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Memorial Field

In Pennsylvania, a diamond is cut to commemorate a friend who died too young

A ballfield was born in Rural Pennsylvania on a Saturday in early June, but it was no Field of Dreams. This field was rooted in reality and built with regret by 75 young men, including me, whose lives had been changed by the death of a friend.

On March 20, the last day of winter, we had buried our friend Greg Rowles under an oak tree in the back of the cemetery at Boehm's Reformed United Church of Christ in Blue Bell. At the age of 22, Greg had died three nights earlier in an automobile accident at an intersection less than a mile from his home in Worcester, which is just a couple of towns over from Blue Bell. Greg had been drinking that evening, and he was at the wheel; a young woman riding in Greg's car was killed in the crash as well, and a third passenger, a young man from the area who was a friend of Greg's, was badly injured. The driver in the other car involved in the accident apparently escaped serious injury.

Greg's father, Gary, would later express to me his dismay—his anger—at the stupidity of the accident and the terrible waste it had caused. Many of us, Greg's friends in life, were also very angry about his death, specifically about the way in which he had died.

I had first met Greg when we were sophomores at Penn State and I was rushing his fraternity, Chi Phi. Our first conversation was a heated debate at the frat house over who were better athletes, wrestlers or basketball players. In the end, it came down to a challenge: Greg claimed that he could pin me in under a minute (which he probably could have done), and I stated that I could shut him out in a one-on-one game to 11 (which I probably couldn't have). Over the next three years we must have argued about the topic a hundred times, but we never felt compelled to settle it with the prescribed duels. I'm sure that if we had, I would have wound up with carpet burns on my forehead. Greg was a big, strong guy—5'10", 170 pounds—and had been a member of the wrestling team in high school.

Greg was the type of guy who would shake up a room when he walked through the door. He was the center of attention, without ever trying to place himself there. People rallied around him, they followed his lead. He was known for his sarcastic humor and his boundless energy, and he had a one-liner for every occasion. Among his friends, he was known as the funniest man in North America.

Greg lived his life in overdrive. He had a fierce competitive spirit, and after graduation he was quick to land a job with the accounting firm of Ernst & Young. Once he was settled in Philadelphia, Greg continued to push himself, working late hours night after night.

At his funeral were more than 1,000 people. The crowd spilled into the vestibule of Boehm's church and onto the front steps. The procession that made its way to his grave site in the ancient cemetery, where some of the graves predated the American Revolution, stretched three abreast for more than 200 yards. It was certainly the saddest walk I had ever taken in my life.

For many of us, it was our first encounter with death. We felt the same perplexities that I'm sure other people in this strange new position experience. We thought: How could someone so young, so strong, be gone so quickly? And in such a violent and senseless manner?

Just before Greg's casket was lowered into the ground, perhaps 60 of us gathered around him one more time, hands reaching to touch the coffin, each of us knocking on the box and whispering goodbyes. The hardest thing for us to accept was that Greg was gone and that there was absolutely nothing that we could do about it.

A few days after the funeral, Steve Schmitz, a teammate of Greg's on the Boehm's church summer Softball team, came up with an idea for a memorial to our friend. We had already decided to hold a golf tournament in Greg's name and to donate the funds that we raised to a scholarship fund at his high school, Methacton High. Schmitz now suggested building a Softball field in Greg's memory. Schmitz himself had lost a brother 11 years earlier, and he knew the pain and the powerlessness that the Rowles family was feeling. He brought this ballfield idea to the church's pastor, who then approached Greg's father with it.

The idea of building a field for his son struck home with Gary Rowles. A ballfield seemed a fitting memorial for a boy who had grown up wearing one uniform or another. Greg had always been an athlete. He had been not only a wrestler at Methacton High but also a football player, and he had played intramural sports year-round at Penn State. Most summer evenings after work, he could be found playing softball or golf. He excelled at most sports, and he loved to play.

After Greg's father approved the idea of creating the field, the church agreed to donate the land in back of the cemetery. As it happened, this plot had once been used as a softball field, we learned. But that long-ago diamond had vanished, and there weren't even telltale signs of the bygone base paths.

The news of the project spread quickly among Greg's friends. Even though some of us were still upset about the circumstances of Greg's death, we realized that our conflicted emotions had little to do with the warmth we still felt for our late friend. Early on the morning of June 8, 75 of us showed up at the church.

