It was 3 AM, an early-summer night turning into an early-summer morning. Ben Steger was bicycling home to Edgewater from a party in Pilsen when he got the text from his friend Chris Batte: K.C. Haywood, captain of the Fighting Cocks kickball team, was in a coma.
Haywood and his girlfriend, Sarah Hart, had come home from dinner on June 14 to find themselves locked out of their third-floor apartment in Logan Square. They called their roommate, and Hart waited out front for her to bring keys. But Haywood went around back, tried to scale the wall in a pair of cowboy boots, and fell, breaking both ankles and fracturing his skull.
When Steger got the message, he pointed his bike downtown and rode to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where Hayford had been taken. "There were ten of us there that night," he says. "The kickball community streamed in and out. The nurses at the desk said they'd never seen such a big show of support."
Steger and Batte had spent a year and a half shooting a documentary, Left Field, about the Humboldt Park kickball league for grown-ups that the Fighting Cocks were part of, and Haywood and Hart had become central characters in it. Steger had grown close with them and many other players, and in May he'd joined the Fighting Cocks himself, figuring it was OK since he was nearly done with the movie. Now he and Batte were torn about whether to bring the camera back out to capture this tight-knit community in crisis.
Haywood, a Kansas native, was working as a firefighter in Taos, New Mexico, when he met Hart in 2004. His "speed country" band Handsome Molly had played a bar where she worked. He pursued her for months, and then, just a few months after they'd finally started dating, they decided to move together to Chicago, where Hart had been accepted to the School of the Art Institute.
Gina Black, former bassist of the alt-country band the Blacks, was one of the few people Haywood knew here. Handsome Molly had opened for the Blacks in Missouri in the late 90s. "I asked him to join my kickball team the Ass Panthers," Black says. She assured him he'd meet everyone he'd ever need to know in Chicago.
Not that he had trouble meeting people on his own, Hart says. She remembers accompanying him to Humboldt Park for the first day of preseason kickball games in 2005. "None of the Ass Panthers showed up," Hart says. "K.C. was off introducing himself to everyone. I sat in the grass and looked for four-leaf clovers."
"Overwhelmed" by the scene at SAIC, Hart never actually enrolled, pursuing painting on her own instead. Haywood got a job silk-screening posters and shirts at Victory Records, then moved on to Rapid Transit in Wicker Park as a bike mechanic. The kickball league became the center of their social scene.
"Everyone I know in Chicago, I met through kickball," Haywood says in Left Field. He and Hart were crowned king and queen of the annual Kickball Prom in 2006. The Fighting Cocks, which Haywood and Hart cofounded, became the hardest-partying, losingest team in the league—a perverse point of pride.
Some 200 players and hangers-on, many artists and service industry workers, make up the league's ten teams. There are games every Sunday from May to September, with regular postgame parties, an all-star game, a championship, and a slew of extracurricular rituals like the prom and a Valentine's Day bikini party. Black, 33, started the league with a handful of friends in 2004, when she was bartending at the Streetside Cafe in Humboldt Park. "As quasi-adults we never get any sunshine on our faces and roll around in the grass anymore," she says. One friend had a regular croquet game, "but I wanted more contact. I can't throw a ball from first to third, but I played soccer for 13 years. Kickball came to mind."
Four near-west-side bars, the Streetside, the California Clipper, the Pontiac, and Piece, sponsored the first teams, composed of staffers and regulars: the Streetside Homicide, the California Cripplers, the Pontiac Pill Poppers, and the Piece Corpse.
Black recalls those days fondly: "I could go on forever about this," she says. "Rousting teammates from bed on Sundays by going to their apartments on my bike and throwing rocks at their windows, dyeing my team's jerseys navy blue on a Saturday night in my bathtub and toilet and then silk-screening them in time for the game...."
Steger and Batte came in during the 2006 season. Batte had befriended some kickballers at Lemmings, whose owners by then sponsored a team, and he'd been to a few games. A salesman and project manager for a home automation company, he'd always wanted to make a movie, and the league's outsize personalities seemed to make it a perfect subject. It was the "shit-talking and sideline tomfoolery" that attracted him, more than the actual game, he says. "These people shed any sort of social inhibition."
