AUSTIN, Indiana – The forklift issues its warning and moves slowly in reverse. It’s like this town, that forklift: Lots of warning signs, lots of going backward. At this exact moment, the forklift is somewhere between second and third base on the biggest of three ballfields at Austin Community Park, scooping up large rolls of sod and transporting them across the infield, where they will be unfurled in lush strips of green.
What we’re watching is a rehabilitation project.
And not just the ballfield.
Beep, beep, beep …
Austin, Austin, Austin – ringing a bell? It was three years ago that Gov. Pence declared a public health emergency here, 70 miles south of Indianapolis, ground zero for the biggest HIV outbreak in state history. The nationwide opioid crisis had visited Scott County and taken up residence in Austin, where education levels were low and poverty levels high and residents sought refuge in OxyContin and then a new painkiller called Opana, one they were shooting intravenously.
Needles were shared. Someone, apparently, had HIV.
Beep, beep …
Within months, nearly 200 people in Southern Indiana had the AIDS virus. During the spring of 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was providing President Obama with daily updates of an HIV outbreak that had busted loose in Austin.
Three years later, hopelessness has been pierced by a glimmer of hope. Ugliness has not become beauty, not yet, but folks in Austin see things moving in that direction. They see new businesses, a pharmacy and a butcher, moving into town. They see new asphalt on neglected roads. And they see a forklift rolling across a pockmarked baseball field, delivering thick carpets of green grass.
The people of Austin will tell you: This place isn’t dead. It’s alive, it’s kicking. A dying town doesn’t get a new baseball field.
* * *
Austin wasn’t supposed to win this contest. I’d say it was David vs. Goliath, but at least David had a slingshot.
Austin was competing with Los Angeles for the last of five $50,000 field improvement grants offered by Major League Baseball and its corporate partner, the lawncare company Scotts. The winning town would be determined by an online vote, which made this a contest of size (Los Angeles’ population: 4 million) against will.
Will won out: Austin (population 4,100) outvoted runner-up Los Angeles and two other finalists, Kansas City and Passaic, N.J.
“Austin was competing with three really big markets,” she says. “When we had discussions with Scotts last summer of how to move forward (with the final $50,000 grant), there were discussions of going underneath the surface and finding the best stories across the country. There were a lot of stories that came in, but this one is incredibly compelling. They rallied the community.”
The community had been through so much. Austin High baseball coach Matt Bayes graduated from here in 2008. He played on those rutted dirt fields back when Austin had a vibrant youth baseball community, but he has seen the town struggle. And he has seen that struggle manifest itself within the school’s hallways, where the optimism of youth has given way to resignation.
“I think a lot of kids have kind of accepted it: Well, that’s just the way it is, I guess,” he says. “If we really want to change, it starts with our kids. It’s going to come from our younger generation.”
But the wind has been in Austin’s face. The poverty rate in Austin is 20 percent, and it’s 31 percent for children under 18. Around town, large metal boxes are available for disposal of syringes. In opposing high school dugouts, players yell cruel taunts: “Watch out for needles!” Around town, yards are dotted by two kinds of signs, depressing for different reasons. “For sale,” says one. “No trespassing,” says the other.
“We have a lot of really, really good kids,” Bayes says. “It’s easy to focus on the negative, and a lot of people feel our kids have all these obstacles to overcome – and many of them do – but they’re just as capable of competing at a high level. As a coach, a teacher, this is my thing: ‘You can do anything you want.’
“The goal is that this field helps us start to turn things around a little bit. Hopefully, this can be part of the change.”
* * *
At one end of Broadway Street is U.S. 31, which connects Austin to I-65 and the world beyond. At the other end of Broadway is Austin Community Park. In the middle? Urban blight.
Some lots are empty, a concrete pad the only thing left after its mobile home was taken away. Others have homes with cars in the driveway and roofs caving in. One abandoned home, at most a quarter-mile from the ballpark, is a den for drug addicts. I stop my car to have a closer look at this place, walking past the “No Trespassing” sign to peek through a window without glass. The walls inside are covered in graffiti, with profanity and “666” the expressions of choice. Now I’m walking back to my car, watching where I step, having been warned about syringes …
“Pretty, isn’t it?”
She’s standing in a driveway across the street, smiling in a way that registers sadness. Her name is Norma Morris, she’s been living on Broadway since 1985, “and I’m not leaving,” she says, a statement that draws this response:
“Why would I?” she says. “I’m not going to let the status of what somebody else does affect my life.”
