The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that was good and that could be good again. … They’ll watch the game, and it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.
James Earl Jones (as Terrence Mann)
Field of Dreams
Oak Park and River Forest High School is the state champion in baseball. It’s particularly sweet since they weren’t expected to win it all this year (finishing third in their conference) and because they disposed of their archrival, Lyons Township (the defending state champ), winning on a walkoff single in the last half of the last inning.
It’s all the sweeter for these two villages because baseball (and softball) is our municipal sport. That isn’t true everywhere. Football has eclipsed baseball as the country’s national pastime. It more accurately reflects how our culture has evolved — violent conflict, hyper-competition, racing against the clock, power over finesse — but in these burgs, baseball reigns.
The game is one of the deep currents that run through us and make us who we are. This time of year, a T-ball contest can be found almost every evening and weekend on schoolyard diamonds and in the parks. The process gets more selective as our kids get older — Mustang, Jr. Bronco, Shetland, Bronco, Pony — but T-ball remains our testament to egalitarianism. Talent, dedication — even concentration — are irrelevant. A level playing field of dreams.
My son and I grew up on the ballfields of Oak Park, which gives us a strong common bond. I started in T-ball in 1960 (its first year in Oak Park). He started in 1990 when we moved back to town. Our trajectories intersected in the new millennium when he was old enough to join the Wednesday Journal co-ed softball team. For five or six glorious years we played together. I was an average baseball player and a better-than-average softball player. He was a better-than-average baseball player and is an excellent softball player. He was on the OPRF baseball team that made it to the state final in 2001.
Youth baseball and softball really began in Oak Park in the late ’50s, governed (with a firm hand) by Vince Dierkes, who told Little League to go to hell (he was not a subtle man) and joined PONY, which stands for Protect Our Nation’s Youth (they allowed more autonomy, a must for Vince). Oak Park hosted one PONY World Series (11- and 12-year-old level) and won two during the 1960s. Cy Hayward coached one of those teams. His son, Steve, went on to start a baseball instruction business called Strikes, which has been teaching the game to kids in the western suburbs for years.
My five brothers and I played for Suburban Bank (now Fifth Third Bank), coached by my dad, who produced his share of championship teams. More to the point, he produced future coaches, including the aforementioned Steve Hayward and John Hanrahan, a feisty catcher who became a prominent girls softball coach. My brother Matt coached girls T-ball for years and my brother Mike ran T-ball for several decades.
My father also coached Rick Morrissey, sports columnist for the Sun-Times, who was a fine shortstop once upon a time.
Like Oak Park and River Forest, our baseball roots run deep, so when OPRF High School wins the state championship, our rooting runs deep, too.
It would be tempting to say that a state championship is the culmination of the local youth baseball/softball program, but that’s not really the case. We’ve come close before. Teams that should have won didn’t. Championships don’t really validate anything except talent and character. If you want validation, go out to Ridgeland Common one of these fine summer evenings, where you can watch some of our former baseball stars (Fenwick and OPRF) on the softball fields — players like Caleb Fields, Derek Schlecker, Ruairi O’Connor and Andrew Hagins. And you’ll find some of the fathers in the stands, too.
These towns have produced plenty of talent even though OPRF hasn’t won an actual state championship since 1981 (under the late, legendary Jack Kaiser, who must be smiling in that heavenly cornfield).
The youth baseball program has something to do with it, as does the culture of baseball that permeates both villages, but credit for this championship goes entirely to these kids and Coach Ledbetter. It’s a wonderful achievement and will no doubt remain firmly fixed near the top of their personal highlight reels. It’s really not a triumph of our feeder system because winning championships is not what our love of baseball is all about. A state championship is more a welcome reminder — of all that is good and that could be good again.
And when it happens, the memories come so thick we have to brush them away from our faces.