Is this Heaven?: A pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams

The first thing I noticed as we pulled up the drive was the vast array of vehicles already lining the parking lot.  After six tedious hours of driving, we finally arrived at our destination: the Field of Dreams movie site, located just northeast of Dyersville, Iowa.  We made our hotel reservation back in mid-May, and I had been waiting with enthusiastic, even if restrained, anticipation ever since to make the journey.  In spite of the downpour of rain and storms that we encountered driving through Missouri, Iowa embraced us with mostly clear skies and warm, 80-degree sunshine.

I deliberately scheduled the visit for a Sunday, in order for us to take advantage of the Ghost Sunday event.  I did not entirely know what to expect, though in my mind I had visions of players emerging from the cornfield and hitting the diamond for some old-fashioned baseball: old school wool uniforms, old-style equipment, some fun and camaraderie, in direct emulation of the movie.  I did not expect a full-blown competitive baseball contest, but I did envision pitching, batting, base-stealing, and perhaps even a nineteen-year-old kid in a New York Giants uniform winking at the pitcher as he takes his stance in the batter’s box.

We arrived with about forty-five minutes to spare before the exhibition was scheduled to begin, so we decided to meander around for a bit.  The grass proved every bit as green as I pictured it.  A lot more people had also shown up than I expected.  The wooden bleachers filled up rapidly with spectators, as did the benches intended to designate each team’s “dugout.”  Lawn chairs lined up along each baseline, and crowds of people milled around the concession and souvenir stands.  The field itself was crowded with people playing mock ballgames, shagging flies, and playing catch.  We headed out to the corn, where even more people took pictures and feigned disappearing into and reappearing out from between the tall, almost-harvest-ready stalks.  I doubt that any other cornfield in the world receives as much attention from the general public as the one at the Field of Dreams.


With one o’ clock fast approaching, we eventually made our way to the emptier set of bleachers and settled down for the show.  As I hoped, we witnessed the ghost players materializing from the cornfield, eager for the opportunity to return to playing a game they so loved in their living years.  They made their way to the diamond and were introduced to the crowd, and many of them, we learned, had played a role in the movie.  They wore the old-style Chicago White Sox uniforms, bearing the design from the years of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and made of wool.


Ghost players emerging from the corn

The rest of the spectacle, however, did not proceed quite as I anticipated.  Rather than playing a game amongst themselves, the ghost players recruited a group of youngsters from the crowd, giving each kid the opportunity to bat and run the bases against them.  It had more of a circus-type vibe than I had envisaged, being much more family- and kid-oriented.  Nevertheless, the humor and the interactions proved highly entertaining, and I was not disappointed, in spite of having my expectations thwarted.

At the show’s conclusion, we still had nearly an hour to kill before we could check into the hotel, so we wandered around the grounds some more.  The lines at the souvenir stand doubled in length as people sought to purchase merchandise for the ghost players to autograph.  We dove in and out of the corn a few more times, checked out the house, and I contemplated the feel of the grass and the infield dirt beneath my shoes.  Finally, we headed to the hotel to check in and rest for a couple hours.

We later headed into town in search of dinner.  Dyersville, population 4,000, reminded me of every other small, American town I have ever frequented.  The downtown area featured a street of locally owned shops lined up next to one another, most of which had already closed by the time we arrived that evening.  In our quest for food, we managed to stumble across the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, a Catholic parish featuring Gothic architecture.  Before continuing on to filling our bellies, we decided to explore.

St. Francis Xavier Basilica

St. Francis Xavier Basilica

It was the kind of church that, if it were close enough to where I live, I would show up for mass every single Sunday, without fail.  As impressive as it looked on the outside, the inside of the Basilica was absolutely breathtaking.  Over the years, I have struggled with the idea of God and religion, but I found myself wondering whether taking pictures inside such a magnificent parish could be considered a sin.  A couple times, I found that I had to stop walking around and simply sit down and let myself get lost in the aura of this sanctuary.

