I’m just a couple chapters into your book (loving it by the way!). Baseball was my first true love.
Though, I just started “A Year of Playing Catch,” I feel the need to extend an invitation your way.
Before I entered high school, my dad and I built a baseball field behind our house — 90 feet bases, 60 feet, 6 inches mound. Tall birdhouses as foul poles, a backstop and soybeans (and this year corn) as the outfield fence.
For the past six or so years, my friends and I get together a few times a summer and play pickup games. Last year, we played the first Real Game, with pitchers and catchers. We are planning to do it again. We just had Opening Day this past weekend.
Much like what you found playing catch, these backyard games bring people together. We see friends we haven’t seen since the summer before, we make new ones.
The people I appreciate the most are the ones who truly appreciate baseball and all that it can do. You sound like one of those people.
I’d like to offer an open invitation to 42 Field, located outside Pioneer, Ohio, if you’re ever in the area.
We’d love to have you.
In Shoeless Joe, the book which inspired the movie Field of Dreams, W.P. Kinsella wrote, “If I had my life to live over again, I’d take more chances. I’d want more passion in my life. Less fear and more passion, more risk. Even if you fail, you’ve still taken a risk.”
As someone who has struggled with being afraid my entire life, it’s a quote that resonates with every fiber of my being. When I finished reading Spencer’s message and invitation, I knew I had to find a way to get to 42 Field. Thanks to help from the Pioneer Chamber of Commerce and Big League Chew, I was able to take a risk and head north to play ball.
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“Durham is a fantastic baseball name,” Andy said.
Andy is largely responsible for this trip, too. Andy is the one who helped A Year of Playing Catch find its publishing home. Bespeckled and bearded and with a tattoo that says “hope” on his left forearm (which is its own incredible story), Andy plays baseball in a league in Grand Rapids, Michigan for The Naturals. (Andy taught me that the rapids aren’t necessarily all that grand. He is also quite perplexed as to why the West Michigan Whitecaps wear blue baseball hats.) The Naturals postseason is just getting ready to start, his next game on Wednesday, August 11. When I decided to find a way to get from Springfield, Missouri to Pioneer, Ohio, I asked Andy if he would like to join me.
“I could use a baseball adventure,” he replied.
Pioneer, Ohio has a population around 1,500, which is roughly the same size as my high school. In the northwest most corner of Ohio, Pioneer is only a couple miles south of the Michigan border, which means they experience real winters. Pioneer was founded in 1849 by P.W. Norris, a Civil War spy who was the first person to discover the now-named Norris Pass in Yellowstone National Park. The “P” in P.W. stands for Philetus, which is a marvelous name for a man who settled two cities (Pioneer, Ohio and Norris, Michigan) and was the first paid superintendent of Yellowstone.
Flying from Springfield to Chicago, enjoying the unique aerial perspective and relatively cloudless skies, I counted 82 baseball fields. On the flight from Chicago to Detroit, scattered among all the lakes, I spotted another 84 fields.
After Andy picked me up from the airport, the day before the Missouri-Guy Game, we headed south and west to donate copies of A Year of Playing Catch to the library in Pioneer and see this baseball field with our own eyes. We spotted two more baseball fields on the way to Pioneer, Ohio. None of the ballfields I saw en route appeared to be built in someone’s backyard.
The Durhams live on seventy acres of farmland, the baseball field covers approximately two. We pulled into the gravel driveway of the Durham’s house. Soldier-straight stalks of corn nearing ten feet tall lined the left side of the driveway. On the right side, just as 42 Field came into view, sat a massive boulder.
“Kenny unearthed the rock when working in his brother’s field,” Jessica, Spencer’s mom, said. A proud mom, Jessica has a tattoo of a baseball on her left shoulder. On the baseball is Spencer’s name, with a pen next to it, representing two of his passions. “Only a small portion of the rock was showing through the dirt. Then he uncovered the rest of it.”
Kenny used a backhoe to remove the rock from its field of origin, then transported it to his own house. When the Durhams moved into their current residence, a move less than a mile in distance, the rock also made the journey. It now sits adjacent to the driveway as an unofficial greeter to 42 Field. On the other side of the rock is the Durham home. The backside of the home sits quite close to the first base line. There are a few dents in the siding from overthrows and foul balls.
“We’ve never had a broken window,” Jessica said. Immediately, I wished she hadn’t said that the day before the game in which I was playing. At least I’m a right-handed hitter who mostly pulls the ball.
