It doesn’t seem like it’s been four years since Mother Nature tried to kill baseball in Wayne America.
In the summer of 2014, this community was a little leery of her wrath, still trying to fully recover from the tornado that rolled through town just eight months before when a summer wind storm sent a tree located just outside Hank Overin Field collapsing into the grandstand and backstop.
The old ball park has seen a lot of baseball over the past 70 years, and a remodeling of the field in the early 1980’s was already starting to show a little wear and tear before that summer morning when winds exceeding 90 miles per hour blew through town, causing damage to numerous old trees in our community.
One of those trees, situated just outside the west entrance to Hank Overin Field, had served as a shelter from the summer sun and a dependable ball catcher for many who attended the games and sat in the rickety metal bleachers along the first-base side.
And then — the winds came.
The tree snapped about six feet above the base, its trunk showing signs of decay that made it an easy target for Mother Nature’s wind-blown wrath. There was still a month of that season left to play, including Ralph Bishop League tournament games that were moved to Wakefield, and suddenly the Wayne American Legion baseball program was a team without a home.
As a sports fan who has covered a lot of baseball over the years, I appreciate old parks like Hank Overin Field; so when Mayor Ken Chamberlain asked for local residents to get involved on a committee to determine the old park’s fate, it took me about half a nanosecond to volunteer to be a part of a group of people who had a lot of long, personal connections with that ball park.
The group spent a lot of evenings in the meeting room at the Wayne Community Activity Center and worked with then-City Administrator Lowell Johnson on putting together a plan to rebuild the old grandstand. There had been discussions before the storm about doing some remodeling and revamping of the old facility, so the opportunity presented itself to keep the old grandstand idea and throw in a few new twists to bring the facility up to more modern-day standards.
From a new, taller backstop to moving the press box from the back of the grandstand to above the first-base dugout, there were a lot of great ideas that helped make the “Hank Overin Field 2.0” vision a reality. I’m sure I can speak for everybody who was part of that work in saying the final result is something that exceeded our expectations and is a beautiful “new” facility that this community can take pride in.
And now, Wayne gets to show off all that hard work and dedication to the rest of the state.
Over the weekend, the community’s baseball leadership was informed that the Nebraska American Legion baseball committee has awarded Wayne the host bid for the Class B Seniors state tournament, which runs July 28-Aug. 1. For five days, the top eight teams in the state (including Wayne as the host team) will meet at Hank Overin Field to determine a state champion in a double-elimination tournament at the end of the summer sports season.
Steve Lutt, who heads the Wayne Baseball Association, was thrilled to pass on the news, and said this couldn’t have happened without all the work the community put in to rebuild Hank Overin Field after that fateful summer storm.
“I told some people that the Rebuild Hank Committee and their efforts are a huge reason why we’re hosting it, and the City of Wayne was also a big help in getting that ball park rebuilt,” he said.
When I first came to Wayne in the summer of 2009, one of the first assignments I covered as the new managing editor of The Wayne Herald was an American Legion state tournament at Hank Overin Field. Wayne has hosted some area tournaments the past few summers, but this is the first time in nine years that our community has been the host of an American Legion state tournament, so this is a big deal for the community.
Not only will Hank Overin Field be buzzing with baseball for five days, but the community will be hopping as well. Players, coaches and fans from seven other communities in the state will call Wayne home for a few days, which means hotels should be full, restaurants will be busy and a lot of businesses in town will be visited by people from all across the state.
There are a few odds and ends to the project that will be finished up before the start of the season. One thing that NEEDS to be done is the installation of an updated lighting system to replace the outdated lights which, as a photographer, makes shooting quality photos after sundown all but impossible. I’m hopeful that, with Wayne getting a host site, efforts will be made between the city and the baseball community to make sure new lights are in place for that first night of the state tournament 6 1/2 months from now.
This is going to be a fantastic opportunity for Wayne America to show the rest of the state what we have to offer, and the economic benefit from hosting a five-day state tournament will be a great shot in the arm for the community. (NOTE: For those interested in helping out with preparations for the state tournament, contact Steve Lutt at 402-369-1808.)
Thinking back to that summer afternoon when I shot pictures of the destruction from that storm, I’m pretty sure I would not have believed that Wayne serving as a state tournament host would come this fast, if at all. Seeing one of Wayne’s long-standing community centerpieces crushed by a fallen tree made me wonder what the future held for the old ball park.
What “The Hank” has turned into, in the aftermath of that fateful storm, is a testament to community pride and the “get it done” attitude people in this community have. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the state has to say about the old ball park when they make the trip to Wayne America this summer.
Let’s just hope Mother Nature stays far away.