QUINCY, Ill. – The conversation and rare father-daughter bonding time made the hot sun feel not so harsh.
Olivia Wathen and her father Greg were tasked with rebuilding the pitcher’s mound at Clemens Field last summer as final preparations were made to welcome the Hannibal Hoots back to the Prospect League. Other projects around the stadium needed completion, but the two of them spearheaded the one in the middle of the field.
For nearly five hours, Olivia and Greg traded duties of pouring dirt and pounding it to create the perfect mound. Greg had just retired after 25 years as the John Wood Community College baseball coach and became an assistant general manager for the club under general manger Matt Stembridge. He asked his daughter to work part-time for the Hoots knowing they’d spend quality time together, something that was lacking before because of Greg’s coaching obligations.
“When (the pitcher’s mound) was finished it was such an accomplished feeling,” Olivia said. “It was nice to bond and there was really good conversation.
“I think I had sunburn, too.”
Stembridge, who previously served as an assistant coach under Wathen at JWCC, remembered working on the Hoots’ dugout beyond the left-field wall and seeing the father and daughter hard at work.
“I thought to myself, ‘How cool is that?’” Stembridge said. “Baseball had always been dad’s thing, or dad and (Wathen’s son Josh) thing, and baseball was the two of them right now…it was a chance for them to really bond and spend a lot of time together.”
That time was cut short.
Greg passed away unexpectedly at his home Dec. 10, 2018, at the age of 57. The summer working together for the Hoots, and memories like building the pitcher’s mound, are the final ones Olivia has with her father.
“It was nice because of the time we spent together,” Olivia said. “In all honesty, that was the most time we’ve spent together because we were working every other day for seven hours.”
Olivia grew up in a baseball home.
Her father dedicated more than two decades of his life to the JWCC program and compiled nearly 600 victories during his career with the Trail Blazers. Olivia, who graduated from Quincy High School this past spring, was nearly raised at the ball diamond on JWCC’s campus.
Stembridge recalls seeing a playpen set up near the dugout during his JWCC practice and seeing a younger Olivia inside it.
“It’s always been there, and I grew up around it,” Olivia said. “There’s baseball stuff everywhere at the house. It was baseball everything all the time.”
Olivia learned the game through her father. He would explain plays to her that happened in one of JWCC’s games, or a game that was on TV. Olivia proudly says she probably knows a few more rules about baseball than most girls do.
Greg even taught Olivia the game as a coach. Olivia played T-ball and softball growing up, and her father took time to coach her teams.
He didn’t have the same fiery nature as he did in the Trail Blazers’ dugout. But he still used the same philosophies to coach his daughter’s team.
“He was still very driven to make our team strive to be good,” Olivia said. “It wasn’t all about winning. It was about building character and helping your teammates.”
When Greg resigned from the Trail Blazers it allowed him to spend more time with his family, and mostly with Olivia, who didn’t quite latch onto sports like her older brother did. When Greg approached Stembridge about having Olivia work for the Hoots, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring her on.
“He poured a lot of time into his family, and in the last four years he was deliberate in spending time with both of his kids,” Stembridge said. “We knew Olivia would come work for us and be involved with the team store. But her schedule allowed her to be there earlier in the day and we needed more people.
“When they started working together it was cool because it was just the two of them.”
The messages from family members, friends, former players and other baseball colleagues poured in from across the country to Greg’s wife, Janelle, as the news spread of his passing.
Olivia knew her father made an impact on his players, but didn’t realize just how much until those messages came.
“It was way more than I expected, and that inspired me to push myself to be like that,” Olivia said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, someone is always watching you, so you have to be your best all the time. I think he’d want me to do that, too.”
However, it was an especially hard time for Olivia, who was scheduled to graduate from high school five months later. The initial shock of her father’s passing is gone, but she’s still not used to him being gone.
“It’s still almost not real,” she said. “Sometimes I just think he’s on his trip to Myrtle Beach, but then I have to correct myself. I can talk about it now, though.”
She, along with the rest of the family, found comfort in her faith.
“I think I’ve had to learn even in difficult times to trust God because he knows what he’s doing,” Olivia said. “I can use this circumstance in a positive way to help other people. That’s what’s pushed me to keep going. It’s OK to be upset, and there’s times that I am, but I try to think positive about the situation.”
Olivia also found comfort in baseball, where she and her father bonded. She feels that connection to him this summer working for the Hoots.
Stembridge lost a best friend, a mentor and a co-worker when Greg passed away.
He also knew he’d need to have a conversation with Olivia about working for the Hoots again this summer. He was optimistic she would, but would understand if she didn’t.
“I didn’t see it as something therapeutic, but she was so entrenched as part of the Hoots family our first year,” Stembridge said. “I wanted to make sure if she did want to do it, I’d touch base with her. She said she was all in.”
However, Olivia needed to convince herself to come back.
“That was actually one of my first thoughts after he passed,” Olivia said. “I thought it might be weird and the environment might be different. I pondered about it for awhile, but I think what made me sure I wanted to come was my dad was one of those people that would always want me to do something.
"I came back because I knew he’d want me to.”
Olivia said the Hoots’ first home game of the season wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be, and she credited that to the club playing at QU Stadium this summer rather than Clemens Field. She helps run the team’s merchandise booth among other tasks.
Olivia admits it does feel different being around the Hoots without her father. However, she’s still happy she decided to come back this summer.
“It gives me something to do, and I’m not just sitting around thinking about everything that’s happened,” she said. “The connections I’ve made keep me going. I continue to grow, and that’s been really good for me.”