Batte brought in Steger, a filmmaker who teaches at Columbia and Loyola. The two men, both 37, had met at the Hideaway, a rock club in Lawrence, Kansas, in the early 90s. Steger was a student at the University of Kansas; Batte, who'd dropped out, owned the bar with his wife at the time.
Steger filmed the end of the '06 season and the prom and had started collecting interviews, thinking he'd turn the footage over to Batte to make a short film. A few players refused to be filmed for fear that footage of their weekend antics could hurt them at work. "People were concerned about how they were going to come off: 'Am I going to look like a jerk or a fool?'" Steger says. "There were some things people didn't want to do in front of the camera."
That winter the camera was stolen from his Logan Square apartment, along with a good deal of footage that was stowed in the camera bag. The loss, Steger says, made him realize how invested he'd become in the project. He and Batte decided then to really go for it: shoot the whole 2007 season, do more interviews, make it a feature-length documentary.
Steger began digging deeper into the players' lives outside of kickball, interviewing them about their families and the joys and disappointments of the bohemian lifestyle that many of the kickballers share. "Some people were open to that," Steger says. "Other people were like, 'This is kickball. It's fun. Why are you asking about my parents and these existential life questions?'
"These people are living a lifestyle similar to my own, and a lot of the questions I asked are the ones I have about my own life," he says. "It's hard to be successful at making art. I'm 37. I don't have a family. I don't have a 401(k). I don't have a ton of job security. Those are all things that a lot of these people are living. They have a 'be here now, the moment takes precedence over the future' kind of attitude. That's how I've tended to live my life as well, and I also have a lot of doubts about it."
Steger gravitated to Haywood as both a subject and a friend. Haywood, it turned out, had taken some film classes in college, and the two bonded over their ties to the Kansas music scene. "He made me feel very comfortable being an outsider in this community," Steger says.
Haywood seems to have been the embodiment of the league's freewheeling, anarchic spirit, always looking to undermine competitiveness by inventing new rules, running bases backward, and provoking marginally more serious players on other teams. "We have to continuously keep this weird," he tells Steger in an interview for Left Field.
"Sarah is the only thing I conceive in life as permanent," he tells Steger in another. "Most of the decisions I make are rarely thought through."
After Haywood's fall, Steger and Batte talked it over with the couple's family and friends and decided to keep filming. "There was some apprehension about shooting these traumatic scenes," Steger says. "I didn't want people to feel like we were exploiting it."
They didn't bring their cameras to the hospital, where Haywood lay comatose for two weeks before he died on June 28. But they did shoot a league meeting at the Green Eye where the players debated how they could help, and a "Get Well K.C." kickball game in the rain where players from different teams all wore the Fighting Cocks' team color, carnation pink.
After Haywood died, Steger documented the kickball community celebrating his life in a raucous New Orleans-style funeral parade in Humboldt Park, putting on a series of memorial concerts, and raising about $10,000 at parties, bowling nights, and other events to help cover the cost of his wake and services in Chicago and Wichita. Unlike many in his situation, Haywood did have some health insurance—his card had arrived the day of his accident.
"The outpouring of generosity was amazing," Hart says. "I couldn't have made it though with the strength I have now if it wasn't for their support. This whole experience put me in awe of K.C.'s ability to touch people on a personal level."
The Portage screening will be the first time most of the kickballers see Left Field. "I'm not sure what to expect," Hart says. "I want to see and hear K.C. again, like how I remember him, being a goon."
Hart is moving back to Taos next month to open a silk-screening shop. "Chicago is not the same without K.C.," she says. She's also working on packaging and releasing an LP Haywood recorded in New Orleans with a group of musician friends from across the country just months before his death. "I know it was very important to him," says Hart. "He always wanted to hear himself on vinyl." Piece, whose brewer is a kickballer and whose assistant brewer had worked with Hart at the bar where the couple met in Taos, came up with a beer, Saints & Sinners, and donated proceeds to the project. She hopes to have it out by May.
Kickball, she says, will figure in some of her happiest memories of Chicago: "There are still few things that bring me as much joy as rolling out of my bed hungover, packing the cooler, and heading to Humboldt Park to bullshit with your friends and maybe play a little kickball."v
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