“Ray. People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around”, you’ll say, “It’s only $20 per person”. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh...people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
~ James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams
The first time I saw the movie Field of Dreams and heard James Earl Jones deliver that line with his deep voice, it gave me goosebumps. It still does. The movie turns 30 this summer. I moved my family to Iowa 30 years ago over the 4th of July weekend. My father helped us move. It was a hard time for him, to see his family move 500 miles away, to a place where they knew no one. That evening, after unpacking the van, my dad and I went to see Field of Dreams. I believe it was the only time we’ve ever gone to a movie, just me and him. In the years that followed, Iowa became our home, and we often took visitors to see the Field, including my parents. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie and understand the theme of the son looking to make amends with his father. It can be a powerful movie. It can also sometimes be corny, but I still love it. There’s been many movies made about baseball, but Field along with Major League and Bull Durham remain the three that I will watch anytime I find them on TV.
In our family, we have a tradition that on Mother’s Day, I pack up my wife and any children that may still be at home and we take mom on a surprise visit to one of Iowa’s many tourist attractions. I understand that you may be laughing and thinking “Iowa has tourist attractions?’ The state does and after 30 years, we still have many more to see. This year, my wife and daughter surprised me with an unannounced Father’s Day trip to Dyersville, Iowa to re-visit the Field of Dreams. Dyersville is a pleasant little village of 4,000 located in East-Central Iowa. Besides the Field, it is also home to the spectacular Basilica of St. Francis Xavier. If you’re traveling through this part of the world, it’s worth the stop to see the Basilica and the Field.
We’ve visited the Field at least ten times over the years but I don’t remember when we were last there. It’s probably been ten years, maybe fifteen. I still felt a twinge of excitement as our car rounded the last turn and the field came into view. You drive into the field from the south. As the road makes it last turn, you look north to a gentle sloping valley and suddenly a baseball field materializes out of the corn. It’s a little bit of a mind bender, seeing a ballfield in a place you normally don’t see one. The field looks great, much like it did the first time we visited in 1990. On this day, the Field was crowded. In the parking lot, I counted cars from 11 states, including South Carolina, Maryland, New York and Michigan. Oh, people will come Ray.
My daughter and I spent some time in the outfield playing catch and she took some swings with the bat. My daughter is 26 now and hadn’t swung the bat in 14 years. She shook off the rust and was soon thrashing line drives and deep flies. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We spent some time throwing the ball around. I never could call it “having a catch”. When my father would get home from his long day at work, he was always game for a throw. My dad would go to work at four in the morning and usually get home around four in the afternoon, six days a week. I know now that he had to be tired, but he always had time to play ball with me. I can’t count the number of hours he spent with me playing catch.
I always had a decent arm, so even as a little guy I was a capable throwing partner. Dad first took me to the county fair when I was 7. The fair had a dunk tank, three throws for a quarter. Usually someone from the local Jaycees or Lions club would be on the platform, usually after a couple of hours of drinking, chiding the crowd to step up and throw. Pop would buy me some balls, then set back and watch the show. I was small for my age, so often the soon to be dunked local would imply me to step closer. I would assure him I was fine where I was then proceeded to send him into the drink with the first ball. The local celebrity would pop to the surface, a little surprised and coughing up some water. Almost immediately, they’d start talking smack, saying things like “that was just a lucky throw.” I’d barely give him time to get settled on the platform before I drop him into the drink with the second ball.
When he’d pop to the surface the second time, he’d usually be pissed. The trash talking would get a little sharper, which confused me since I was only seven. I thought the objective was to drop the person in the water. Once again, I’d barely give them time to settle onto the platform before ringing the bell with the third ball. Now the dunkee was usually furious. The crowd would be howling, and my father would be laughing as hard as I’ve ever seen him laugh. I loved seeing the look of pride in his eyes. When I was 11, my goal in life was to go to the Royals Baseball Academy. That dream ended when I blew out my elbow the next summer throwing sliders and curveballs, but my love of the game, pitching and hitting, and for the Royals, never wavered.
On the Field, there were about 30 boys taking turns at the bat and in the field. They looked to be about 11 or 12 and part of a team that had come in on a bus. We sat in the bleachers, right where Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones sat 30 years earlier and watched the action. I was impressed with their skills. They fielded the ball cleanly and had surprising strong and accurate arms. They were well behaved and were having a great time. After one team had recorded three outs, they would meet in the middle of the field, exchange gloves and take their positions.
A little guy stepped to the plate, maybe a younger brother? He couldn’t have been more than seven. He had a solid swing though and on the second pitch hit a sharp grounder down the third base line. The third baseman fielded it cleanly, took a bunny hop, then purposely overthrew the first baseman to allow the young man to reach first. The crowd cheered and clapped. There’s nothing quite as joyous as a group of 12-year old’s playing a game of pickup.
The Field is a great place. Fathers and mothers play catch with their children. People walk the grounds, snapping pictures and buying souvenirs. An extra from the movie was on hand, dressed in a period Chicago White Sox uniform. He posed for pictures and told stories about the Field and about the filming of the movie. I’m always amazed that the Field still draws a crowd after all these years.
If you’re a baseball fan or a fan of the movie, you should make the pilgrimage to see the Field. And it is a pilgrimage. Approximately 65,000 people visit the field each year, with visitors from as far away as Japan and Australia. And watch the movie again. It was the last movie made by the legendary Burt Lancaster. His role as Moonlight Graham was based on a real ballplayer of the same name who did in fact play in one game for the New York Giants without an at bat.
Iowa has a strong baseball tradition. One of the all-time great pitchers, Bob Feller, was from Van Meter. The Feller Museum in Van Meter is a must see, jam packed with baseball memorabilia from Feller’s storied career. Cap Anson and Dazzy Vance were from Iowa, as well as former Royals Joe Hoerner, Bobby Knoop, John Wathan and Jon Lieber. Mike Boddicker, Casey Blake and Jeremy Hellickson were also Iowans.
The state is home to five minor league affiliates: The Iowa Cubs, which is the AAA team for Chicago as well as four Class A affiliates: The Cedar Rapids Kernals (Twins), Clinton LumberKings (Marlins), Burlington Bees (Angels) and the wonderfully named Quad City River Bandits (Astros). Mike Trout played 81 games in Cedar Rapids in 2010 when the team was affiliated with the Angels. He announced his presence with a .362/.454/.526 line and was in Anaheim for the 2011 season. Waterloo is home to the Bucks of the Independent Northwoods League. From 1970 to 1976, Waterloo was the Class A affiliate of the Royals. They won the Midwest League Championship in 1975 and 1976 and old timers around Waterloo still talk about those Royal teams. Many of the stars of the 1976-1985 glory years came through Waterloo, including Dan Quisenberry, Clint Hurdle, Willie Wilson, Dennis Leonard, Al Cowens and John Wathan.
If you’re looking for a short baseball vacation in the Midwest, consider taking a baseball tour of Iowa. Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.