If it was truly a "Field of Dreams," the dream ended abruptly -- and it resembled something more like a nightmare during its final moments.
Yet 63-year-old Dennis Bastien's thoughts turn more toward gratitude as he surveys the decimated remains of the professional baseball complex he carved out of the Elkville farmland more than a decade ago.
For years, Bastien's Powerade Park -- a minor league-caliber field and stadium complemented by three youth fields just east of Rt. 51 -- hosted hundreds of games each season, each bringing with it the cracking bats and youthful cheers that echo through the days of summer.
Yet the EF-4 tornado that cut a swath of destruction through parts of rural Jackson and Franklin counties Feb. 28 laid waste to the pristine park. High winds peeled metal roofs from their buildings. Stadium lights were sheared from their concrete foundations. Chain-link fences were ripped straight from the ground, wrapping themselves violently around trees and other obstructions for miles around. Significant parts of some structures, Bastien says, still haven't been located.
"It's just an act of nature," says Bastien, a Vergennes resident whose long career in professional baseball has seen him serve as the owner and general manager of multiple minor league franchises. In December, Bastien was hired to a three-year contract as commissioner of the Prospect League, a wood-bat collegiate league with 10 teams in five states. "Everyone is just helping out. It's sad that sometimes it takes events like this to bring a community together. There's been a whole new relationship built through the devastation here. There's been a melding-together of people."
That spirit of of togetherness has been a dominant force in the wake of the destructive storm, uniting the community of Elkville and other surrounding areas as residents dig out from their splintered homes and decimated neighborhoods. At first, Bastien says, volunteers showed up just to help him clean the trail of debris from his park that scattered to the eastern horizon and beyond. Then, youth from baseball teams throughout southern Illinois descended on the rural community of about 1,000 residents, eager to help pick up the remains of a place where many had felt the thrills of past victories or the stings of bitter losses.
"We're a close community," says Scott Slone, pastor of Elkville First Baptist Church. "Our community is full of people who care about each other. I was not surprised at the level of involvement."
Slone's church has served as ground zero of sorts for the recovery effort in Elkville, and he says volunteers from throughout the region have landed in Elkville to help with the work. The church has turned into a collection center, with Slone becoming the designated leader for local volunteer efforts. While the tornado thankfully didn't take any lives on its path through Jackson and Franklin counties, it seriously damaged more than 20 residences between Ava and Mulkeytown, Slone says -- and the community has been eager to help those suddenly stripped of their homes.
"We're just like a family," Slone says.
Later this month, Slone says the church will hold a casual event, such as an ice-cream social, to allow the community to come together to share stories and support about what happened to the area. Bastien, meanwhile, is repaying the past goodwill felt at his park. Before the storm, he and his wife already were looking to sell portions of it; now, in the wake of the storm, they are donating salvageable pieces of it to youth baseball programs throughout the area. Youth baseball in Du Quoin has taken trailers of usable chain-link fencing, Bastien says, as well as cabinets from the concession area. The village of Dowell has taken parts, and the same goes for the baseball program in Murphysboro.
Bastien says he doesn't plan to rebuild the park, and if young players in southern Illinois can benefit from what remains, that will be the best fate for what pieces remain.
Wiping sweat from his face between stretches of dismantling the park he proudly built about 15 years ago, Bastien is solemnly grateful for the help he has received. While he insists that is the most important message he wishes to send, he briefly tears up as he looks out over the green grass of his minor league field.
He may yet salvage that one field, he says, and the clubhouse will continue to serve as the central office for the Prospect League. Yet the tornado took so much away -- not just the wood and metal that scattered across the nearby farmland, but also the promise of so many more summers to be spent in the dugouts and on the diamond.
Much of it, Bastien expects, will melt back into the same sort of flat farmland he culled all of it from years ago. With the bittersweet passing, however, he is grateful for the memories, as well as the more important things the storm could not take away.
"We have been beyond blessed," Bastien says. "In the scheme of things, I'm broken-hearted, but these other people are trying to figure out where to sleep. God has blessed us, and we are so humbled that no one was hurt in our area."