by Rodney Haas
HAYES — To say 4 Corners is in the middle of nowhere is an understatement. In fact it’s so far out in the middle of nowhere the Waze and the Google maps apps couldn’t even find the place.
When I looked up the weather on my phone, it told me the temperature for Fort Pierre — some 35 miles to the east.
Nevertheless, for an amateur baseball fan in South Dakota, a trip to this very remote ballpark is a must.
It’s a place that harks back to the origins of South Dakota amateur baseball. To a time where remote baseball fields like 4 Corners were just as common as rural dance halls, country schools and bars at the intersection of two highways.
Just as baseball fans look to places like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park for the rich history and nostalgia of the days of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb from a century ago, the same can be said for 4 Corners.
“Baseball was the only show in town. It was the only entertainment,” said Bryon Hand, who’s been associated with the baseball team since its reincarnation in the early 2000s, and whose grandfather was one of the people who helped get the field built.
“They said my grandpa was at the meetings and there was a coin flip. Should we have it here or should we have it in Hayes. There wasn’t anything pushing it so my grandfather said ‘my boys will take care of it.” Gavel drop.”
The origins of this park located about five miles west of Hayes on highway 34 near the junction of highway 14 and close to highway 63 are just as unique as the place itself.
According to Hand, in 1953-54 there was some property donated for a baseball field in both Hayes and the current site. There was a desire at the time to have amateur baseball and the man who was instrumental in getting it done was a gentleman by the name of Roy Norman.
“The story you are not suppose to say is, he liked gambling,” Hand said of Norman. “I have a newspaper clipping from the Kansas City Harold that says ‘WANTED! Coach for teener and legion baseball teams. All applicants are highly recommended for the pitching and hitting categories for the highly competitive amateur team.’
“We didn’t have a teener or a legion teams. But Roy would hire you and pay you as a coach and they would stay in the concession stand.”
About the same time the 80-foot light poles that are still standing today were installed. Why 80 feet you might ask? Well, the answer is simple the nearby town of Phillip, its baseball field’s light poles were 70 feet.
“They had a well digger come in to set the poles. My uncle David said they got two or three inches of rain and most of the poles caved in. So they had to dig new ones so that’s why our poles are nowhere where they are suppose to be,” Hand said.
Legend has it, at the time the lights were installed at the park; the electoral line ran directly to the newly constructed Oahe Dam.
“That’s a good 4 Corners story,” Hand said. “They ran (the electrical line) to us, but in reality they were running it west.”
When the lights were turned on for the first time at the newly created 4 Corners Lighted Field Association’s baseball field, it became the first lighted baseball field not located in a municipality in the country.
In addition to the baseball field, the complex also included a rodeo grounds nearby and according to Hand, they would have rodeos on the weekends and baseball games during the week.
The original team played there from the early 1950s to 1978 and after that the park was used as a softball field until 1985.
From then on until the early 2000s, the park lay empty and was used as a pasture for cows until Hand looked at getting the team up and running again.
“When I was a kid, a foul ball would go through somebody’s windshield or bust out a headlight and 200 people would go ‘ha ha you shouldn’t have parked there,”’ Hand said. “Society is different. Somebody wants to know who is paying for their headlight. So when we looked at starting it up again, we were like nobody can afford this.”
Hand said he went to the state to try and find out about the legalities of hosting baseball games on the site again. He searched to see if anybody had dissolved the old 4 Corners Lighted Field Association and found out nobody did. So with a $200 check to pay 20 years of past due fees, it was a green light for team to be revived again.
“We still have that entity, now we have the title,” Hand said. “Go ahead and sue, there’s 17 cents in that account.”
In the 20 years since the team was resurrected, the stories and the legend has only grown with a new generation of amateur baseball players and fans.
Perhaps the most appealing is its remoteness. There’s no city or town. It’s just there, similar to the movie Field of Dreams and a baseball field in the middle of nowhere.
Then there can be the logistical challenges that come with trying to get there. On the Sunday afternoon I traveled there for a Pony Hills League game against Miller-Wessington, I was stuck in traffic caused by three combines.
“Yep. It’s normal for this time of year,” Hand said of the combines.
Although the lights and the poles are still up, they don’t work and Hand said it would cost the team $200,000 just to get them working for 10 games a year.
Certainly not worth the price, instead the team resorts to a home schedule similar to what the Chicago Cubs did prior to 1988 when Wrigley Field became the last MLB park to get lights — afternoon home games.
As for electricity, the only place that has it is the concession stand. Meaning the ballpark might be the only park in South Dakota that uses a hand-operated scoreboard.