So, now we were back in Blue Bell, equipped with shovels, picks and rakes. The job was to cut a diamond in the open field. I had seen the movie Field of Dreams, and I figured that if one guy, even Kevin Costner, could build an entire baseball field by himself, then certainly a group of healthy young men—a group I dubbed The Blue Bell Ballfield Construction Company—could handle a church-league softball diamond with little trouble. All it would take would be to tear out some grass, lay down the bases, put up a backstop. No sweat. We would even have time for a game when we finished.

Well, now that I'm a veteran of ballpark building, I must say that I have no idea how Costner's character, even with that tractor of his, hauled away more than 100 tons of dirt, as we did. And then replaced it with more than 100 tons of specially mixed infield soil, as we did. And I still wonder how he managed to erect the backstop and lights without a little Midwestern neighborly assistance.

When we arrived at the site, we found that the first steps in field construction had already been taken. The backstop poles had been planted and the field dimensions had been mapped out by Ed Slevin Jr., a friend of Greg's who was project manager for a local landscaping firm, with the aid of Gary Rowles and his sons Mike, 19, and Gary Jr., 25. As sketched by Slevin, Greg's grave would lie about 30 yards behind home plate, slightly to the first base side.

Slevin was the guy who organized our motley ground crew into a formidable landscaping machine. Shortly after dawn, he was handing out instructions to his troop of sleepy-eyed laborers. It was a strange scene: several dozen men behind the church cemetery in the early light, each holding either a pick or a shovel. With the arrival of some heavy machinery, the work got under way in earnest. In all, we would employ 30 shovels, 20 rakes, 15 wheelbarrows, a backhoe, a dump truck and a steamroller.

Over the course of the next couple of hours, Greg's friends continued to arrive, walking between the headstones toward the clamor and dust cloud of the work site. They arrived from Blue Bell and from points more distant. I had driven two hours from New Jersey, and others came from New York, Delaware, Maryland and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

As the sun climbed in the morning sky, Boehm's meadow began to resemble a ballfield. By 10:30 a.m. the sod in the base paths had been uprooted, rolled and hauled off to a thicket of trees beyond the leftfield foul line. With the removal of the grass, this part of the pasture actually looked like an infield. Optimism, and false hope, bloomed. Maybe this project wasn't going to be so tough after all. All we had to do was rake that dirt, put down some bases and play ball!

Wrong. The hardest work, we found, was yet to come. We had to remove four inches of topsoil along the base paths, to be replaced with special infield soil. We had to haul the dirt off to the thicket, because we couldn't just leave it in piles around the field. Four inches didn't seem like anything to complain about, until Slevin told us that this meant moving nearly 100 tons of earth.

An old blister rose anew on my right palm. I had first gotten the blister 10 weeks earlier while helping to toll the bell at Greg's funeral.

We kept digging and hauling, digging and hauling. What dirt we didn't carry to the trees or "accidentally" throw on each other, we used to fill gullies and holes in the outfield. By 2 p.m., after a lunch break, we had finally excavated the infield.

Then we had to replace, in a sense, all of the dirt we had just removed. More than 100 tons of infield mix (clay, sand and dirt) loomed in five mountainous piles in foul territory, waiting for us.

Soon, the shovels were flying and the wheelbarrows were rolling, as we dumped loads of the reddish-brown mixture into the concave base paths. The laborers who weren't shoveling, dumping or raking the infield smooth were clambering on scaffolds, putting the finishing touches on the backstop. The poles were in place, but the wire fencing still had to be attached to them. I wasn't part of the backstop detail, but I heard it wasn't the most pleasant of assignments.

Finally, at around 6:30 p.m., the infield was filled. Slevin packed it down with the small steamroller. Daylight was fading and our ranks had dwindled to 25 beaten men. The sun and the earth had drained our bodies.

Then someone brought out a softball and we rallied. Almost magically, 10 gloves and the willingness to use them appeared. Gary Rowles threw out the first pitch, a ball that fell about a foot short of the plate, and the field was christened. "Play ball!" someone yelled.

We squeezed in only three innings before nightfall, and no one remembers for sure what the final score was. But one thing was certain as we threw and batted and ran on Greg's field: In building it, we had eased our pain.



J.B. Morris lives in Metuchen, N.J. This is his first piece for SI.