It’s ‘J Day’ at Washington Park in Peru

Peru renames Senior League field in honor of native son, big leaguer J.A. Happ

J.A., Morgan, Bella, Sloan, James "JJ" Sue and Jim Happ pose for a photo during the J.A. Happ Day and field dedication on Sunday, July 30, 2023 at Washington Park in Peru. during the J.A. Happ Day and field dedication on Sunday, July 30, 2023 at Washington Park in Peru.

PERU – J.A. Happ thought he hit the big time playing for the Peru All-Stars in the District 20 Senior League Tournament at Washington Park in Peru.

Little did he know it was only the beginning.

From Washington Park, he went on to excel at St. Bede Academy, was named to the All-Big Ten Team as a freshman for Northwestern University and pitched 15 seasons in the Major Leagues, winning 133 game while wearing the uniform of eight different teams.

On Sunday, he returned full circle to the mound at Washington Park to have the senior league field renamed in his honor as the “J.A. Happ Field.”

A banner was displayed that will become a permanent feature of the field proclaiming it as “J.A” Happ Field with the added inscriptions:

MLB Debut, June 30, 2007 with Phillies

2008 World Series Champion with Phillies

2017 World Baseball Classic Gold Medalist

2018 All-Star Game

The logos of the eight big league teams he played for also were displayed with flags of each ringing the outfield fence along with one for St. Bede Academy and Northwestern.

Even his three kids, J.J., Bella and Sloan, thought it was a big deal.

“They were really cute this morning [saying], ‘I’m excited for you. People are calling it ‘J Day.’ Which was really sweet. They were trying to make me feel good and they succeeded,” the father of three said.

A big crowd filled the Washington Park bleachers to welcome home their hometown hero. A long line later gathered for autographs of Happ as he gladly signed photographs featuring him in some of the many teams he pitched for.

“I’m incredibly grateful for this. This is truly an honor,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to play in ball parks all across America, big ones, small ones. And some of my best memories are from right here. My dad played on this field. My uncles played on this field. My friends played on this field, and their kids are playing on this field.

“And that really makes it special to me. I take joy in the idea of the current and future generations of kids are going to grow up and create these memories and cherish them like I do.”

Former Major League pitcher J.A. Happ signs autographs for Geno Vezzetti his brother Luca and Logan Martin during the J.A. Happ Day and field dedication on Sunday, July 30, 2023 at Washington Park in Peru.

Happ, 40, said it was on the Washington Park diamond in Senior League where he matured from being a “cry baby” when things didn’t go so well in the Little League and learned what he had to do to keep making the climb to the next level.

“It was the next level and learning to play with more intensity and focus. It meant so much to us,” he said. “That was our World Series, winning the All-Star games. We felt like the reputation, Peru had good baseball and we had to uphold that and took a lot of pride in that.”

He said they had great games against everybody, but Mendota proved to be the biggest adversary in the senior league circuit at that time.

Ayven Michael of Peru, poses with J.A. Happ after signing an autograph during the J.A. Happ Day and field dedication on Sunday, July 30, 2023 at Washington Park in Peru.

He said the kid playing in the All-Star games at Washington Park would have never dreamed about playing in MLB All-Star Game one day. That came in 2018 when he earned the save in the American League’s 8-6 win in 2018 in Washington, D.C.

“That was the highlight of my Major League career in that game,” he said. “Randomly getting in in extra innings to close it. First save in my career. That was a lot of fun. Would have never thought it.”

He had a 133-100 record with a 4.13 ERA with 1,661 strikeouts over 15 years in his Big League career which stretched from his debut with the Phillies in 2008 to his last pitch for the Cardinals in 2021, with six other teams in between. His career year came in 2016, going 20-4 for the Blue Jays.

Happ, who was the 2001 BCR Male Athlete of the Year, said he always felt the love and support from back home.

“That’s another thing about my career I feel so fortunate about. I just got so great support from the community,” he said. “Every time I see my parents or talk to them on the phone [they say], ‘These people said hi or stopped by to send their well wishes.’ That just goes a long way. I feel that pride and it means a lot.”

As they were with him growing up, Happ’s parents, Jim and Sue Happ of Peru, were by his side Sunday. It was a special day for them as well.

“It’s nice to recognize him. Like he said, we played here when we were kids. This LaSalle-Peru area had a lot of talent,” Jim Happ said. “It will be a nice little legacy for him. I’m really happy for him.

St. Bede coach Bill Booker, who organized a Bruins alumni game, including the oldest Bruin, Jim Perona, from the 1988 state champions, said it was a great for his current players to take notice of Happ’s career and his humbling beginnings at Washington Park.

“He alluded to it playing on these three fields, and he did it just like a lot of these kids do. And so no matter whatever tells somebody [anything’s possible],” Booker said. “He even said he was a kind of a late bloomer. Got to live your dreams.”

After retiring from the game in 2021, Happ and his family have put down their roots in Brentwood, Tenn. enjoying dad’s retirement and taking vacations to the beach they were never able to do during his playing days.

Former Major League Baseball pitcher J.A. Happ throws out the first pitch of the St. Bede alumni game during the J.A. Happ Day and field dedication on Sunday, July 30, 2023 at Washington Park in Peru.

Happ, who threw out the first pitch for the alumni game, but did not play, said he has been in contact with a former team for future opportunities, “just kind of keeping that window open.”

“Right now, pouring a lot into the kids and trying to enjoy that with their ages,” he said. “Got settled in Tennessee, so we’re kind getting that home base there. Just joined a country club. I’m going to start golfing. Now, I’m getting into that.”

J.A. Happ and his wife Morgan, pose for a photo with their daughters Bella and Sloan, along with their son James "JJ" during the J.A. Happ Day and field dedication on Sunday, July 30, 2023 at Washington Park in Peru. The new field is renamed after native son and former big leaguer J.A. Happ.