Y ou don’t have to get too close to Hawks Dream Field to be taken by its beauty. The baselines on the Dominion, Nova Scotia-based diamond shoot out toward the Atlantic Ocean, providing a backdrop for flyballs few venues can match and fertile ground for growing local sports legends. Just over 100 hundred years ago, Hector “Hec” Andrews — a slight shortstop playing for the Dominion Hawks — swatted a ball 478 feet into the sea. It was scooped up by some fishermen and resides on dry land today, the proud possession of Andrews’ grandson, Bruce Carabin.
The thing about Hawks Dream Field, though, is a close-up is almost required to get a full sense of what really makes the place special. That’s not only due to the incredible facelift the park recently received, but because of the care and consideration that went into the renovation of the entire site. Anybody strolling along the walking track that rims the perimeter of the property will see seating available every 30 feet for those who require the occasional rest. The bleachers have spaces carved out to accommodate wheelchairs and the dugouts are XL-sized so athletes and coaches who use wheelchairs can move freely. The window at the canteen is set low in the wall so anybody who walks or rolls up can look a person in the eye and order their heart’s desire. It’s all a result of the message Toni McNeil and the rest of the Hawks Dream Field Society took to different organizations and levels of government — including Tim Houston, Nova Scotia’s premier — while fundraising for this project. “I said, ‘Every ballfield or park built from here on out, this [proposed] field should be the benchmark,’” McNeil recalls. “’Because there’s no reason people with disabilities cannot have recreational areas to be comfortable and included in.’”
Even before it got fancy, Hawks Dream Field was always a gathering place for people from in and around Dominion. Walter McNeil — who spent much of his non-working life playing and coaching at the field — made it an especially welcoming spot. When Walter passed four years ago, his wife, Toni, and daughters, Lisa McNeil-Campbell and Carrie McNeil, wanted to do something that would pay tribute not just to Walter, but to the men and women like him who devoted so much time to the Dominion community. They did what East Coasters do, talking it out around the kitchen table with family and close friends, and decided restoring a ball diamond that had not received the attention it needed would be a fantastic way to help the town while honouring Walter. What started as a relatively modest endeavour exploded into a multi-million dollar project that came to fruition with jovial opening ceremonies on July 2. It was a day to both take stock of what came before and celebrate a new chapter in the story of Dominion and the sport that’s in the blood there.
Walter McNeil was the kind of person who made an impression on you. As one person paying his respects at the wake lovingly said to Lisa: “He was a circus.” As his life drew to a close, Walter was still telling stories and, unsurprisingly, baseball was a part of them. He told Lisa about how, when he was a child, he’d spend hours just throwing a ball up against the barn and catching it. By late afternoon, he’d have one eye on the ball and the other trained on the laneway, waiting for his father, Sonny, to return from a day working in the mines. “He said, ‘Dad would drive in the driveway. He wouldn’t even go in the house. He’d get out of the car, he’d put his lunch can on the ground, get his glove out of the car and he’d go play catch,’” Lisa relays. “Everything was baseball.”
Sonny was a fantastic ballplayer. Family lore has it that, when Sonny was a young man, a letter showed up at the house offering him a shot with a Major League farm club. It was a different time, though, and Sonny had to stick close to home and help generate income for the household.
Walter was born in 1948 and had a baseball glove on not long after. He played in Dominion on different teams well into his adult years, when he also began coaching. Along the way he met Toni and while Lisa and Carrie played badminton and tennis, the entire family spent all kinds of time at Hawks Dream Field. If there was a weekend tournament, it seemed as though they didn’t leave the field for three days, despite the fact their house was just a stone’s throw away. “You lived on hot dogs and hamburgers,” Toni recalls.
Another regular at the field was Donald “Duck” Ellsworth. Like his pal Walter, Ellsworth grew up playing in and around Dominion and, once upon a time, you didn’t just hit and catch balls on the diamond, you also grabbed a rake when you were done and groomed your little part of the infield. “You cleaned up your kitchen, as they called it,” Ellsworth, now 80 years old, says. One day several decades ago, Ellsworth got a call from a woman in town who was concerned the field was in no shape to host the games slated to happen in a few days’ time. “She said, ‘Will you come down and do the field for me?’” Ellsworth says. “I said, ‘Okay.’ And I never stopped since.”
