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The Hollywood blockbuster “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner, has stirred the imagination of Americans for almost 20 years. Moreover, the tiny field featured in the film, located in Dyersville, Iowa, has become a slice of true Americana. If surveys can be believed, “Field of Dreams” is a film that makes 95 percent of the men who watch it break down in tears – myself included.

The film began as a Hollywood script called “Shoeless Joe.” It had been written by W.P. Kinsella, a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. The filming took 14 weeks and occurred during the drought of the frighteningly hot summer of 1988.

“Field of Dreams,” which came out in 1989, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The field itself was constructed in only three days by the set designers. In the years since, the left field section was returned to a cornfield by another farmer who owned that particular slice of land. After much protest, the field was again restored and the left field section sold to new owners. Today, two separate souvenir stands sit on either side of the field, the only singular divisive issue about a film and a field that unite people the world over.

 

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The Field of Dreams is the kind of place you approach with awe and reverence. On my recent pilgrimage to Dyersville, I felt drawn, excited and compelled, just as I did during my journalistic adventure to the biblical “Noah’s Ark” long rumored to be near Mount Ararat in Turkey. The approach as it were, couldn’t have been more spectacular.

Driving up from St. Louis, we meandered along the mighty Mississippi, the river of Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad and the New Madrid earthquake of 1812, the most powerful series of quakes the United States has ever experienced.

As Kathleen Turner began her writing in “Jewel of the Nile,” “It was a day like no other …”

The towns melded away one by one, places with strange names like “Cairo,” “Viola” and my personal favorite “Lost Nation, Iowa.” A high-flying airplane had made a giant “X” in the sky, as though God was busy playing a game of tic-tac-toe, or perhaps marking the way to Dyersville. Magnificent farm spreads and tall silos standing like sentinels dotted the landscape. We saw a plethora of historic farmhouses, some of which were covered in green, ever-climbing ivy.


A never-ending assortment of magnificent John Deere machinery was glistening in the shimmering sunlight like so many toys left behind by children of wayward gods. Fields, some plowed and planted, rolled on endlessly to the horizon. The unplanted fields seemed stark and strange. Oddly they reminded me of my time in the Kalahari and the Great Namib Deserts. There were cows (lots of them) and the smell of cows (Al Gore’s bane) and scores of pigs piled upon one another.

I fleetingly thought of a young Superman practicing his jumps off of a barn in Kansas. The 21st century was blending with the 19th.

 

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Field of Dreams bleachers.

Then, finally, almost mercifully, the winding road brought us to a sign reading “Dyersville – 6 miles.” I smiled as the town itself unfolded. American flags waved in the breeze. Other signs noted this was a “D.A.R.E.” community. Neatly trimmed lawns and a tiny post office were picturesque. The tank in the center of town seemed a page out of the hit CBS TV show “Jericho.” After all, you never know when you may need a tank.

There were more signs leading to the field. We followed them dutifully like pirates studying a treasure map in some far off Caribbean island.

Finally, the field and accompanying movie set emerged just as I’d left them in my mind at the end of the film. Yet no one was around. Not a single soul. On this glorious Saturday in May, there could have been 3,000 people passing through – that’s the average number of visitors at the height of the summer baseball season. Visitors have included greats like Van Meter, Iowa’s Bob Feller, the fastest pitcher on record before Nolan Ryan. People have come from as far away as Japan and Australia to visit the Field of Dreams.

The land has belonged for between 90 and 100 years (depending on whom you believe) to the Lansing family, who ironically feature a “Viola” in their family tree. (This happens to be the name of my beautiful, sweet and late mother. She was a godly and striking woman and the spitting image of Queen Rania of Jordan.)

And so seeing as how we were alone, like the characters of Ray and Annie in “Field of Dreams,” I found myself standing on the field with a pretty, curvy girl who looks a bit like Country Western singer Faith Hill. She was busy doing cartwheels (literally) in center field. We played catch, just the two of us, caught up in a fantasy world not entirely of our own making.

