The Iowa summer nights were hot and humid. The porch swing is where I’d go after games to find comfort under a black sky where fire flies flickered just beyond the properties edge.
The patrol car rolled to a stop in front of the house. The officer, who was built like a tank and beginning to gray at his temples, got out and walked up the steps to where I was sitting. I can remember hearing his leather police belt and shoes squeaking with every step.
“How’d you do tonight, Matty?”
I gave him a quick rundown of the game before he entered the house through a screen door to grab a drink and a snack.
The screen door opened back up. “Wanna go for a ride along?”
“Sure,” I said excited.
“Get your shoes on and meet me down at the car.”
We spent the next hour or so driving from the end of one day into the beginning of another, well past midnight. He pointed out various sites, homes and anecdotes about the city he knew so well while I was still learning to appreciate it. I can still see the beams from the patrol cars headlights reflecting off the barren roads while we both spoke and both listened. I’ll never forget that drive.
We came from all over the country to play in the Jayhawk League, one of the most prestigious collegiate summer baseball leagues in the nation. Host families brought in young aspiring ballplayers that were all chasing a dream, all far from home for the first time and all seemingly homesick.
I hit the jackpot in the summer of 1991!
I got picked by the Roberts family, Steve and Kathy, because Steve liked catchers. And throughout that summer I was made to feel like part of the family and have been treated like it ever since.
Steve was a pillar of Red Oak. He was chief of police in the small town of 6,000 people in southern Iowa until he retired in 2005. Strong in stature he possessed a soft spoken, gentle quality that you knew better than to test.
Red Oak has a large orange water tower at the edge of town; a tower that has weathered many storms and reflects the sun’s rays on sweltering summer afternoons. When I think of that tower, I think of Steve Roberts: strong, reliable, quiet and resolute.
Steve passed away on Thursday after a hard fought battle with cancer at the age of 65. He fought to the very end and never once complained, all the while keeping his sense of humor – a sense of humor that prompted him to paint my fingernails pink when he returned from a graveyard shift while I slept in the basement. He didn’t have to work graveyard. After all, he was the Chief. He did so to free up his days to spend time with his kids and coach and to watch a couple innings of our games before he had to leave and do it all over again.
Steve loved baseball and its rich history. He loved the College World Series because that’s what good folks from small towns do. He loved the movie Field of Dreams that took place in his home state of Iowa. In the summer of 2014 when the movie celebrated its 25th anniversary, Steve and his beloved wife Kathy and family traveled to the Iowa farm where the movie was filmed for a screening along with thousands of others including Kevin Costner.
Two weeks ago I received a letter in the mail from Steve. Inside the envelope was a gold challenge coin and the history of how and why they are used. He wanted me to have it and know that I was part of his club, that I was a hero to him.
Steve, you’re the hero my friend – to me and so many others. And I will carry that coin with pride as a reminder of you and your unwavering commitment to live life to the fullest.
When I think of Steve Roberts, I think of a loving husband, father and grandfather. I think of a mentor to so many, a coach and a 30 year public servant.
When I think of Steve Roberts, I think of an unabashed patriot who loved his country.
When I think of Steve Roberts, well, I think I’m blessed to have known him.
I’m reminded of the line “Go the distance” from the iconic movie, Field of Dreams.
Let the record show that Steve went the distance and never quit – he won the day. And so did the entire Roberts family. He wore his strong faith on his sleeve and offered daily doses of hope and inspiration for those who needed it until the very end. And now he’s home, somewhere beyond the corn fields in God’s arms forever.