Around his neck, Gabe Bierman wears a small silver baseball.
It’s a symbol of the sport he grew up with, the one that helped keep his family together through tough times.
He doesn’t take it off. He tucks it into his uniform during games, so it doesn’t fly up and break his teeth.
Every morning Gabe wakes up, holds the baseball in the palm of his hand and hopes to have a good day.
Gabe, 20, is about to begin his sophomore season as a pitcher with IU baseball. In 20 appearances as a freshman, he had a 3.56 earned run average with 46 strikeouts on his way to a 4-0 record.
After he started hanging the baseball around his neck, Gabe changed his starting routine a little bit. Before he steps on the mound for the first time in a game, he kisses the silver trinket, knowing his dad is still there with him. His dad’s ashes are inside the necklace, close against Gabe’s chest.
When Gabe spent time with his father, Douglas Bierman Jr., his favorite thing to do was getting lost in the six acres of land that was behind his home in Elizabeth, Indiana. Every time Douglas cut down trees or set up bonfires, he asked Gabe to come along.
“He was a fun person to be around,” Gabe said.
The two enjoyed things most father and sons do: sitting around a fire pit, spending time outdoors, playing catch in the yard. Douglas was a pitcher himself when he was younger. He played at Floyd Central High School and the University of Southern Indiana.
Douglas lived 30 minutes away from his son. Gabe lived with his mother, Andrea Bierman, in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Andrea and Douglas divorced when Gabe was a baby.
His father wasn’t around often when he was growing up. Douglas was a struggling alcoholic at the time, and it ruined his marriage.
He loved Gabe and his older sister Mekenzi, Andrea said. “It’s just the alcohol took over.”
As a kid, Gabe didn’t really understand what was happening with his father. He’d visit him, but Douglas wasn’t a big part of his life.
Despite being a former baseball player, it wasn’t Douglas who introduced Gabe to baseball. His grandfather, Greg May, took him to the ballpark starting when he was 6. Gabe instantly fell in love with the game.
But as he grew older, Gabe realized his father needed to change. Douglas was never at any of his games.
His grandparents were the ones taking Gabe to travel tournaments and doing everything needed for him to get the right exposure. They took him across the country, even driving to games as far as Jupiter, Florida.
Douglas didn’t get sober until 2013. After that, there was hardly a baseball game he missed.
“There was a time span where life was just different,” Andrea said. “The bond they built once he became sober was a very good, close relationship. The one he always wanted to have with his dad.”
When Gabe entered high school, he began to show potential. He was a key part of the rotation at Jeffersonville High School as a freshman and caught the eye of then-IU head coach Chris Lemonis.
He visited IU in the middle of his freshman year, and he knew instantly it was where he wanted to be. Gabe verbally committed that summer.
As Gabe headed into his freshman year as a Hoosier, the coaching staff completely changed. Lemonis accepted the head coaching position at Mississippi State University and Jeff Mercer became IU's coach.
Gabe wasn’t worried about it. He knew Mercer from his stint at Wright State University and the success that followed him everywhere. This was still the place Gabe wanted to be.
The 103 miles between IU and Jeffersonville gave his family the opportunity to visit him whenever they could. Gabe wanted them to always be able to see him play.
His relationship with his father was the strongest it had ever been as he started his collegiate career. A group of 9-10 of his family members would try to attend every IU home game, even if Gabe wasn’t playing.
The baseball games became a family event. They would all caravan or carpool to the games when possible. Gabe and baseball brought both sides of his family together.
Douglas would stand up toward the top of the stands to the right of home plate. It was just a few rows behind Andrea and the rest of his family. Not next to her but close enough Gabe could see them both. Douglas was a rambunctious parent at baseball games.
Every time Gabe would pitch, Douglas would yell from the stands: "ROCKET FIRE."
He knew each pitch that was coming. Douglas saw himself in Gabe on the mound — the only difference between them as pitchers was their throwing hands.
“He definitely inherited his dad’s talent,” Andrea said. “Dougie felt it, seen it, said it. He just was fascinated. He was saying all the stuff he was doing. He was amazed. He said, ‘I see him going and walking where I wanted to be.’”
In the spring, Gabe earned his first recognition as a collegiate athlete. He threw 1.1 scoreless innings against the University of Kentucky and three days later had three perfect innings at Michigan.
Douglas didn’t make the trip to the May matchup with Michigan, but he watched it back home. Not being there didn't dampen his excitement. While watching his eight-strikeout performance against the Wolverines, the best outing Gabe had ever pitched, Douglas texted Andrea about what he was seeing.
“HE JUST DID SOME MAJOR LEAGUE SHIT THERE!”
Gabe was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week after the performance. When he found out about his award, Gabe sent a picture to his dad with the announcement. Douglas was the first person he could think of telling.
“Bad Assss!” his dad texted back. “Your my MVP everyday buddy. Congratulations !!”
One day after earning his award, Gabe pitched two innings against the University of Louisville.
It was a home game for IU, and Douglas wasn’t going to miss it. Louisville was ranked No. 7 in the country and provided another opportunity for Douglas to see his son.
Normally after games, Gabe spends time with his family catching up, but that night's game lasted nearly five hours.
Douglas had to get home because he had to work early the next day at the concrete and construction company he owned. The two didn’t have much of a conversation after the final inning. Douglas hugged Gabe and told him how proud he was of him and that he loved him. They said their goodbyes.