While driving to Dyersville I thought of how going to a St. Louis Cardinals game was like attending a family picnic. I thought of how I’d pushed my father away later in life, which rivaled the plot in “Field of Dreams.” (I would cut off my right arm just for one more day with him!) I thought of a column in USA Today lamenting the outrageous prices of Boston Red Sox tickets. I thought of baseball emerging as a universal language that some day may rival soccer.

I thought of Cardinals centerfielder Rick Ankiel, the real Roy Hobbs from “The Natural,” once a promising pitcher who lost control (literally), had two major surgeries, disappeared for several seasons only to come back this summer at Busch Stadium to hit .358 and have nine home runs in his first 90 at bats. Then Ankiel was dogged by a HGH archetype steroid scandal (“The Unnatural”), news of which first appeared in the New York Daily News. This sent both he and the Cardinals into a terrible slump. During this scorching summer when the temperatures climbed to 105 Fahrenheit and higher, it would be hard to define what Ankiel has come to mean to the city of St. Louis. To blacks, whites, Bosnians and Cambodians alike he’s the very definition of reinventing one’s self and never giving up.

I thought of an older gentleman I had met at a quaint museum on Wellwood Avenue in Lindenhurst, Long Island, N.Y. This man claimed to have attended an exhibition game in which Babe Ruth hit a home run at Shore Road (where I myself had played as a teenager) and stopped at third base, not wanting to show up the amateur opposition. Afterwards the players went to drink at Barnacle Bills restaurant, as this was during Prohibition. (“Wheat and barely were needed to feed the starving masses of post-World War I Europe” was the thinking. Better that than for binge drinking.)

I thought of how I still follow baseball through the box scores. Names like “Messenger” and “Gobble” always seem to grab my attention. Now there are new names to learn and study, along with their statistics, for we have players from all over the world – Japan, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Cuba, Panama, Venezuela and even Australia. All are welcome. And now there’s even a new World Baseball Classic pitting various nations against one another. Even South Africa has a team. (To be honest, they should probably stick to rugby and cricket.)

I thought of my new favorite player, the Cincinnati Reds’ Josh Hamilton, a former overall No. 1 draft pick with one of the best arms and best bat speed in the game. He’s a man with a nice wife and family who is working to overcome his checkered past. (To be honest, I’ve never seen him play.) I always look in on him and my other favorite players through the box scores. Players like Andy Pettitte and others such as Josh Phelps of the Pirates – mainly because his brother works with military injuries in a special burn unit at a military hospital in Texas.

Then I began to think further back than I ever had before. I thought of my time covering Major League Spring Training. (As in the case of soldiering, I’ve seen the real thing up close.) How kind the players were to me, especially from the Cubs and Brewers. There was terribly polite Teddy Higuera, an All Star from Mexico, and outfielder Dave Martinez. I thought of my old friend Bruce Hurst and I playing catch in the outfield.

I thought of my favorite players growing up. Rusty Staub of the Mets playing right field with a damaged shoulder and throwing the ball back in underhanded. (Staub, a world-class cook, has done much for charity over the years. He was known as “Le Grande Orange” while playing for the then Montreal Expos because of his flaming red hair.) Jon Matlack, the All-Star left-handed pitcher of the Mets was another favorite. I copied his pitching motion and crew cut. As fate would have it, his daughter Jennifer (the spitting image of actress Meg Ryan) would grow up to become my student at Texas A&M.

I thought of pitching our Little League team to the championship at the age of 11. My father was one of the coaches. The head coach, Mr. Fredricks, recently passed away. So during my last trip to New York, I visited his wonderful family to convey my sadness. I remember him telling us, “Always think of what you’re going to do with the ball before it comes to you.” It is a lesson for life beyond baseball – a lesson to be proactive, to think ahead, to be on the ball and look ahead of the curve in the road (no pun intended) at what’s over the horizon.

And so as the afternoon unfolded I stood on the mound at the Field of Dreams trying desperately to free my mind of all this clutter. I was wearing one of my late father’s shirts. It was red checkered, just like an Italian table cloth from a pizzeria.