The corn-lined field has an all-grass infield with dirt patches cutout around the bases. The dirt around home plate is the same five-sided shape as home plate. The field isn’t perfectly flat. There is a small rise behind first base and it gently slopes away from the house, until another small rise in left field by the cornstalks. Strongly reminiscent of the movie-famous field in Iowa near which MLB players will play later this month, 42 Field is every teenage baseball-dreamers delight.
Spencer Durham is now 26 years old, the only son of Kenny and Jessica Durham. A graduate of Adrian College with a degree in English, Spencer is the education reporter for the Kokomo Tribune in Kokomo, Indiana, only a couple of hours away from his baseball field. Growing up a fan of the Yankees — no one’s perfect — Spencer wore number 42 on his teams, as Mariano Rivera was his favorite player. After the field was completed, he and his dad christened it, “42 Field.”
“It’s baseball’s number,” Spencer said, knowing that Rivera felt humbled to be the last player to wear the number 42 after MLB retired it to honor Jackie Robinson.
The Durhams moved to their current home in 2004. To this day, Spencer still doesn’t know what gave him the idea for the baseball field.
“I was just at that age where I really started becoming interested in baseball, where it was truly becoming a passion,” Spencer said. “I said something to Dad about it and, in classic Dad fashion, he said, ‘Ok.’ I didn’t pester. I didn’t beg. And the idea stuck.”
The Durhams learned how to make their field thanks to the wisdom of the internet. Courtesy of a simple Google search, Jessica found basic instructions and printed them out.
“I still have that printout somewhere,” she said.
While the request and the idea stuck in Kenny’s mind from its first utterance, he was slow to take action on it. Determining the site for the field was the first obstacle.
“Dad worked on it on his own timeline,” Spencer said. “At least 18 months passed after I mentioned it before dirt started to move. The field changed locations at least four times. Home plate was where centerfield is now, which means we would have been hitting toward the house.”
Which would have meant a significant number of broken windows. Wisdom prevailed.
In the summer of 2009, Spencer and a group of friends first played on the field. On that historic day, he and his friends took a picture sitting and standing on the rock.
Throughout his teenage years, Spencer was on the field almost daily, “my own personal practice facility,” spending hours playing ball and making memories with his dad. The games at 42 Field started as Spencer’s collegiate baseball career concluded.
* * * * * * * * * *
Michael Kidston is the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Pioneer. After confirming with Spencer that I really did want to come to 42 Field to play ball, I reached out to Michael with a rather absurd email, asking for help to get to Pioneer and make the ballplaying invitation at 42 Field a reality. I was surprised when he actually replied to my proposal.
“At first, I thought it was spam,” Michael told me. “I couldn’t tell if you were being serious or not.”
I couldn’t help but smile when Michael shared that information with me. I couldn’t blame him for having difficulty discerning my intentions. An old guy from Missouri wants to come to Ohio to play ball on a field in someone’s backyard?
Right. Where’s the hidden camera?
Thankfully, Michael didn’t delete or ignore the email, but replied extending a gracious hospitality to come to Pioneer. When I read his first four sentences, I knew I had found a kindred spirit.
Thank you for reaching out. I have to first say, your email inspired me to play catch with my daughter tonight. Such a simple activity, but so good for the soul. Thank you for that.
The date for the Missouri-Guy Game at 42 Field was officially set for Saturday, August 7, two weeks before the Real Game.
A couple days before the Missouri-Guy Game, an article about my visit ran in The Bryan Times, which is the first time I’ve ever been mentioned in a paper whose name shares my last name.
“It’s probably the most unique thing that we’ve done since I’ve had the field. We’ve certainly never had someone fly in to come play baseball with us,” Spencer was quoted in the interview with the paper.
Michael treated Andy and me to game-day lunch. I messily devoured a fantastic burger with cheese, bacon, and an egg — the Winnburger — and the fresh-cut French fries.
“What I’ve noticed is that it’s hard to be angry when you’re playing catch with someone,” Michael said at lunch. “It opens the lines of communication. My business is in the process of building a new building. I think we need a catch-playing room, where you can go when you’re stressed or just to work things out.”
I think every business needs a catch-playing room.
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On Saturday, August 21, 42 Field will host the Real Game for the second time. The inaugural Real Game took place in the summer of 2020. The Real Game is simply that, a game with catchers donning full gear and pitchers throwing pitches significantly above batting-practice speed. Outs are recorded the way outs have always been recorded, not by pitcher’s hand. Score is kept by hand on a massive chalkboard. Catchers are team captains, pitchers are divided between teams, and position players are drafted last. Fittingly, the first Real Game ended in a tie.
