Field of dreams: Baseball the way it was meant to be
Picture this: Summer day, 70 degrees and sunny, a group of boys playing baseball on a homemade field, radio blaring in the background.
No uniforms, cleats or coaches in sight. Just a bunch of kids making up rules and running basepaths outlined in spray paint, with a plywood backstop.
It’s a scene right out of “The Sandlot,” the classic film about young baseball players in the summer of ‘62.
Except that it’s playing out in real life this summer in the Prairie Fields subdivision in Savoy.
“One of the words that comes to mind is ‘throwback,’” said Petrece Klein, principal at St. Matthew School, whose son is a ringleader of the project. “In this age of technology, you don’t see kids playing outside. They’re outside all the time.”
To be clear, this is not a neighborhood without amenities. A brand-new school playground and Travis baseball field — complete with lights, real dugouts and a working scoreboard — sit just a couple of blocks away.
So why would this group — 12-year-olds Tanner Klein, Cole Hettmansberger and Jake Meyer, and 10-year-olds Cade Hettmansberger and Ben Young — choose a scruffy sandlot instead?
And it’s a better fit. The boys spent most of last summer playing at Travis, but it was too big for them to hit the ball over the fence, Cade said.
They set up games in the Hettmansbergers’ back yard but outgrew that this summer. Balls sailed over the fence constantly, and their moms worried about them running into the street.
“We were about to break the house,” said Tanner.
The empty lot — bordered by Tickseed street on one side and houses and apartments on the other three — was much larger. There were no “for sale’ or “keep out” signs, just knee-high weeds, some golf balls, rocks and scrap wood.
It was perfect.
The boys spent a few days in mid-July mowing the weeds, a bit at a time, during the hottest stretch of the summer.
A small rise in the middle of the field made a natural pitcher’s mound. Then they scrounged whatever materials they could find from their garages to build out the field.
They spraypainted baselines, on-deck circles, a “sidewalk” from the street to the field, a parking area for bikes, and four spectator viewing areas (marked S1 through S4).
With help from Jake’s dad they built an outfield fence, made from orange construction fencing and PVC pipe, that can be taken down every day when they leave. And an old flagpole holds the official sign proclaiming “Prairie Field.”
They considered other names, including Jake’s choice, “The Grasslot,” a nod to the movie. (On that note, the neighbors do have a large dog who likes to run around on the field, but her name is Bella, not Beast, and she doesn’t slobber or steal their baseballs.)
“Field of Dreams” was another candidate, but the boys decided the name of the subdivision worked well.
"We thought it would go along with the neighborhood,” Tanner explained.
“We started with orange, but we thought it looked kind of tacky,” Tanner said.
All along the boys waited for someone to chase them out. It never happened.
Police cars drove by, but officers just smiled and waved. Neighbors around the field embraced the project, moving a half-dozen chairs out to the right-field line to watch the games.
“Everyone’s really nice. They all tell us it’s a great idea,” Tanner said.
The best part, parents said, is that the kids did it pretty much all by themselves.
“They used their ingenuity and knew what they wanted to do. They worked hard on it,” said mom Nicole Hettmansberger. “I think they’ve enjoyed working on the field more than playing on it.”
The boys even let their sisters bat or pitch — “when they need extra players,” said Kylie Hettmansberger, 14.
“They let us be the umpires,” added Kylee Klein, 10.
The girls did have to sign a contract, the same one the boys drew up for themselves outlining some basic rules. It seems no one could agree at first what to call a ball hit into the tall grass, or over the fence, or into the street. Foul or fair? Home run or triple?
Those rules aside, the structure is pretty loose — quite different from the organized baseball leagues or school teams the boys play for the rest of the year. No player rankings, no drafts or tryouts where kids are told they’re not on the A team or not good enough to play at all. At age 11.
Here they play for fun, learn how to build and organize and work out disagreements, without grown-ups telling them what to do or how to do it — or worse, how NOT to do it.
“There were no adults involved in this process. It was their creativity and imagination and hard work," Klein said.
The boys still love Little League — three of them played on an All-Star team that made it to the regional championship this year. But “this just feels so much more relaxed,” Cole said.
“There’s no angry families out there screaming,” added his brother.
The boys have more plans for the field. Just last week a neighborhood dad donated a dry-erase scoreboard, which they installed on the right-field fence.
They’re recruiting more players and hope to schedule a game for their parents to watch — or even take on sandlot teams from other neighborhoods.
“If we make a league,” Jake says, “I’m gonna call it ‘A League of Our Own.”
Staff writer Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, contact her at (217) 351-5226 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @jawurth.
1. Cade Hettmansberger, 10, Tanner Klein, 12, Jake Meyer, 12 and Cole Hettmansberger, 12, show off the new Prairie Field along Tickseed Avenue in Savoy on July 29, 2013. (Not pictured: Ben Young, 10.)
2. Cade Hettmansberger throws a pitch at Prairie Field.
3. Jake Meyer delivers a pitch as Tanner Klein gets ready to swing in front of the home-made plywood backstop.
4. The boys dug a hole to store equipment and supplies and made a custom cover with the Prairie Field logo.
5. Cole Hettmansberger gets a hit as Tanner Klein catches at Prairie Field.
6. Jake Meyer runs to first base after getting a hit.
7. Cole Hettmansberger takes a swing as Jake Meyer catches. The orange outfield fence with the "PF" logo is visible in the background, behind pitcher Tanner Klein.
Photos by John Dixon/The News-Gazette