Next on the schedule was Rutgers for the final Big Ten series of the season. His family planned to come up for the three games over the weekend.
Game one was set to begin that evening and for Gabe, the gameday began like any other. He spent two hours hanging out with his friends on the couch watching TV. He was staying at his friend’s house because he moved out of his freshman dorm the week prior.
His family likes to get to Bart Kaufman Field an hour or two before the game. It’s enough time to socialize and get to their seats before the first pitch.
Around 1:30 p.m., Gabe received a phone call from his grandfather asking to meet at the field. Gabe was confused because it was nearly five hours before the game was scheduled to start.
After Greg wouldn’t tell him what was going on, Gabe decided to call his grandmother to try to figure out what was happening.
All she would tell him was to meet up with his grandfather.
Greg, who was on a fishing trip that morning in Loogootee, Indiana, was the closest family member to Gabe at the time.
By the time Gabe made his way to the stadium parking lot, his grandfather was already sitting there. Greg got out of his car and stood at his grandson’s Chevy Trailblazer.
Gabe had the door open and his grandfather leaned over with his arm pressed against the car. It was difficult for Greg to put together the words. It was the most difficult thing he’d ever had to tell his grandson.
Douglas had a heart attack that morning while pouring concrete and collapsed. He died with his ticket to the upcoming Rutgers game in his wallet just two days after he last saw Gabe. He was 49.
“I didn’t see any of this ever happening to me,” Gabe said. “My dad always told me, ‘Yeah I’m healthy, I’m feeling good.’”
Gabe called his mother. She told him yes, it was true. He began to cry, and his grandfather hugged him in the parking lot. After a few minutes, Gabe walked the few feet into the IU clubhouse. The coaching staff was waiting for him.
The first person he saw was Mercer. Gabe didn’t say a single word. He hugged him and cried.
“Why is this happening to me?” Gabe asked.
“You can’t do that to yourself,” Mercer told him.
With the Rutgers series set to begin in a couple of hours, Mercer told Gabe to take some time away from the field by himself and think things through. After the staff told the team what happened, Gabe went up and hugged each of his teammates.
Gabe called his family and said he wanted them to be there with him. He ultimately showed up to the game 45 minutes before it started and went through his normal warmups. He sat with his team in uniform for the first two games of the series but didn’t play. He wanted to be with his team.
Gabe wanted to show his team he was strong, that losing his father didn’t affect his place on the team. He just wanted to play baseball. He knew that's what his father would've wanted.
“Everything worked where he has great support there at IU,” Andrea said. “He feels at home. It helps him get through each day having people around him, supporting him.”
Gabe expected to play two days later. Earlier that morning, he told the coaching staff not to hesitate to put him in. IU won the first two games a combined 18-9 without him.
A win in the final matchup would secure the Big Ten regular season championship for IU.
“We weren’t really planning on using him or putting him in that situation,” IU pitching coach Justin Parker said.
Gabe sat in the bullpen, waiting for his opportunity. He was waiting to hear his name but wasn't sure he would.
Thoughts of his dad kept creeping back into his mind. He took deep breaths and tried to stay focused.
With IU leading 8-3 heading into the seventh inning, Gabe entered the game. As he jogged out to the mound, he cleared his mind. All he needed to do was secure nine outs to clinch the title.
At that moment, he knew everything was going to be all right. All he had to do was play the game he loved.
The coaching staff paid close attention to him. They wouldn’t hesitate to pull him if he got himself into a bad situation.
In between each inning, Parker looked Gabe straight into his eyes, nodded, smiled and told him to finish it.
“You could see this is what he wanted,” Parker said. “He wanted the ball; he wanted the game. He could kind of feel it, we could feel it as a club.”
The ninth inning came around. One more out, and they were champions.
Gabe threw a fastball toward the middle of the plate and caught the batter looking. When the strike was called, he turned around, clenched his right hand, pounded his chest and screamed in celebration. His team sprinted toward him.
After the team dog-piled on top of him, he ran over to his mother and hugged her. Gabe then handed her the baseball he threw for the final out. She said they would give it to Douglas to hold in his casket.
“You just knew his dad was out there with him. You just knew.”
— Andrea Bierman
Gabe attended his father’s visitation three days after he won the regular season title. Nearly 500 people came and went, but Gabe never left the casket's side.
During the viewing, his family put Gabe’s IU logo baseball hat on Douglas along with the game ball.
When Andrea was setting up the funeral, Gabe thought of the idea for a necklace to carry Douglas’ ashes. He wanted to always have his father with him. Gabe was gone for a month playing summer baseball and his family surprised him.
His sister Mekenzi had the idea to separate the ashes among five marble-sized silver baseballs. Gabe, Andrea, Mekenzi, his brother Myles and his stepmother Molly each wear one around their necks.
Gabe decided to put the baseball on his chain that already held a silver cross.
From time to time, Gabe looks at his necklace or his text messages and remembers his father. He believes his father would be proud of the person he’s become, and the baseball player he hopes to be.
When IU takes on Louisiana State University on Feb. 14, it will mark the beginning of the first full season Gabe is set to play without his father. Every time he steps on the mound for the Hoosiers, he just wants to throw some rocket fire.
"He kind of looked at me and I kind of looked at him like we were a duo," Gabe said. "We were kind of the same person, but we weren’t going down the same paths.”
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