Then there’s the water issue. There is none. The grass takes on an opposite color change from the ivy in Wrigley Field. Instead of starting off brown and turning to green like the historic park in Chicago does during the summer, 4 Corners grass starts off green thanks to the moisture from the snowmelt, only to turn brown like dormant grass emerging from a winter snow cover.
The lack of water is not just a challenge for the grass, but also for the up keep of the dirt infield. Players are advised to bring ice coolers filled with water and post game beverages, and then afterwards they will dump the water from the melted ice on the pitchers mound.
The electrical and water issues are not just the only challenges the park faces, the wildlife has been known to cause a few issues that have added to the park’s charm and uniqueness.
Hand recalled how the team used to have a batting cage until the rabbits ate the netting. He also added there have been occasions in which dead animals have been found in the fence.
Then there is the story of a centerfielder from Chamberlain who got freaked out thinking there was a giant rattlesnake roaming the outfield with him.
“I haven’t seen any (rattlesnakes), but if there was, I would be in the dugout pretty quick,” 4 Corners centerfielder JD Farley said. “There is a couple of cactus and some holes, but if I saw a snake, I would be calling time and getting into the dugout.”
Hand said the younger guys talk about the team having a nickname such as the prairie dogs, however he said the name 4 Corners is the best baseball name there’s ever been.
“It’s here because of the four corners in the highway,” he said. “You have four corners on a baseball diamond. That is the essence of the game. If you can’t figure that out, then read a book. You can’t think of a better name. We have the original name for this sport.”
However, if the team were to adopt a nickname, perhaps they could be called the bullsnakes after the bullsnake that lives in the mound of grass behind the first base dugout. Since the snake decided to make its home there, the number of reported of rattlesnakes has gone down.
Then there’s the playing field itself. It’s as Farley described it “a plinko board, especially if there is no rain.”
When it comes to 4 Corners, there is no such thing as a Baltimore chop. Instead it’s as Hand calls it the gopher hole chop.
“It caroms. Because it’s not a hop, it’s a carom,” he said. “Most of our guys are pretty good about it because we play here. We know where the gopher holes are.”
There are things you may see at 4 Corners, that you don’t see at a Major League Baseball game. Sure in majors, you may have the occasional beach ball get lose from the stands or a drunken streaker running onto the field. But here, it’s not unheard of to have a steer get lose from the nearby rodeo grounds and streak across the outfield.
“Yeah, they came out and roped it in centerfield and drugged it off,” Hand said while shouting “TIME!” as if he was reenacting the reaction from the home plate umpire.
Hand added as the Sturgis motorcycle rally gets closer it’s not uncommon for bikers to stop by and watch a couple of innings.
“Thanks dude for bringing her by on your bike, there’s our highlight,” Hand said with a laugh.
Then there was the time when players for the Platte Killer Tomatoes would come up to play a Sunday game at 4 Corners and make it a weekend getaway. They would ask the team if they could play the game at noon.
“Because they were coming up Friday to fish Saturday and said they wouldn’t be able to function if we didn’t play early on Sunday,” Hand said. “They would come up with campers and boats and there would be 15 campers and boats parked here.”
While the field has its unique charm with its nostalgia and history, not to mention the many quirks that make it truly a special place to play. It’s also difficult on the players who call this place home.
Because of the remoteness of the park, the players travel close to 3,000 miles a season with the average road game being at least 140 miles away.
Then there are players like Farley, who drives from Crofton, Neb to play at this unique place.
“It’s the family atmosphere,” said Farley, who grew up in Winner then started playing with the team when he moved to Pierre and continued after moving to Crofton in 2018. “I wouldn’t play for anybody else, just because of the group of guys.”
Perhaps the beauty of amateur baseball in South Dakota is simple, players play for the love the game. By day your starting shortstop might be the kid who pumps your gas or carries groceries out to your car. But at night they are playing the outfield for their local amateur baseball team.
“Last year the superintendent of Fort Pierre played for us,” Hand said. “It’s just who can we find and who’s willing to do it.”
At 55, Hand’s best playing days are behind him, but during the course of the year, he said he might find a couple of at bats during the season, but for the most part he sits in the dugout and keeps book — the old school way and not on an iPad using the Gamechanger app.
“I love this,” he said.
Since reviving the team nearly 20 years ago, 4 Corners has been going strong with seemingly annual trips to the state amateur tournament
However, Hand was careful to clearly the word “strong”
“Well we are not strong because we are 100, we’re waiting for everyone’s kids to get older,” he said. “We are constant. If we can continue to play, that’s a good thing for everyone here. It’s an option. If you are afraid of a DUI, you party at your house. Well, this is a party at our house.”