Norma gestures up and down the block, pointing out the house where her husband’s grandparents lived, her current house, and the mobile home next door, where his brother lives. “And his sister lives back there,” she says, gesturing off into the distance.
Her grandson played on that field down the street, the one they’re renovating right now. In those days, youth baseball was a big deal in Austin.
“We used to have a Little League parade pass right through here,” she says, waving her arm along Broadway. “My grandson was in it, but they did away with that. Over the years we’ve lost a lot of players from our ballfields to Scottsburg and Lexington. Parents in Scottsburg don’t want their children playing in Austin. I just don’t understand it.”
I look at the house across the street. Norma catches me.
“I know they’ve been getting inside,” she says, spitting out they as a four-letter word. “There used to be a chair next to that window where you were at. They were using it to climb inside.
“My grandchildren have found syringes right here in the street! They knew what to do – they’ve been trained: Scoop it up in a plastic bottle, put the lid on tight. The police used to come by and pick them up, but they stopped. They couldn’t keep up.”
She is describing hell, but she is describing home – and she’s not leaving. A small town can work its way into your heart, and Norma Morris is in love with Austin. She was scrolling through Facebook earlier this year when she saw something about MLB’s $50,000 Scotts Field Refurbishment Program. She saw that more than 350 communities had applied for the grant. She saw Austin was a finalist. She clicked the link.
“I voted!” she says. “A ballpark brings the community together. We need this. You don’t know how bad we need this.”
* * *
Austin is trying. It’s trying so damn hard. A drive down Mann Avenue or Main Street reveals health facilities and recovery clinics and those big, bulky syringe disposal units.
Austin has been pouring money into its infrastructure, including repaved roads, and has been sprucing up its city park, which sits on the rougher side of town to the north.
“Our redevelopment commission bought land there and put in a walking trail,” Austin clerk-treasurer Chris Fugate is telling me. “As a city, we’ve done some things to help get people back out to the park.”
The walking trail winds through the woods, with signs posted in front of various trees. It’s a detail, a small one, but it’s touching. At Austin, they’d like you to know the difference between a pin oak (“with thin leaves and deep indentations”), shagbark hickory (“bark curls away from the trunk”) and bur oak (“large acorn is enclosed in a fuzzy cap”).
The sign nearest the field issues a warning – beep, beep … – about something growing just above the surface: “Poison Hemlock,” it reads. “One of the deadliest plants in North America and can be fatal if just a small amount is ingested.”
Death has found a home in Austin. Eight years ago, Fugate is telling me, there were 19 deaths by overdose. Fugate would know, because he’s also the Austin deputy coroner. In a withering town not lacking for metaphors – the beep-beep-beeping, the poison hemlock – there’s another: One of the town’s elected officials doubles as a coroner.
“My background is 20 years in the funeral industry,” Fugate says, as our conversation turns to the town’s declining overdose rate. “Maybe two years ago, we had 15, 17 overdoses. Those are starting to drop a little bit.”
Like Matt Bayes, like Norma Morris, Fugate is an Austin lifer. He played on those Austin Community Park fields as a kid, and he coached his son on those fields, and now he coaches the Austin High cross-country team. He has been on roads all over town with his team, picking up syringes – “More than 1,000,” he says. “You’d be surprised where you find syringes” – and fuming as the town’s reputation wilted from the opioid crisis and ensuing HIV outbreak.
“It’s been hard on most of the population,” he says. “The majority of Austin is being judged on this percentage of (drug abusers). It takes its toll. You’ve got good people everywhere you go, but our population is defined as this. That’s why it was so overwhelming when we were able to announce (the $50,000 field renovation). I know my son was voting every day, and so were his friends. A lot of people wanted to see this happen. Finally, it’s good news for our community. It’s something we can hang our hat on.”
For a week now, construction foreman Brad Cederberg’s five-man crew has been covering the rutted infield with 2-3 inches of topsoil, covering that with sod, and dousing that with water. The day I visit, Cederberg is holding a sprinkler and telling me that folks from Austin “have been tooling through the park, just to take a look. I can tell what this means around here.”
A ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for June 27. After that, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation will hold a baseball clinic for kids. And after that? Austin will continue to excavate itself from the horror of 2015, one day at a time, digging toward a lush, green path to tomorrow.