Our return home the next day proved predominantly uneventful, even if we did get rained on again.  We stopped in Ames, Iowa for lunch at the Olde Main Brewing Co.  The beer tasted delicious, even if the food did not quite live up to the same standard.  I cannot say whether the trip as a whole had any profound impact on me, and I won’t pretend to have had any life-changing epiphanies, but I am certainly glad to have had the experience.  It was a trip that included a visit to two beautiful cathedrals, one for baseball and one for Catholicism, and I would contend that my life is that much more fulfilled because of it.

Inside the Basilica

“If you build it, he will come”

“Is this Heaven?”

“No.  It’s Iowa.”

Last night, I re-watched one of the best baseball movies of all time: Field of Dreams.  Released in 1989, Field of Dreams tells the story of a baseball fanatic-turned-farmer who plows under his own corn field at the bidding of a mysterious, whispering voice.  In spite of the insistence of fellow townsfolk that his actions are nothing short of lunacy, Ray Kinsella believes that the voice is real, and that his actions will ultimately produce results that will more than make up for the financial strain his family faces as a result of plowing under his own crops.  And it is this belief in the impossible that not only forms the crux of the story, but draws the attention and inspires awe in those who watch it.

In addition to enjoying the movie itself, last night I took the time to watch the special features included on the two-DVD set.  The actors of the movie (Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, etc.) and the director (Phil Alden Robinson) discuss their experiences with the filming of the movie.  The way they all describe it, even the making of the movie was magical, and it wasn’t just because it features a superstar cast.  The scenes within the movie–the story, the environment in which the movie was filmed–it all coalesced into one magical work of art.

And we get to experience the results of that experience, that hard work and that magic, through this film.  For some, Field of Dreams brings back childhood memories of playing catch in the backyard with one’s father.  For others, it is a testament to the magic and influence of the game of baseball.  And even for those who have little or no interest in the game itself, this movie resonates as an ode to that spirit within all of us that yearns to break away from the norm in pursuit of something bigger than ourselves.

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Field of Dreams consists of many moments that give me the chills, even after a hundred viewings of the movie.  That first whisper of, “If you build it, he will come.”  The initial arrival of Shoeless Joe Jackson on the newly built baseball field.  The inexplicable appearance of Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham on the dark, damp streets of Boston.  Watching Ray Kinsella have a catch with his father, thus washing away years of resentment and pain.  Terence Mann’s “people will come” speech towards the end, arguably one of James Earl Jones’s most memorable performances.

More than anything, Field of Dreams is a movie about redemption and fulfillment.  Redemption for the likes of Ray Kinsella, who is able to start over with his father, and for Shoeless Joe Jackson, who finally can play baseball without the Black Sox scandal hanging over him.  Meanwhile, author Terence Mann comes out of reclusion and finds a reason to write again, and Moonlight Graham fulfills a lifelong dream of facing a big league pitcher.  It’s a movie that reminds us that we can all find redemption, for ourselves and for others, if only we are willing to take the steps, however crazy or impossible they might seem.

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For a virtual tour of the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, click here.


This day in baseball: Moonlight Graham’s debut

Thanks to the movie Field of Dreams, almost everybody has heard of Moonlight Graham.  As a right fielder for the New York Giants, Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham made his Major League debut on 29 June 1905, at the age of twenty-seven.  In the bottom of the eighth inning against the Brooklyn Superbas, Graham came into the game as a defensive replacement for George Browne.  He never had the opportunity to step up to the plate, however, standing in the on-deck circle as Claude Elliott flied out to end the top of the ninth.  Graham played again defensively in the bottom of the ninth, but never had the chance to record an at-bat as the Giants won 11-1.  It would be his only Major League appearance, as he was sent back to the minors the following day.

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Completing his medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1905 (where he also played halfback for the school’s football team in 1904 and 1905), Graham concluded his baseball career in 1908.  He went on to obtain his license and began practicing medicine in Chisholm, Minnesota.  “Doc” Graham served as a good and loyal doctor to the people of Chisholm for fifty years.  He died in 1965.

In 1975, W. P. Kinsella happened to read about Graham’s short-lived baseball career in The Baseball Encyclopedia.  He included Moonlight Graham as a character in his 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe, on which the movie Field of Dreams is based.