MOUNT VERNON – Saturday was Opening Day for Little League baseball in Mount Vernon. Hundreds of families descended upon Phillips Park, as the boys of summer took the diamond. Bats clinked, coaches barked, and the buzz of a community coming together over America’s pastime filled the air.
But when Tom Martin and Kyle Theibert walked to home plate before the big boys (12U) began at 2:30, the park fell silent.
GALLERY: Ryan Martin Memorial Field
The first field at Phillips Park was officially named "Ryan Martin Memorial Field" on Saturday. Martin, a Mount Vernon native, was killed in action while serving in Iraq for the Army National Guard in 2004. He played Little League baseball at Phillips Park for three years alongside Kyle Theibert, a childhood friend. Theibert worked with city council to dedicate the field to Martin, and a ceremony announcing the dedication was held before Opening Day on Saturday.
Even the youngest in attendance grasped the meaning of this moment.
Theibert is 36 years old now, but when he was younger he played baseball here with Martin’s son, Ryan. They played for Don’s Plaza Shell in the early 1990s and were close friends; Ryan’s older brother used to give Theibert rides to school. After the two graduated from high school, Ryan joined the Army National Guard.
Four years later, tragedy struck.
Ryan was killed in action in Iraq on Aug. 20, 2004. He was 22 years old.
As the years went by, Kyle never forgot about Ryan. Theibert eventually moved back to Mount Vernon – he works in security at Ariel Corporation – and now has a 12-year-old son, Caden, who stars at catcher for his Little League team. He plays on the same field as Ryan and Kyle – two generations tied together by a game.
That’s where Theibert got the idea. He wanted to name the first of two ballfields at Phillips Park after his friend – a fallen hero.
So he brought the idea before city council, which crafted an ordinance allowing certain city assets to be renamed after a period of time. The field was previously named for Paul Slaughter, a former businessman and community leader, and his name will remain on the sign. But for the next 20 years, the field's official title will be “Ryan Martin Memorial Field.”
On Saturday, Theibert and Tom Martin met on the diamond for the dedication ceremony. Theibert said it was hard to track down Ryan’s family leading up to Opening Day; his father still lives in Ryan’s childhood home in Amity, but his brother lives in Wooster. Various family members are scattered throughout the region, Theibert said, but he eventually reached them.
They stood together near the west dugout as the local color guard presented the flag. Matt Starr, city councilman, told Ryan’s story.
“Every year, Little Leaguers across the country recite this simple pledge: ‘I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win. But win or lose, I will always do my best.’ In his short life on Earth, Ryan exemplified this pledge,” Starr told the crowd, which had gathered outside the stadium fence.
“He was the kind of man that, as adults, we hope the children of this community can look up to and strive to be like. Ryan is a true American hero who represented himself, his family, his country, and his community with honor.”
After country singer/songwriter Luke Watson sang the national anthem, those in attendance observed a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps.”
Then, Tom Martin strode slowly to the mound. He wriggled the little white ball in his hand, then glanced towards home plate. Caden Theibert crouched down, ready to catch his most important pitch. He snapped open his glove, gave Martin a nod, and the father fired a fastball down the middle.
The crowd burst into applause.
Now, when local Little Leaguers look to the outfield, they’ll see Ryan Martin’s sign. Theibert believes young men can learn a lot from Martin, about how to be a friend and a teammate.
“Ryan was just kind of that guy that, no one was ever down around Ryan. If you struck out, you came into the dugout and Ryan would pick you up. Ryan would pick you up and make sure that everything was good,” Theibert said. “He was that guy that would make you laugh. I don’t remember ever seeing the guy mad.”
Martin received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Ohio Distinguished Service Medal for his service in Iraq. This will be another way for his legacy to live on, Starr said, as thousands of local Little Leaguers will now know his story.
“This is one of those things that means a lot to the city because it’s part of our culture, you know? We honor the people who served our country, were great community members, students,” Starr said. “And so it’s a way of remembering those people who meant a lot to us, and still mean a lot to us.”
According to the city’s new naming rights ordinance, which was adopted in light of Theibert’s idea, the field will have the ability to be renamed after 20 years. None of the prior names will fade away – they’ll be ingrained on the same plaque as time goes on.
“That’s how we wanted to set it up, so it’s not just a one-and-done,” Starr said. “We can keep honoring people who continue to build the program and give back.”
After throwing out the first pitch, Tom Martin was given a commemorative baseball to mark the occasion. He looked Theibert in the eye and shook his hand. No words were spoken; none needed to be.
“I saw a quote somewhere and it said, ‘The worst day for a family is when their loved one dies. The second worst day is when everyone forgets their memory, and they’re forgotten.’ And to me, for the next 20 years, Ryan won’t be,” said Theibert, holding back tears.
“As long as somebody comes to this field, they’ll see that picture and they’ll see his name. And they may ask, like, ‘Who is that?’ And everybody’s got a smartphone or a computer and they’ll look it up and they’ll know. Ryan’s memory will live on.”