BY VENI FIELDS
BLACKWATER — No cornfield. No legendary ghosts. No mysterious whispers in the still night air.
Derrick Howell just wanted to make a place for his kids to play ball.
He and his wife joked about the movie references that started popping up a couple of years ago, when he took a dozer to the back of their eight-acre property and scraped out a baseball diamond. But when Nicole Howell looked on Google Earth, what Derrick had carved out of the weeds was already there:
“Blackwater Field of Dreams.”
“I don’t know who wrote it in [on Google Earth], but I claimed it.” Nicole Howell said, “It’s ours now.”
And now youth baseball traveling teams called the Tidewater Titans play there.
Derrick Howell “doesn’t think there’s much of a story to it,” Nicole Howell said, “but really there is.”
She was nine, he was ten, when the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, in which a farmer builds a baseball diamond in a field after hearing ghostly voices, was released in April 1989. It was her favorite, Nicole Howell said. They were a little more than half a dozen years from meeting and becoming high school sweethearts at Kellam. He was already playing on a local traveling team; she would become an outstanding softball athlete.
In his late teens, Derrick Howell became skilled using earthmoving equipment to sculpt golf courses from architectural drawings, his handiwork extending from the mid-Atlantic to Florida. The couple traveled for several years after they married in 2000.
“When we started having kids, though, we knew we had to come back here and do something more sustainable,” Derrick Howell said.
They lived in Red Mill, then Munden Point, as Derrick Howell established himself locally and began his own company, Premier Earth Shaping, Inc.
Possibly more aligned with sentiment expressed in the film were the reactions the Howells received in 2013, when they decided to settle with their daughter, Mahayla, and three sons, Grayden, Hudson, and Colter, at the corner of Blackwater Loop and Blackwater Road.
“People told us we were crazy,” Nicole Howell said. “This house was a shell. It was vacant for a few years, and basically all there were were concrete walls downstairs and very little upstairs.”
They bought it anyway. Derrick acted as general contractor and had it finished. The family moved in by August of 2013. Four months later, Nicole said, thinking only friends and family would ever use it, he started on the ball field.
By then, Tony Hoffman was about four years into coaching local youth baseball. Originally from Chicago, transferred to Dam Neck in 1997 on Navy active duty, he and his son had met Derrick and his family competitively on opposing teams.
Both were experienced with travel teams, and both were becoming frustrated with some of the down sides and expense of local programs. Their introduction to each other in 2014 sparked an idea.
“We started asking some hard questions,” Hoffman said. Each had five players from the respective teams they coached. They wondered, could they do something with this? When all was said and done, one big consideration stood out, Hoffman said:
“Derrick already had the field.”
Some figuring, some filing of papers, lots of legwork, many phone calls, and in the fall of 2014, four teams of twelve players each in different age groups became the Tidewater Titans.
The toughest challenge that first season was getting players to gel, Hoffman said. They had been opponents in the past. They held positions that had only been theirs.
But gel they did. In May 2015, the 11U team won the Nations Baseball Virginia State Select Championship. In August, that team was upgraded by Nations Baseball to elite status, and ended the season in November by winning the Polar Bear Classic Championship, ranking No. 1 nationally out of 88 teams in their division.
A meteoric rise and the competitive level of the players is not the teams’ solitary uniqueness, though, according to anyone on the field, in a folding chair or pacing the the lawn beyond the paddock containing a sheep named Lola, a young horse, Flicka, and 19 chickens on Blackwater Road.
The reason players don’t leave, the reason just about every parent is at just about every one of the weeknight practices and multiple weekend games, is summed up in one repeated theme.
“This is family,” said Jayne Gaffney, whose son, Grant, plays on the 11U team. “I have never seen a team like this. Everyone supports each other. The boys get together all the time, even outside of practice. People may be disappointed when things go wrong, but no one is critical. They’re always positive and encouraging.”
Nicole Howell said she never imagined this when she was standing at her back window, watching her husband on a dozer in their back yard in December of 2014.
Wrapped in a down quilt on a windy Saturday this month, she cheered alongside parents and grandparents clad in jackets, hats and gloves, with throws over their laps.
A dozen or so children played in a sand pile, jumped on a trampoline, and played tag beyond the fences and backstop, while dust devils whipped around the players on the field.
“I think it’s a story,” Nicole Howell said. “There are dreams here.”
A TITAN TRIBUTE
They stand for Dustin Wayne Howell. One of Derrick Howell’s brothers, a North Carolina resident, was the victim of a fatal attack in Jacksonville, Fla., in February.
Wearing a memorial uniform badge is tradition in baseball that goes back to the inception of the National League in 1876, when a catcher died of kidney disease and a St. Louis team wanted to honor his memory, according to ESPN.
“It was the kids’ idea to add the initials to their helmets,” said Tony Hoffman, who coaches with Derrick Howell. “They wanted to pay tribute, and they’re dedicating this season for [Derrick Howell’s] brother,” he added. “It’s very demonstrative of how these boys are.”
© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC