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Rural Missouri Magazine
A field of friendship
High school buddies reunite
in Clay Zigler's backyard

by Eric Syverson

Luke Sappa bats the ball into play on Zigler Field. Clay Zigler built the softball field on his nearly 7-acre property to reunite with old friends. He holds one or two games a year.

Remembering the picnics and softball games of his days at Ritenour High School in St. Louis, Clay Zigler decided to bring that era back to life. So like the Iowa farmer in the movie Field of Dreams, the 1979 graduate built it, and they came.

Clay transformed part of his nearly 7-acre backyard into a softball field, and for more than 10 years, the New Melle resident and some of his old high-school buddies have been keeping the dream alive with one to two annual games.

It began as a simple grass field and an excuse for a reunion in 1992. Clay threw bases on the ground, and the guys picked teams. The Cuivre River Cooperative member named his team the Zigler All-Stars, and his friends Bill and Brian Duncan named their team the Duncan All-Stars. It was just a one-time event, Clay says, or so he thought.
Four years later, the guys met again and kept the same teams. The rivalry was serious by 1998.

Clay, a high school journalism teacher, created a parody newsletter that provoked his friends’ competitive spirit. The field became Zigler Field, and the games became annual battles for bragging rights.

With temperatures in the mid-80s, Zigler All-Stars fans and players do their best to stay cool.

As the rivalry increased, so did the quality of Zigler Field. Clay and his wife, Bonnie, live an hour away from some of their old classmates. To make the trip alluring, they began adding equipment to the experience in their spare time.

Wanting a dirt infield, Clay asked his neighbor Don Kops to plow up the yard. “He was looking at me like: ‘You are out of your mind,’” Clay recalls. After Don finished, Clay used a tiller to complete the job. Then he installed locked-down bases similar to those in high school and professional ballparks.

Zigler Field’s perimeter was Clay’s next focus. He built a backstop and a border fence. Bonnie came up with a way to decorate these additions when the couple attended a minor league River City Rascals game in O’Fallon.

“She said, ‘Why don’t we get banners?’” Clay recalls. Within days, Bonnie picked up the phone, and companies such as Budweiser, Hooters and ESPN were happy to send banners. Clay’s favorite is the official banner of the 2002 Home Run Derby from the All-Star game.

A phone call to the old stadium of the Oklahoma City 89ers, another minor league team, also proved fruitful. Clay received a row of stadium seats for the ballpark. He added a hand-painted scoreboard, hung baseball-shaped plaques displaying the final score of each game and bought a trophy at a garage sale.

Plaques showing the final score of each game at Zigler Field hang near the ballpark's backstop fence.

Despite these enhancements, Clay still has a wish list for Zigler Field. He wants to install lights for night games and level the playing field. Gopher holes mar the outfield, and the hill in right field is notorious among players.

But Bill Duncan, who sprained his ankle near the hill during last year’s game, thinks the terrain is part of the ballpark’s appeal. “It would be nice to flatten it out, but it might take the charm away.”

Brian Duncan, who lives in Ohio and regularly flies back for a game, says the field isn’t really what matters anyway. “It’s the event itself — getting together with old friends and making new ones,” he says. “It has become a tradition.”

This tradition has attracted Ritenour graduates from as early as 1966 to as late as 1988. Family, friends and some of Clay’s former students also have been added to the fold. “The word spreads,” says Bill, a 1980 graduate. “People are intrigued. They come out, and they’re really blown away.”

Zigler All-Stars congratulate teammate Tim Lucido after his second home run of the game.

This year’s game had a whole lineup of new additions. Clay and the Duncans combined their teams to take on a new opponent, the Cougars Khoury League team, which was Missouri state champions in both 1975 and 1977. As impressive as that sounds, the Cougars hadn’t played since high school, and the Zigler All-Stars won 28-23.

The game reminded Bill of Field of Dreams, where the regular players, tired of practicing, finally recruited another team to play real games.

References to the 1989 film are commonplace at Zigler Field. The movie was only a minor inspiration for Clay’s ballpark, but he does see similarities. “I told these guys, and I think they laughed,” he says. “But it really is kind of magical. Where else can you get ahold of people that you went to high school with 25 years ago and they still come out to do this?”

Mark Lacey, who grew up down the street from Clay, agrees. “I would call it a field of friendship. I look forward to it every year.”

 

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