It's a gray, chilly, February afternoon, one of those days when it seems like spring might never come. But as soon as I sit down with Tom Nelshoppen, I can see the lush green outfield grass and hear the distant ping of an aluminum bat meeting ball. Nelshoppen is a baseball enthusiast, and that enthusiasm is infectious, whether he's talking about the recently-underway Illini season or the Cubs' spring training.

Nelshoppen has operated The Baseball Zealot (a "fan blog" according to his co-blogger, Teddy Ballgame) for almost four years, but his enthusiasm for Illini baseball had outgrown that site. "I covered [Illini baseball] on The Baseball Zealot," he said, "and darned if that wasn't the most fun part of writing. I thought, 'they deserve their own site.' So I created the Illinois Baseball Report (IBR) as of this year, and it's been fun."

While the Illini began their season in warmer locales (Texas and Florida), the IBR focused on analysis, delving into game recaps and pulling out interesting nuggets. But once the team heads north in mid-March, Nelshoppen's scope will expand. He attends nearly all of the Illinois baseball team's home games and snaps a lot of photos. "I think I’ve posted over 1,000 photos of the Illinois baseball team on our photo gallery," he notes, "and I’ve gotten great feedback from a lot of the parents."

While Nelshoppen isn't an official credentialed member of the media, he hasn't had any trouble getting up close to the Illini squad. "I’ve done interviews with the coach and at least two or three of the players," he said. "They’ve been really open to getting me some access to the team, and that’s been great." He adds a welcome depth to the Illini baseball coverage that's lacking from most other local media outlets.

The Illini have provided some great memories for Nelshoppen over the years, but when asked about his favorite, he didn't hesitate: "My favorite post of all time was when Illinois beat Michigan State 8–7 a year ago May," he said. "They were down 7–0 in the bottom of the fifth and came back and won 8–7. It was the best game I ever attended and my favorite post I ever wrote. I get goosebumps just thinking about it."

Between his work as an IT professional at the University of Illinois and his obligations as a husband and father, Nelshoppen's time for blogging about professional baseball is limited. "There are bloggers who get up in the morning and they start blogging and covering the news, and they do it all day until they go to bed. I’m not that kind of person," he said. "What I try to do is find the obscure news out there, the interesting, something that’s more offbeat."

He and his collaborator, Teddy Ballgame, come at things from different perspectives, as Nelshoppen is a Cubs fan and Ballgame roots for the White Sox; but they're able to find common ground and provide solid, original coverage. For example, earlier this winter they analyzed the Hall of Fame case for each of the 15 candidates. They predicted the results, and nailed inductees Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson, but they also would have included Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven, Tommy John, Mark McGwire, and Lee Smith on their ballot.

While Nelshoppen is clearly a pure baseball fan, he can't hide his love for the college game, and he has high hopes for the Illini this spring. "I think we'll do ok. I think we'll do better than people are saying," he said. "We've got some good offense, and if [sophomore pitcher] Phil Haig continues to do as well as he's doing now, their pitching will be better." He thinks that Illinois will at least qualify for the Big Ten tournament when the dust clears.

But he can't help taking a little bit of pleasure from a certain rival's failures, too. "I saw Michigan lost last night," he relates with a smile, "and that thrills me to no end."

If you're a baseball fan, add The Baseball Zealot and Illinois Baseball Report to your regular blog rotation. They'll keep you posted on baseball happenings both inside and outside of Champaign-Urbana.

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There are many tremendous bloggers in Champaign-Urbana, and this column will recognize them one blog at a time. Every other Tuesday, we’ll shine a light on a different outstanding local blog, explaining how they got started and revealing what keeps them going and where they’re headed. If you know a local blog that you’d like to see profiled in this space, send me a tip at joelgillespie [at] smilepolitely [dot] com.

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