In November of 2020, at the age of 79, just a couple of months after the inaugural Real Game, Kenny Durham passed away while working on the farm. “It was his way of playing.” In December of 2020, Kenny and Jessica would have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Spencer wrote the obituary.
To help honor the man who put in the work of bringing 42 Field to life, proceeds from the books sold on this trip will benefit the Honor Flight, as Spencer requested in the obituary.
There’s already enough excitement around this year’s Real Game for Spencer to start brainstorming about next year’s Real Game. I might have to find a way to come back and play. And if I come back to play, I’ve got to find a way to bring future-friend Mariano Rivera with me.
* * * * * * * * * *
On August 7, the date of the Missouri-Guy Game, Andy and I pulled in the driveway and passed the rock at 3:30 p.m. Thirty minutes later, I met Johnny, Sam, and Keanu, ballplayers at North Central High School, and was able to give them new gloves. All three loved the gloves, even if they had a little difficulty actually catching balls during batting practice. In two weeks, those gloves will be perfect.
Kenny Durham’s signature was painted in white in the foul grounds on both sidelines, and “Welcome to 42 Field” was painted in blue and white behind home plate. Tall poles with birdhouses at the top serve as foul poles down each line.
Terry Rebeck Jr., a long-time family friend, contacted Jessica and asked if he could bring a few younger players to the game. This property was where Terry used to hang out with his friends when they were younger, and now he’s wanting to make new memories with his son and their friends. Spencer and Jessica both thought it was a great idea.
With 19 players ready to play ball, teams were divvied up. Two six-inning games were on the docket.
I overheard Spencer say, “This guy came all the way from Missouri to play ball. We’re going to be sure he plays ball.”
In the bottom of the second inning of the first game, I might have made one of the best plays of my baseball career. Isaac scorched a line drive to left field.
Isaac was a freshman when Spencer was a senior, but he attended a different school. He came to one of the first five-on-five tournaments held at the field several years ago. Spencer and Isaac are friends because of 42 Field. Isaac is now a regular on game days.
Back to Isaac’s scorched line drive.
Running full speed (which may not be all that fast) toward the left field foul line, I reached out and snagged the ball just before it hooked around the foul pole — possibly robbing a homer? — then successfully used the pole to slow my momentum and prevent me from crashing into the corn.
Both games were tightly contested, with good hitting and solid plays on defense. My team lost the first game on a walk-off in the bottom of the sixth inning. After a few players left, teams were re-picked and a six-on-six game started, using pitcher’s hand as the rule for getting runners out at first. My team won the second game.
The games were hot and exhausting and more fun than I can possibly put into words.
After the games, Terry came and shook my hand. “This right here, this is what baseball is all about,” he said.
Now, for a word about Andy. Through the games, Andy discovered a hidden talent. He was able to find the baseballs hit into the corn. Every single one. Even the homer that Nic hit across the street and plugged into the soybeans. It was amazing. Rumor has it Spencer is trying to talk Andy into coming back as a ballhawk for the Real Game.
“There were new people coming to my field to play ball,” Spencer said after the games. “That is always a cool thing. I’m pretty sure that’s the most people we’ve ever had come and play in a pick-up game, so that goes down in the record books.”
Then I learned there are no official record books at 42 Field.
* * * * * * * * * *
I really had no idea what to expect when coming to 42 Field. What I witnessed only reinforces the lessons I learned through the catch-playing year.
An important part of being human is intentionally creating time to play, even if it means taking a risk.
Play makes it possible to make new friends and new friends are one of God’s greatest gifts.
Playing baseball for the sheer love of the game is a glimpse of heaven on earth.
Baseball brings people together.
* * * * * * * * * *
The day after the Missouri-Guy Game, while listening to the Royals try and find a way to lose to the Cardinals, I received a message.
Hello, this is one of the kids you gave a glove. I would love to just play catch with you for a little while before you leave town.
* * * * * * * * * *
This email will sound quite absurd, but I promise it is real and not spam.
My name is Ethan Bryan. I wrote a book about playing catch every day for a year. And that is how I met Spencer and discovered the baseball diamond he and his father built in his backyard, 42 Field.
In the summer of 2022, there’s going to be a game at 42 Field.
I’m writing to invite you to suit up so you can meet my friend Spencer and see his amazing field.
It will be an experience you never forget.