By C. Julia Nelson
In just 11 years, Austin Armstrong created a legacy that will live on through the Northside Youth Organization (NYO) at Chastain Memorial Park for decades to come.
“In the third grade he pitched all six innings of a playoff game to lead the team to a victory,” Julie Armstrong, Austin’s mother, recalled. “For a 9-year-old to pitch a six inning game was unheard of, but he did it.”
That game set a precedent for the league and based on Austin’s performance there is now a standing rule that youth can only pitch a maximum of three innings at a time. Austin however, was the exception to the rule.
His father, Jeff Armstong recalled how hard Austin trained to improve his pitching skills in their backyard.
“I remember when we started to realize he had what it took to pitch,” Mr. Armstrong said. “It was fun working with him on it. I’d just pitch with him at home; try to get him to visualize.”
After a year of backyard training with his father and continued experience on the field, Austin’s pitching continued to get the job done. As an All-Star pitcher for the NYO Red Sox in 2003, the young man lead his team in an undefeated season all the way to the championship title.
His little sister, Annie, now 12, remembers watching Austin play his games from atop the dugout at the Field of Dreams.
“Me and my friends would run up the hill (behind the field) and hang out on top of the dugout together,” she said. “I remember we’d watch the game from there.”
Jane Wilkins, NYO executive director, said Armstrong was an exceptional athlete and student prior to his unexpected death in November 2003.
“He was a talented player,” Wilkins said. “He had played on the 10-year-old All Star team that year. He was certainly a competitor, an athlete and a wonderful student.”
On March 20, 2004, NYO dedicated its Field of Dreams in Armstrong’s honor and renamed it the Austin Armstrong Field of Dreams.
“It’s an amazing honoring of his memory,” Mrs. Armstrong said. “I can’t imagine anything better. It’s nice to have it so close to where we live and we get to see it everyday. Austin would’ve loved it.”
Today, that same field is undergoing a vast renovation, which includes the addition of 185 new stadium seats, new fencing, extensive re-grading and fresh sod.
“The field needed some updating,” Mr. Armstrong said. “Several of the seats you couldn’t even sit in; they were broken pretty severely. The field needed some leveling. I think it’s wonderful what they’re doing.”
Built originally in early 1992, and dedicated that May, the Field of Dreams has been the most used field within the complex, Wilkins said. Each year more than 400 nine to 12-year-old athletes on about 34 teams play on the field in a single season. Needless to say, time had taken its toll and the field was overdue for some improvements.
“We made it our premiere field at that point,” Wilkins said. “Because that was 15 years ago, the seats all needed to be replaced. About a quarter of the seats had already been removed.”
Estimated to cost about $100,000, the renovation project is being funded solely by the sale of new seats to charitable sponsors at a cost of $500 per seat. Donors’ names and the names of those for whom the seats were purchased in memory or in honor of will be engraved on placards and placed on individual seats.
“We have so much (at the Chastain Park complex) and other people don’t have as much,” Wilkins said. “We are dependent on our people to do all of these special things for us. We’re very fortunate to live in an area where people can afford to do these things for their children.”
Since the previous seats also featured donor names, those names will be transferred onto several bronze plaques preserving recognition of their generosity. They will be mounted on the main building behind the field’s backstop.
Kelly Asbury, an NYO volunteer and parent is overseeing the sale of the new seats at the field.
“The Austin Armstrong Field of Dreams is the centerpiece of our park and the seats that were put in 15 years ago were broken. The field was ready for a complete overhaul,” Asbury said.
To date, about half of the seats have sold for $500 each. There is no deadline for purchasing seats, but they are being sold on a first come, first served basis.
“We have actively been selling the seats and have sold half with little effort,” she said. “The NYO community has been very receptive because they know it is helping our park.”
Five seats are being reserved for special recognition purposes. One in particular will be designated in memory of the field’s namesake.
“We are reserving a seat for Austin,” Wilkins said, “so he’ll always have a seat at the field. It’s a family affair here. We’re so blessed with all the friendships that have formed through the years.”
Asbury is proud to be a part of the renewed beautification of the field.
“We have a beautiful facility in an outstanding location and it takes a lot of money to keep it that way,” Asbury said. “It is really going to look spectacular and every seat should be sold by opening day.”
The Austin Armstrong Field of Dreams will reopen to games on NYO’s Opening Day, set for Saturday, March 8.