On Your Corner: Saving a West Side pastime

On Your Corner

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nestled in the valley of Grand Rapids’ West Side there is a gem that sparkles on crisp fall mornings. The sun throws long shadows from the trees and fences on the dirt, the grounds crew mows away the leaves covering the green, and the mist rises off the grass telling the legend of Sullivan Field. 

“Al Kaline played on this field,” Andy DeVries said as he pointed out to each spot on the field. “Willie Horton played right there, and Mickey Stanley played right there. Charlie Maxwell played right.” 

There is a boyish tone to DeVries as he talks about the greats that once swung a bat on this field. He grew up just down the road. Close enough to rally eight guys on a Saturday morning each week at 10 and meet at the field. By the time they got there he says there were already enough kids there, they could play a game.   

“This was my home away from home,” DeVries said. “We just played and played and played until they, the park workers, kicked us off.” 

Paul Soltysiak talks with a similar fondness of the field. He shares the same childhood memories as DeVries but with decades between them. Soltysiak grew up just a few houses from the gates. He remembers it as the center of his childhood; baseball until the sun went down; football in the fall; ice skating in the winter; even his first kiss behind the bleachers. 

“This was our playground,” Soltysiak said. “It just, it was everything to us. It’s such a unique space, you know, right here in the middle of the city, middle of a neighborhood, it’s awesome.” 

The two now share more than their memories of their field of dreams, together they’re part of the team ready to save it. Over the years the park has seen wear and tear. The roof to the grandstands is noticeably falling apart. The green paint is chipping in massive chunks. The in-field is filled with puddles, clovers, crabgrass, and bumps big enough to make for some wild bounces. DeVries and Soltysiak say the pitcher’s mound isn’t up to standard either. They say home plate has sunk so much that the mound is 10-inches higher than regulation. 

“The residents of the city seven years ago voted, you know, there was a millage which devoted money to improve the parks. So, the city has done a good job of slowly but surely renovating a lot of the different parts. And this is on the docket,” Soltysiak said. “There’s a lot of hope, you know, that the field can be renovated. The stands can be renovated. We could potentially add some things to enhance it. So, I think it just mainly, it was a lack of funding.” 

With the funding coming in the future, the pair started a Facebook group, “Fans of Valley Field,” a homage to its original name. And the support was so widely accepted, they formed a nonprofit. They sell merchandise at local Westside shops like Lewandowski’s Market on Walker Avenue. All the proceeds go back to the park.

“We had a big event here over the weekend,” DeVries said. “Everybody was here in their old jerseys and we were having brats and pop and it was so cool talking to people that live where Sixth Street dead ends into the hill. It’s a piece of history that is formative in our life.” 

Right now, the group is working with the city, bringing the ideas of the community to the drawing board. Their plans are to get quotes for the field, the roof and all the other needs and present them to the city next year with hopes of a completed renovation being done in 2022. But needs are one thing for them, they also have a list of wants which they hope to accomplish with fundraised money. 

“We talked about potentially adding something like a small pavilion where people can come in and enjoy the park and rent the park for family events or corporate events or we even talked about potentially weddings,” Soltysiak said as he referenced toward leftfield. “I would love to see more youth activity here. You know whether it’s youth soccer or scattered baseball games.” 

Their goal is to be a modern shine with historical significance to a new generation. Keeping the donated WWII flagpole near centerfield and maybe adding a history display to document the greats that once compete on this field. 

But really their goal is even simpler. They want to create a safe play for kids to grow up as they had as kids. A center for childhood to blossom, through baseball and community. They want to create memories that kids hold on to. Maybe hold on to them long enough to one day find the passion for a project that meant so much to them a long time ago. 

“I see kids playing here. I see 20 kids, I see 50 kids, I see this place crawling with kids playing and that’s my dream,” DeVries said as he stared out on the empty field. 

“It truly is a jewel. This place is a treasure,” Soltysiak added. “How many cities have something like this? And it’s just, it’s a beautiful, beautiful spot. And it would be great to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.” 

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