Iowa? We could have sworn this was Heaven.
Two baseball scribes return to their roots to celebrate the game of baseball and a pretty magical movie.
By Bill George and Mike Marando.
The devotion of baseball fans to their favorite teams is often described in religious terms. The fans are described as “the faithful.” We are believers who never give up hope, praying for our team’s resurrection year after year. Chicago Cub fans are perhaps the greatest example of this having suffered for more than a century between world championship teams. The grounds the teams play on are often described as “hallowed,” which is a fancy word for holy.
Baseball’s Field of Dreams game this summer perfectly reflected these transcendent themes and added the extra feature of creating a pilgrimage to the analogy.
Only, it wasn’t the Cubs playing. It was their crosstown rivals, still with a taint of shame from the 1919 Black Sox scandal. These Sox are up-and-comers and were taking on perhaps the most famous name in sports: the New York Yankees. The game was played in Dyersville, Iowa, the first big league game ever played in that state. It was based on a movie of the same name, a movie that is about faith, hope, belief and resurrection. There would be only about 8,000 tickets made available and those at very high prices. Only the truest of true believers would cast all aside to make the trip. Dyersville is in the heart of a heavily Catholic area in Northeast Iowa. It’s not an easy place to get to.
One of the movie’s themes is “if you build it, we will come” and come we did. From all over the country. Some fans were lucky enough to win a chance to purchase tickets through a special lottery held by MLB and the White Sox. But many people paid four and five times the $375 face value of the ticket.
We are two of the pilgrims. Since we live in Sacramento, California, making the trek involved not only securing the tickets but also paying for an expensive flight that took us half way across the country. We pride ourselves on our frugality, and we are both retired. But the fates had conspired to make the lure of this game irresistible.
We grew up in the 1960s at the height of the Yankee-White Sox rivalry. Bill is a lifelong White Sox fan and grew up on Chicago’s south side. Mike is a long-time Yankee fan.
In 1959 the White Sox interrupted the Yanks string of American League championships and won the pennant. For the next decade the two teams slugged it out, with the White Sox finishing second to the Yankee juggernaut in 1963, 1964 and 1965.
Both of us have Iowa backgrounds. Mike’s early years were spent in the Rock Island-Moline area, which along with Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, comprises the Quad Cities. Bill started his career as a journalist in Iowa. So, we knew our way around the state. Even better, Mike’s brother Jim and his wife Lois still live in the Quad Cities area, about an hour and a half away from the game site. The free lodging, meals and an SUV offset the cost of the airfare and the tickets. Or so we (falsely) reasoned. Just three days before the game we pulled the ripcord and jumped. We seized a chance of a lifetime to see the teams we have loved for our entire lifetimes: the credit cards engaged, a passenger jet roared into the air, and we winged our way from Sacramento, through Denver, and into the Quad Cities.
The next morning, we were on the road, headed up the Mississippi Valley on roads that wound past farmhouses and rolling hills that rose above fields of emerald corn and soybeans. There are many misconceptions about Iowa, perhaps the biggest one being that the state is flat. This is a painful lesson for hundreds of bicyclists who participate in the annual bike ride across Iowa. They show up expecting a nice easy ride across the state only to be painfully humbled by the undulating hills. Fortunately, we were driving and could enjoy the scenery on this beautiful, if humid, day. Iowa’s hills were sculpted by the enormous glaciers that dug out the Great Lakes. The giant masses of ice moved slowly over Iowa, and left behind the richest soil in the world, the base element of the state’s legendary corn.
As we got closer to Dyersville we passed by beautiful monasteries, seminaries and abbeys, reminders of the long time Catholic presence in the region. Dyersville, a town of just 4,100, is host to the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, just one of 53 basilicas in the United States. “Our church has been a Catholic treasure among the cornfields of Iowa for over 125 years, welcoming visitors to an experience of both beauty and prayer,” the basilica says.
The celebratory atmosphere and significance of this event was revealed along the main road leading into and through Dyersville. The road was dotted with homes and businesses welcoming fans of both the White Sox and Yankees. Bunting draped along the façade of many houses; some folks sold home-made souvenirs while others perched on lawn chairs, waving at us as we drove by. “Welcome White Sox and Yankees fans” was emblazoned on the sign of a nearby Ford dealership. The vibe was like the morning of an Independence Day celebration.
We arrived early in order to soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible. We stopped in the one-stoplight downtown that was packed with cars and pickup trucks. A mural depicting Sox players emerging from a cornfield was painted on one side of a building. Another mural asked the famous question from the movie, “Is This Heaven?” With less than an hour to go before the parking lot opened, we drove toward the baseball field. We merged into the line of vehicles at just the right time to avoid a jam. Smiling high schoolers guided us into a soybean field where we parked and we walked into the grounds around 2:30 in the afternoon. It was four hours before the first pitch.
