11/1/11: Suburbia Invades Field of Dreams; Changes Imminent

Photo by Jason Hall

There’s a lot of great baseball movies out there. Eight Men Out. The Natural. Pride of the Yankees. Bull Durham. Major League. The Sandlot. If you’re making a definitive list out of this, the women deserve a place on it (A League of Their Own), as does Walter Matthau’s motley bunch (The Bad News Bears) and perhaps even Tom Selleck’s mustache (Mr. Baseball). But this post is not a definitive list, here to debate the merits of great baseball movies.

I can’t tell you exactly why Field of Dreams is my favorite baseball movie. It’s actually my favorite movie, period. I realize, to some, it doesn’t really mean all that much. It doesn’t work. But for me, quite simply, it hits on just about everything of meaning in my life in a truly affecting fashion: baseball, literature, family and faith.

A good part of the movie even takes place in Boston at Fenway Park. If I find it on TV some summer evening, I’ll stay up and watch way past midnight. And in the middle of winter, when baseball and almost everything you can see outside your window seems cold and dead but the memories of past summers live comfortably in your mind and the next one is still limitless with possibilities, Field of Dreams summons those warm feelings.

Although it’s a big part of the plot, you don’t watch Field of Dreams for the thrill of seeing Shoeless Joe Jackson and a bunch of ghosts play baseball. That’s not why Ray built the field. That’s not why thousands of cars pull up to the Kinsella farmhouse in the final scene.

There’s something more.

The “something more” is what brings me back to the film time and time again.

In August of 2009, Fire It Up co-host Jay Hall and I made a sports pilgrimage to Middle America. We visited grand stadiums in Kansas City, St. Louis and Milwaukee for the first time, and I made return trips to both the old yard on the North Side of Chicago and the unheralded jewel of Pittsburgh — two of the finest baseball stadiums in America. We also stopped at the Pro Football Hall of Fame for an afternoon.

But the most anticipated stop of the trip, for me, was the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. I wanted to know — was there something about this field, “something more,” just like in the movie?

There was. When I stepped out of the car, ambled across the crushed stone and looked out past the first base line of a baseball field in the middle of nowhere — something.

An appreciation of what is. A memory of what was: all those times my Dad, my friends, my wonderful next-door neighbor, even my grandmother and I, enjoyed the beautiful game of baseball.

The poetic scene before me: an emerald green field laid out before acres of blustery corn — the only sound for miles around — stirred my spirit.

Sure, yeah, I get it. It’s only a baseball field. But just the notion that there’s something more to it made the experience wholly unique. I observed a family taking batting practice on the infield. A father and son played catch. Dug in and took a couple of cuts myself against a fellow visitor. Just like the 12-year old version of me, I had my foot in the bucket, dropped my wrists too much, and kept flying out to left. No matter.

Jay and I got out the wiffle bat and took turns swatting wiffleballs into the corn. Took a deep breath. Took a good, long look.

The exchange between father and son from the movie:

“Is this heaven?”

“No, it’s Iowa.”

“Could’ve sworn it was heaven,” was appropriate.

This middle-of-rural America ballfield could well be the place where dreams come true, or, at least, a place that reminds you of all your dreams: past, present and future, from the most simple to the most complex. The 65,000 visitors each year to the site probably feel many of these same things.

Speaking of complex, news broke yesterday that a suburban Chicago couple and their investment group, Go The Distance LLC, purchased the farm on which the Field of Dreams sits. Their plan: to turn the 193-acre site into a massive youth baseball complex with twelve fields and an indoor training dome.

Uh oh.

“Go The Distance LLC,” huh? They probably think, with their millions, that they’re channeling their inner Ray Kinsella with this baseball mecca, fulfilling the American Dream and building an array baseball and softball fields where the game of baseball reaches future generations through youth tournaments that run all summer long.

But they’ve got it all wrong.

My friend Will sent me this quote from an article he read about the project: “We understand the impact that demographics, market trends and the economy will have on baseball and those who love the game in the next decade.” That’s what Denise Stillman, one of the partners, said.

Demographics? Market trends? At the Field of Dreams? Seriously?

That’s not what the place is about.

Call me resistant to change. You’re probably right. I’m 28 years old, single, and I like things my way. Say I’m stomping on the dreams of little kids who want to play their travel tournaments at the Field of Dreams. OK, fine. Watch me. But by co-opting the spirit of the film, the place, Go The Distance LLC destroys the “something more.”

Ray Kinsella wasn’t a sell-out. Ray believed in something that went beyond money and profits — some quirky mix of nostalgia and redemption and faith that helped him realize his dream and that of those around him. Whether he knew it or not, he built the ballfield for his father, his wife, his child, his friends. There was nothing grand about the action, just as there is nothing grand about the field, lined by an outfield of corn and a set of wooden bleachers.

The Field of Dreams site has come to symbolize something simple and American that we’re losing: picking up a glove and playing catch with Dad. Or your buddy next door. Kids these days are always in some sort of structured environment. Little League. Pop Warner. Lacrosse camps. Swim meets. Whatever happened to pickup basketball, or stacking paint cans on either side of the driveway, running a rope from one end to the other, and playing tennis? Sandlot baseball? Anyone?

The Field of Dreams, as it has existed for the last twenty-three summers, has been a place where people go to get whatever they want out of it. As Ray said, “I need all the Karma I can get right now.”

It’s organic. No structure. No Gatorade cooler. No coach’s clipboard. You just play. And soak up the special nature of what you’re doing, what brought you there, and where you’re headed.

If you want to build a baseball complex in Iowa, built it in Dubuque. Build it in Iowa City, which Ray’s daughter Karen described as “really boring.” Better yet, Go The Distance LLC, head back to the sprawling Chicago suburbs. I’m sure there’s plenty of need for a baseball complex there. But if you build a training bubble and a massive baseball complex in the background of the Field of Dreams, you’ve killed the place where dreams come true, or just relegated it to VHS cassette, and that place in our hearts.

Keep it the way it is.

This post was originally published to The Fox Hole on WordPress, November 1, 2011.