Repeat offender

Illinois infielder Shawn Roof, known for stealing bases, poses for a picture before a game against Robert Morris College Wednesday afternoon. Roof leads the team in stolen bases for the second season in a row. Beck Diefenbach

Illinois infielder Shawn Roof, known for stealing bases, poses for a picture before a game against Robert Morris College Wednesday afternoon. Roof leads the team in stolen bases for the second season in a row. Beck Diefenbach

By Jason Grodsky

With the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, baseball players are silent, focusing intensely on the next pitch.

Except for Shawn Roof.

The Illini senior shortstop can often be seen cracking a joke or making a quirky comment during some of the most intense moments of a ball game. But that’s just the energetic, fun loving type of guy Roof is. Very rarely do you see Roof not moving or talking on the field during a game, even in clutch situations.

“He never shuts up on the field and is just a constant motor,” Illini junior second baseman Ryan Hastings said. “He is a competitor and an intense guy on the field, and is definitely one of a kind. I can confidently say there is nobody else like him.”

Roof’s constant movement and energy on the field can be attributed to what can only be described as his inner-child – and also to what he drinks.

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The Paducah, Ky., native downs close to a 12-pack of Pepsi a day according to roommate and teammate Ryan Snowden.

But Roof blames his Pepsi drinking habit on his mother, who he said was a big time Coke drinker.

“We always had it around the house and my mom used to get so mad at me when I would sneak one away,” Roof said. “I wake up and have at least two before every class, and now it’s to the point where if I don’t have one I won’t have any energy.”

Whether it’s the Pepsi that makes Roof’s motor run or something else, one thing is for sure: Once he gets going, he doesn’t stop – especially on the base paths.

As a junior last season Roof stole an Illini record 16 bases in Big Ten play and 25 bases over the course of the entire season, good enough to rank eighth on the all-time list for stolen bases in a season by an Illini.

This year Roof is well on his way to passing the mark he set last season. Roof leads the Big Ten in stolen bases and steal attempts, swiping 20 bases on 24 attempts through 28 games. He also tied the school’s single-game steals record with four stolen bases against Stephen F. Austin University on March 4.

“I’ve never been a power hitter,” Roof said. “I only had four home runs in high school and I knew my game wasn’t hitting the ball over the fence or off the wall so I know I have to take advantage of what I have.”

However, while Roof has been a lightning bolt on the bases the past two seasons, during his sophomore season then head coach Itch Jones told him that he would never be able to steal a base at the college level.

Jones’ statement only made Roof work that much harder to become what he is today.

“I took what he said into the summer and wanted to improve myself to the point where I could steal at least five bases,” Roof said. “I just came out and worked hard with coach (Eric) Snider and coach (Dan) Hartleb and they did a great job with me to the point where it is just get on and go.”

To have an opportunity to steal as many bases as Roof has during his career hasn’t been an issue.

Coming into his senior season, Roof owned a .358 on-base percentage and is third on the team this season with a .381 on-base percentage. His on-base percentage is undoubtedly helped by his unique niche of getting hit by pitches.

Roof ranks fourth on Illinois’ all-time career hit by pitch list and set a school record last season for getting hit 11 times in Big Ten play. He also owns the single-game record for getting hit by pitches, being plunked four times in four at bats against Ohio State this season.

“Ever since I began playing, I love getting hit by pitches,” Roof said. “I don’t know what it is about getting hit, but I like it. It frustrates the pitcher because when they think they may have you in a good count and you get hit, it upsets them more than anything.”

Part of the reason Roof is approaching the school record for being hit is his leadership and ability to play without fear, said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb, who credits Roof for being able to take one for the team in clutch situations at the plate.

“He’s not afraid to get hit by a ball in a big situation, he just does it to try and help the team,” Hartleb said. “I can’t say enough about Shawn and his leadership ability. He plays with great energy and makes all the players around him better.”

More impressive is Roof’s leadership off the field and around the community.

Roof is involved in both the baseball team’s kid’s club and hometown heroes. He regularly goes to schools around the area to read to classrooms.

“Kids love Shawn,” Hartleb said. “He will come over to my house for a team function and end up playing with my kids instead of worrying about what the other players are doing.”