Just how troubled I was by baseball’s (and the world’s) problems came to the forefront like some primordial ooze when I said to Faith Hill, “I can’t believe we’re at The Killing Fields!” We both laughed at that.

If you build it … they will come.

About a half hour after we arrived, others began showing up at the field. Soon our little practice game began. We just organized ourselves. I led the organization process, learning as I have from men like Maj. David Brown at the jungle warfare training in Belize. “Things should be fun,” Brown told us. “This should be the best experience of your lives in spite of everything, or I will have failed you.”

More and more people began to file in as Hummers filled the dirt parking lot near the house on the movie set. A nice couple, Derek and Amanda, who went to the University of Oregon, were the first to arrive. It was Derek’s birthday. I pitched to him and later he to me. He threw a wicked knuckleball. He knocked down Amanda and I several times, and we laughed at that scene in “Field of Dreams” where a young “Moonlight Graham” is driven into the dust not once but twice by an older pitcher trying to (unsuccessfully) intimidate him.

“Hey ump, how about a warning?”

“Sure. Watch out you don’t get killed.”

There was Jon, who’d just become lawyer (we decided not to hold that against him) and his wife, Sue. They had a gorgeous baby, Abbey, who was blonde with big blue eyes. They also had a son, Timmy, who hit a rocket right back at me during batting practice and knocked me down. (Having helmets and a pitching screen at the Field of Dreams would help.)

Two young brothers, Humberto and Jorge, came along with their father (who was busy taking digital footage of his boys). Humberto threw left-handed like me. They were kind and polite and a credit to their loving parents.

There was also a woman’s professional softball player who just outright roped. Faith Hill filmed it all when she wasn’t busy catching fly balls with her glove – all this while holding a cigarette in the other hand. I feared she would burn down the cornfield with a stray butt.

We laughed and played like children. Everyone took their turn at bat. We used and shared new balls, including a special ball Faith Hill brought along that could tell you how fast you were throwing. No one kept score. There was no cursing. No one ran the bases.

Derek was longing to hit a home run and finally did just that, barely reaching the corn.

I thought of a line I’d heard from a player known as “Pops” many years before on “Kiner’s Corner,” the New York Mets post-game show: “When you hit a home run off of Tom Seaver (known in his prime as ‘The Franchise’), you don’t care how far over the fence it goes, just as long at it goes.”

Later in the day a group of older, handicapped people arrived on a gigantic tour bus. This seemed somehow to enhance the moment. One of them sat in bleachers next to the words “Ray Loves Annie,” which Kevin Costner had carved during a break in the filming.

Then suddenly it began to rain. We all ran off the field, heading for our vehicles. Truth be known, we had been running around like maniacs for hours and we were all exhausted. We were running away from the field where we’d just played (again) like children. We had all just experienced an America worth both preserving and defending.

“Go the distance …”

Beyond that we were left to contemplate the world that rests beyond the cornfield and into eternity. A place where no one would ever spit on a godly man like Jackie Robinson. A yet unseen world where people hailing from various cultures, races and nations all live in harmony and peace. A world where the koala and the lamb lay down with the lion. A world of love, truth, justice and brotherhood. A world where all our sins are forgiven, forgotten and removed as far from us as the east is from the west. A world where reconciliation has already been made between aggrieved parties.

“Ease his pain …”

A world which has been cleaned by our kindness, our sweat and our tears. A world of filthy rags, dirtied in a quest for righteousness. A world of courage, honor and ingenuity. No scores to keep. No more scores to settle. A world where children will once again play like children, as will the adults. A world of true bonding. A world of little babies like Abbey, who stand (as told to me last year by one of the best people I’ve ever known) as a sign from God that the world should go on – a sign not unlike the rainbow.

“Is this heaven?” Shoeless Joe Jackson asks the builder of the baseball diamond in “Field of Dreams.”

“No, it’s Iowa,” Ray responds.

Well, you could have fooled me.

 


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