He also never stopped pestering local politicians — in vain — to make upgrades at the field, specifically in the form of lights. There were some small improvements in the ’80s, but no lights and certainly nothing close to the scale of what’s been done now. “It went from a $700,000 project, with new fence and new lights, to this $3.5-million megaproject,” Lisa says.
Of course, that jump required no small amount of fundraising. Fortunately, things started off on a good note: Between the municipal and federal governments and their own events, the Hawks Dream Field Society was able to raise close to $1 million in Phase 1 of the project. They also reached out to the Jays Care Foundation with an application that spared no detail in terms of the inspiration and vision for the renovations. Initially, it was bad news, as the group was informed it would not be getting any money. Shortly thereafter, though, Lisa got a phone call from someone at the organization saying they loved Dominion’s story and urging her to apply again the next year. “I knew she read the whole thing,” Lisa says, adding she could sense the invitation to re-submit was sincere.
Sure enough, the Society eventually got $180,000 from Jays Care. Still, they had a long way to go to make the dream scenario come to life. That’s why they agreed to connect with Houston when, out of the blue, they were asked if they could meet the premier on 24 hours’ notice. It was during that gathering that Toni explained the field was all about making sure every single person had a place to go. At one point, Houston got down to brass tacks: How much were they after? Somebody in the group just kind of blurted out “$500,000.” Lisa remembers feeling queasy asking anybody for that much money under any circumstances. All parties went their separate ways and, a short time later, Houston’s office got back in touch.
“Two weeks later we got a notice; they gave us $2 million,” Lisa says, still sounding like she just got the news 30 seconds ago. “I could have fallen on the floor.”
From that point on, it was simply a matter of bringing the project home. While COVID and its supply chain issues certainly had an impact on the timeline, it’s at the one-yard line now. The lights Ellsworth has been after for nearly half a century will be up and illuminated well before the kids go back to school. “When they put the lights on her, that’s it for me, I’m going to retire all together,” Duck says with a chuckle.
Doug MacKenzie grew up playing baseball in Dominion in the ’70s and ’80s, often on teams coached by Walter. His boyhood field always held a special place in his heart, but seeing what it’s been transformed into completely stops him in his tracks. “It’s amazing,” he says. “It’s overwhelming. When you drive in, it just gives you goosebumps, especially if you played there as a kid. When I walked out on it for the first time, you come to tears almost.”
Whether they were the groundskeeper for 40 years or helped run teams and tournaments, the bottom line is Duck, Walter and everybody else who spent time at Hawks Dream Field did so because they had the kids’ best interests at heart. Nobody put up with any foolishness — Lisa says you can still catch Duck giving the local youth “a talkin’ to” if they’re getting a bit rowdy for his taste — they just wanted to make sure everyone got their chance to have some fun.
That spirit of inclusiveness certainly strikes a chord with Sheldon Saccary, whose daughter, Angela, presents with Down’s syndrome. Saccary was there every step of the way pushing to get this field made, and it’s especially gratifying for him to see things like family bathrooms equipped with mechanical change tables that can accommodate a person of any age who requires one. Angela, who is 35 years old, has always been into sports and presently swims in Special Olympics events. She’s also played boccia ball in the past. Saccary used to drive her 20 minutes to Sydney so she could play on a court with six-inch tall grass. Now, Hawks Dream Field can be the gathering point for anybody who wants to play on its pristine boccia courts. Saccary is at the grounds all the time and, whether it’s young adults playing soccer in the outfield or people out for a stroll on the track, he just loves seeing the activity. “That’s what it’s all about, right? Getting people on the field,” he says.
That exact sentiment may be what has struck Carrie the most. “Somebody came up to us during Seaside Days, younger than I, and [he] said, ‘Oh my God, I played on the field! I never thought I’d be playing on the Hawks Field again,’” she says. “He was just that excited to be down there.”
Anybody playing baseball itself at Hawks Dream Field sits in either the Walter McNeil Dugout or the Duck Ellsworth Dugout. Early on in the campaign, Toni was questioned about renaming the field itself. “‘Are you changing the name; is it going to be the Walter McNeil Ballfield?’” she recalls being asked. “I said ‘Absolutely not! Never! He’d come down from the sky and berate me for that. It’s always been the Hawks Field. He would never, ever want me to change that.’”
Every other change, though, you can bet Walter would have been overjoyed to see.