An early morning catch to beat more August storms.
I sat on a concrete bench on the square near The Tumbler and stretched my back, then my shoulder, then my back again. I knelt on the bricks and bounced a ball off the face of the bench. My first throw of the day. And then a man standing near the fountains on the opposite side of the square whistled at me.
“Throw it here!”
He didn’t have a glove, so I tossed the ball where it would bounce once before getting to him. He held on to the ball and rolled it in his hands, much like a foul-ball catching fan does at a game. He threw it back a little too strong; the ball sailed over my head and over The Tumbler and almost into the street.
“No apologies necessary,” I replied.
He helped me stretch and loosen up and thanked me for the game as Rusty walked up. The friend-by-the-fountain tossed the ball to Rusty who stepped in and continued the game of catch just like it was the most natural thing to do on a Thursday morning.
Rusty worked at Drury University for 12 years before he moved downtown. He’s now in his 13th year with the Downtown Springfield Association and is quick to deflect any credit or praise for the revitalization of center city Springfield.
When I was in high school, I was intimidated driving anywhere near the square. When my family moved back to Springfield in 2012, I was amazed by the renovations that had taken place and wrote a poem about it.
Dad drove me downtown
doors locked, windows up
seeking baseball cards
driver’s license test
broken buildings perfect
for horror movies
decorate the drive.
Yearly trip downtown
with friends, faking bravado
testing fight or flight
screaming in octaves
way too high, too long,
way too loud
at Hotel of Terror.
Fifteen years away
downtown’s no longer scary
but teeming, abounding
dreaming big dreams people
and wiffle ball leagues.
“Old made new,” Hope winked.
“My uncle had a glove like that,” Rusty said, drawing attention to my 1940s Wilson. “I’d use it every now and then growing up. It really gets your hand involved and forces you to be conscious where you catch the ball.”
Rusty wore a Cardinals shirt which is perfectly understandable as the St. Louis team completed a come-from-behind win and sweep of the Dodgers. He grew up playing stickball games with his brother and cousin.
“My cousin, Jenny, is younger by a couple of years, so it was always me against them and they’d make up all the rules. I could usually find a way to beat them, but not always. Jenny’s a lawyer in St. Louis now, so she still makes up all the rules.”
This past summer, Rusty took his family to Cooperstown on vacation and played catch with his kids while they were in New York. He’s traveled to 27 MLB ballparks only lacking Seattle, San Francisco, and Miami.
“But seven teams have built new stadiums since I started — Houston, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and both New York teams. So we still have plenty of traveling to do.”
Rusty grew up in Strafford, Missouri and his family is good friends with my wife’s family. His small town roots have influenced his leadership and vision for downtown.
“I love the community of downtown, when you go out to lunch or grab a cup of coffee and all the people you meet, the unintended conversations that take place along the way.”
Thanks to Rusty’s leadership, there are monthly events and activities and businesses for all ages downtown.
“I try to live by the motto, ‘Bloom where you’re planted.’ I look for ways to make a difference where I’m at today. If I’m taking care of things where I am today, tomorrow will take care of itself.”
This year, downtown Springfield played host to its third summer wiffle ball league. Rusty was the default commissioner of the league.
“Twenty teams playing across nine different fields. People interacting in ways they’ve never done so before. There’s no cost to play, you just have to be part of a downtown office.”
Any downtown businesses looking for a storyteller?