking about it since after his freshman year. He had played for EC assistant coach Dave Lingle in club ball so he had a connection to the program.
After the pandemic wiped out the majority of Peterson's sophomore season, he reached out to Lingle and he put him in touch with EC head baseball coach Jerry Rashid.
He ultimately decided that Eureka College gave him the best chance to get back on the field and succeed.
"Forever grateful for everything I learned there (at Monmouth)," Peterson said. "But at the end of the day, I didn't feel like that was the best fit for me. So, I left, and I'm here where I believe I'm in a much better fit."
Peterson went on to make 128 plate appearances over 31 games in his first season with the Red Devils.
He batted leadoff and recorded a slash line of .307/.383/.412 with team-leading totals of 35 hits, 22 runs scored and 18 runs batted in. He also notched four doubles, two home runs and one triple while drawing 11 walks and swiping four bases.
At the plate, he recorded nine multi-hit games and ended the regular season with his first four-hit performance and triple of his collegiate career in a 12-2 victory at Blackburn on May 5. In the field, he racked up 57 putouts and two assists in 62 chances for a .952 fielding percentage. As a relief pitcher, Peterson threw 11 2/3 innings in six appearances and recorded 10 strikeouts.
On May 13, after Eureka hung with top-seeded and No. 2 nationally-ranked Webster in the opening game of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament, Peterson was named First Team All-SLIAC as a utility player.
Still, Peterson would push back on any assertions that he had a strong season; he would characterize it as "decent." He still sees flaws in his game that he wants to correct over the next year. The weekend he struggled at the plate in a four-game series against Webster stands out to him more than his four-hit performance against Blackburn.
"It's obviously an honor," Peterson said. "It's something I'm happy about and that I take great pride in – I've always taken great pride in being able to play multiple positions – but at the end of the day, I know there's a lot more work I want to do. There's a lot more work that I got to get done."
. . .
There was one game this season when Peterson's pre-game ritual was disrupted by circumstances beyond his control.
The Red Devils were playing on the road on a gray afternoon against Iowa Wesleyan in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. The field was wet. It had been raining before the game and a thunderstorm would later send the team home early.
Due to the timing of when the tarp was taken off the field and the rush to get the game in before the rains came, Peterson didn't have time to get to the warning track.
Since he was the first batter of the game, he decided to take a moment to perform his tribute to AJ in the on-deck circle. For the first time of the season, one of his teammates, senior pitcher Jared Smith, noticed and asked what he was doing.
Peterson was happy to finally break the silence and share with someone on his team what that tribute meant to him.
"That's awesome," Smith said and gave him a fist bump before Peterson stepped back on the diamond for another game.
Nearly seven years since his passing, Peterson still thinks of AJ as one of the best people he has ever known. Looking back, he deeply admires the humility and kindness that his friend radiated at such a young age.
Due to jersey sizes, Peterson wasn't able to wear No. 50 this season. Instead, he donned a gold chain with a "50" talisman on it to complement his ritual.
Peterson says he's not the only one who makes tributes to AJ. There are other friends and former teammates of his who have worn No. 50 in sports to honor and emulate him.
"It's what we do," Peterson said. 'We honor him in almost whatever way we can. He was such a nice kid. He was very respectful. If my kids grow up and are half of what AJ was, I'll be a successful father. He was that awesome of a kid."