The iconic white house featured in the film was situated next to the original movie-set and its cornfield ballpark. White Sox “ghost” players strolled the grounds in authentic 1919 uniforms, providing historical anecdotes and posing for pictures. Iowans are justifiably proud of their friendliness, an aspect that was on full display during the long day and evening.
Major League Baseball nailed every single detail, right down to the last cornstalk. MLB even found a way to keep the bugs away, save for the one small mosquito that landed on Bill’s arm. He gently set it free to enjoy the game as well. To get inside the stadium, we walked through a corn maze, as the recognizable musical score of Field of Dreams floated down from the loudspeakers. At every turn, there were cardboard stand-ups of Yankee and White Sox players nestled a few rows deep in the corn on each side. We were mesmerized.
There is something about the geometry of farm fields that fits naturally with the baseball diamond. For Mike, it harkened immediately to a time when his father, James S. Marando, took him to his first game at Wrigley Field in the summer of 1963. His dad drove three and a half hours to get to Wrigley, a day Mike fondly recalled. A day with his dad spent driving through the fields of corn to a baseball field. Bill remembered his days playing catch with his father before they headed to Comiskey Park: home to the White Sox and the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, an outfielder of the shamed 1919 club. Shoeless Joe is the name of the book by Canadian author W.P. Kinsella, which was the inspiration for the movie.
Batting practice began as the heat and humidity intensified. Farmers know —and scientists confirm— that corn stalks talk to each other. Perhaps the players were urged on by the quiet whispers from the green fields as the young sluggers took batting practice and launched homer after homer. Seeing the balls vanish silently into the corn 400 feet away gave us goosebumps.
Fifteen minutes before game time, the first of many roars bellowed from the 7,832 in attendance when actor Kevin Costner, who starred as farmer Ray Kinsella in the 1989 film, emerged unannounced from the cornfield in right-center field. He asked those in attendance, “Is this Heaven?” They roared, “Yes!” Then, like apparitions, players from both teams materialized in right field, reflecting the famous scene in the film where ghost players of the 1919 White Sox walked out of the cornfield.
The crowd was in awe of the spectacle and hushed as the game began. We relished watching the boys climbing a long ladder to insert the numbers on the scoreboard, and wished we’d dressed in suspenders and straw boaters as some in the crowd had. The sky turned silvery as dusk set in and the lights, much dimmer than a normal MLB game, fought to gain purchase. Between innings the players laughed and joked with the crowd, tossing baseballs to favored fans. It was clear they were enjoying the event.
But soon the event turned from poetry to competition. In an age where conspiracy theories abound, one could be forgiven for buying into a plot that said this game had been scripted. Who would have believed eight home runs, all prodigious shots? It became intense. Lance Lynn, the bearded potbellied veteran White Sox pitcher, roared in rage at the home plate umpire for not calling his close pitches strikes… just like an old-time hurler. The Yankees took a 3-1 lead behind a massive home run from gargantuan slugger Aaron Judge. The White Sox rebounded with a home run parade and by the ninth held a commanding 7-4 lead with their top reliever on the mound. Bill envisioned a White Sox victory making up for all those second-place Sox finishes. But the Yankees fought back, and homers by Giancarlo Stanton and Judge again produced four runs as New York went ahead, 8-7. For Mike, it was a return to the heroic age of Mantle and Maris and another example of Yankee superiority.
The crowd was electric and the air alive in the bottom of the ninth as the partisans chanted in support of their teams. It was then that the movie flipped from Field of Dreams to The Natural. Chicago’s Seby Savala walked and with one out, its star shortstop, Tim Anderson, came to bat and hammered the ball over the wall in right center field. The Sox players pummeled him as he touched home plate and the fireworks, a relic from Comiskey Park, exploded above.
The crowd cheered then lingered in the stands trying to absorb what had happened, the phrases from the past echoing in their minds. “I can’t believe what I just saw,” a call from the legendary play-by- play man Jack Buck years earlier seemed the best way to describe it.
Finally, we left, once again passing through the corn maze to get to the parking area. The maze was lit with a thousand tiny lights that cast a twinkling glow on the corn. It reminded us of the glaciers that had formed Iowa thousands of years ago, the thousands of games played in the last 200 years, and of the movie that reminded another generation that baseball is the greatest game.
These things were immutable, unchanging, had ever been and would forever be. And we had been part of it.