A Pilgrimage to Dyersville, Iowa
There isn't a soul alive that doesn't have some unfulfilled dream, some childhood fantasy that still lingers, waiting to be fulfilled. For me, it was baseball. If a six-year-old's wishes were automatically made true, I wouldn't be the country doctor I am today. I'd be playing first base for the Atlanta Braves. I'd be a .320 hitter, with a Gold Glove for fielding and a batting trophy or two on my shelves.
But, as with most childhood wishes, they stayed in the mind, and grown-up daily living became more urgent. Until last summer, that is. Every day now, as I sit at my desk, I look over and see a scuffed-up baseball and an ear of corn, preserved in a glass case. I look and remember that, for one day, I was on a playing field, with other people who loved baseball, and I was good.
I went to Dyersville, Iowa, mainly out of curiosity and nothing more. I always like visiting places where they filmed movies, and Field of Dreams is one of the best examples of perfect filmmaking I've ever been blessed to see. Not only is it a great movie, it managed to capture the spirit of the game I love. Not the big money business, not the endorsement deals or the public images, but the heart of the game. The simplicity, the grace, and the love of the game. So I went.
I followed the signs into town and through the streets until I saw the dirt driveway for the farm. For some reason, my heart began to beat a little faster. I drove slowly down the little road that led to the house, and I could see the movie in my head as my eyes caught, in the middle of the tall green corn, a baseball field. I parked my truck and, in a daze, got out and looked around.
There it was. The field where Kevin Costner, playing Ray Kinsella, met the spirit of Shoeless Joe Jackson, played by Ray Liotta. There's the farmhouse where Amy Madigan, playing Ray's wife Annie, sat in the swing and watched while her husband pitched batting practice to a ghost wearing the uniform of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the most infamous team in baseball history. I sat in the bleachers and ran my hand over a carving in the wood, a heart with the words, "Ray Loves Annie" in it, carved by Costner during a break in the filming. I moved and sat on the spot where James Earl Jones, as writer Terrence Mann, delivered one of the finest monologues ever written about our nation's pastime.
As I sat there, I remembered his words. "They will come, Ray. They will get in their cars and they will come. They will head for Iowa, but they won't know why. And they will come to this field."
There were other people there that day, and I noticed that most of them were like me, being very quiet and walking around, surveying the scene. I talked to some of them, and asked them why they were there. Every person said the same thing. They were not really sure why, but they loved the game, and they wanted to see this place for themselves, to see if it was real.
I met the owner of the farm, Don Lansing. He has faithfully maintained the field since the film crews left it behind back in 1988. I asked him why. He told me that it just didn't seem right to plow it under. Too many people wanted to see it. Don told me that there has always been a steady crowd of visitors, but he's never charged admission to see the place. He put a box out for donations, and there's always been folks that put money in. He did allow his family to put up a small gift shop for the souvenir hunters.
Don told me that the year their busiest year was 1994 -- when the pros went on strike. He said that people would come out and just sit and look at the field. He asked them why they were there. "Folks said they just wanted to remember what it was like when it was still just a game, before the millionaires ruined everything. They would sit and talk to one another about their first Little League game, their first home run, the first time they ever went to a big-league game.
He said that it was his wife, Becky, that first noticed how people whispered to one another while they were there, like they were in church. Maybe, in a way, it has become a church, a shrine to the game, like Cooperstown. But, in Cooperstown, they show the legends as facts. At the Field of Dreams, people are allowed to remember the game they love in any way they wish.
There's always a game going on, Don told me. It usually starts as a big practice, with a string of folks waiting to hit, and another group out in the field. The pitchers rotate in and out, and the batters take a few hits and go out to the field to give someone else a chance. That day, there were about forty people or so milling around, and half of them were playing. I'd stopped at a Wal-Mart on the way and bought a baseball, and I'd thrown my bat and glove in the truck before I left. Before long, I was out there, snagging fly balls in the outfield, cheering for the youngsters as they ran the bases, and having the time of my life.
A man about 20 years old ran out and slapped me on the shoulder. "Go grab a bat," he urged me. "You've been fielding all day. Put one in the corn." I trotted in and got in line with three other guys. The pitcher was about 18 or so, and he was throwing a nice fastball, medium speed, right down the middle. I was getting antsy. I wanted to hit the ball, and I wanted to not make a fool of myself in the process.
Suddenly, I was at the plate. The sun was going down behind the corn. The kid on the mound lobbed a couple up there, and I connected for a couple of line drives, but I wanted better. On the next ten pitches, I hit eight legitimate base hits, but nothing to scream about. Finally, I realized that I needed to move on and let the kid behind me have some fun. I pulled the brand new ball out of my pocket and threw it to the kid on the mound. "Do me a favor," I asked him, "throw this one like you mean it."
He gave me a funny look. "Do what?"
"Strike me out. Game face, full speed," I told him. His first pitch was right in there, and it was a burner. I let it go by. The small crowd muttered to themselves. His next pitch was low, but just as fast. I let it pass.
As I dug in for the next pitch, I could hear a stadium full of people. I could smell cut grass and pine tar and the good ash wood of a fine bat. I was the last hope for my team, and they needed a run to win the World Series. The kid threw a fastball, up and a tad outside. And I swung with the cleanest swing I've ever had in my life. I felt the ball connect with the wood, and I watched as that white ball flew up and sailed right toward the sun. It peaked and started dropping, and fell into the straight rows of corn for a home run. I stood and watched it as it fell, and the kid behind me punched me on the arm and said, "Run it out, mister."
I flipped the bat toward the fence the way I'd practiced since I was a kid, and I headed for first base. The group in the field clapped, and I noticed the pitcher had taken off for the corn. The smattering of applause sounded like a roaring crowd, and I tipped my cap to them as I rounded third. I slowed down a few steps away from home plate, walked up, and deliberately stomped down the winning run for the World Series of my mind.
The pitcher walked up and handed me my new ball. It had a couple of dirt and grass stains on it, and one solid make where I'd socked that last hit. "I thought you might want this," the kid said. And he went back to the mound.
I retreated to the bleachers for a while, catching my breath and revelling in the moment. I walked out to the field again and got a young couple to take my picture coming out of the corn, like those spirits from games past had done in the film. I also broke off an ear of corn and shoved it deep in my pocket. I headed back toward my truck, bat on my shoulder, a smile on my face. I stopped and shook Don and Becky's hands, thanked them for the day, and Don said, "Be sure to tell your friends about us." I promised him I would. And, without counting, I stuffed a handful of bills in the donation box.
As I drove back into town to find a motel for the night, I caught myself thinking about the game, and the movie inspired by the love of the game. I also thought about myself, being six years old and bouncing an old baseball off the side of my house, catching it and keeping a running play-by-play of the game in my head.
There's a moment in the movie where Ray is talking to Shoeless Joe, after their first game. Shoeless Joe looks around at this magical field, then at Ray, and asks him, "Is this Heaven?"
Ray smiles and answers, "No. It's Iowa."
Ray is wrong. For anyone who loves the game of baseball, there is a Heaven on Earth. And it is in Dyersville, Iowa, to be exact. One day in August, I went to that heaven, and played the game I was always meant to play. And, I played it on the Field of Dreams.
See the official web site of The Field of Dreams Movie Site.
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