Roof attributes his love for working with children to his high school days when he would go out and do community service by spending time with kids.

“I just feel connected with them and love their outlook on life and how they can just have a baseball and a bat and have a great time,” Roof said.

Roof’s ability to get along well with kids probably comes from his inner-child that developed from the times he spent on the ball fields playing with and watching big league players from around the country with his dad and brothers.

Ball in the family

With his father, Gene, playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Montreal Expos in the early 1980s and coaching in the minor and major leagues in the early 1990s, the Illini shortstop grew up around every facet of America’s pastime.

Being a coach’s son, Roof was closer to the game than many other kids his age growing up, and he took full advantage, watching some of the greats up close and in person – learning from their every move.

“I’ve had the chance to do a lot of things that many kids don’t get an opportunity to do,” Roof said. “I got the opportunity to be around a lot of great ball players. Being able to sit on the bench when my dad coached gave me a chance to learn a lot of the ins and outs of the game from guys that I grew up wanting to be like.”

Roof loved being on the field with his dad and dad’s players during the summer, so much that his mom would drive him and his brothers to fields all over the country to watch them play ball.

“In the summers when my dad was gone my mom pretty much became a single mom,” Roof said. “If it wasn’t for her I definitely wouldn’t have had a chance to play baseball at all.”

Thanks to his mom, Roof spent so much time on the ball field as a youngster he even lost his first tooth there while playing catch with one of his dad’s players.

But growing up a coach’s son wasn’t always just fun and games for Roof. Along with it came pressure of living up to his family name. But the pressure wasn’t from his father, it was from himself.

“There is always a little pressure growing up when you have a dad who has been around the game a lot, but my dad never put any pressure on any of us growing up,” Roof said. “He just wanted us to be successful and grow up into whatever we wanted to be. If anything I put the pressure on myself to grow up and be like him someday.”

Roof wasn’t the only one who grew up wanting to be like his father though – younger brothers Eric and Jonathon were both inspired to be ball players like their dad; as the trio grew older they pushed each other to be better players.

Although Shawn is two years older than Eric and four years older than Jonathon, there was still competition between the three growing up and there still is now, especially with Eric playing at Michigan State and Jonathon set on joining him on the Spartan squad next year.

“When we were younger there wasn’t always a lot of competition just because I was older and always a little better, but as we got older there has been and now we’re all pretty even,” Roof said. “Over Thanksgiving this year there was a little trash talking between us because Eric was saying how they were going to come in and whoop us on our own field this year.”

The friendly competitiveness between Roof brothers, along with the things he learned during his time spent on the field with his dad and brothers, have helped turn Roof into the player he is today, and led him to success not only at Illinois but also in the Coastal Plains Summer League.

Summer success

In his two summers playing in the Coastal Plains League for the Fayetteville SwampDogs, Roof was a two-time league All-Star and accumulated 61 runs with 37 RBIs and 35 stolen bases in his two years.

His accomplishments in Fayetteville landed him a spot on the summer league’s the All-Decade team, which honored the top players, by position, who have played in the CPL during its first 10 years, joining a handful of Major League players, including Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jason Dubois and Tampa Bay Devil Rays infielder Ty Wigginton.

“It’s a great honor to be named on a team with guys like Justin Verlander and guys that you watch in the big leagues on a daily basis,” Roof said. “I’ve gotten a chance to see all parts of the country that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see playing in the CPL and it’s been great to be around other players from around the country that enjoy the game as much as I do.”

Roof hopes his performances on the field with the Illini and the SwampDogs will land him a spot on a roster of a minor league affiliate, but if not he has no problem staying on at Illinois as a volunteer assistant coach.

“I would love to be picked up by a team and have an opportunity to play at the next level,” Roof said. “But up until last year I never thought about coaching until last season when coach Hartleb asked me if I would be interested in doing what coach Schultz is doing as an assistant; so that’s something I could do.”

Whether or not Roof will take the field at the next level is still to be seen. But one thing is for sure about Roof’s future, he’ll remain in the family business.

“I don’t see myself getting out of baseball,” Roof said. “I just have a feeling that sooner or later I will end up on a field somewhere being a coach some where down the line.”

Quality pitching helps Illinois