Monday, April 20, 2009

Baseball and Dreams

A lot of filmmakers have tried to capture the essence of baseball in their movies over the years, but no film has ever done it better than “The Field of Dreams.” There are at least three Goosebump Moments in that film, one of which is the long string of glowing headlights snaking through Iowa country roads to get a peek at the field that Ray Kinsella built. “People will come,” little Karin confidently proclaimed in the movie, and come they did.

In July of 1991 my family made its own pilgrimage to Dyersville, Iowa to see the cornfield baseball diamond built for the movie. It was the first vacation the four of us had taken since my mother died in March of that year, and my dad was staring down his first wedding anniversary to spent without his wife. He tells me now that the trip was for him—that he needed some sort of distraction—but those three days in what Shoeless Joe mistook for heaven was one of the greatest trips of all our lives.

Considering my memories of the 4-and-a-half hour drive are almost eighteen years old, I remember the trek as a flash, but I’m sure it wasn’t all that easy breezy at the time. Put three kids under ten in the back of a station wagon and take them on that sort of drive and your bound to have some whining and slapping and arguing and whatever else we did as misbehaved children. But my dad didn’t seem to care. We got to Dyersville, dropped our bags off at the Colonial Inn—a well-kept 1950s motel—and headed straight for the field.

It’s a bit of an adventure getting out there, as that stream of headlights from the movie suggests. Lots of twists and turns through cornfields, rows and rows of crisp green stalks with wispy straw-colored tassels flitting in the breeze. Coming up on the film site itself, though, is something magical. The last stretch comes down over a hill, so the field and the house and the wooden bleachers lay out right in front of you, and on this beautiful summer day the place was packed with kids and their parents playing ball on the field.

We parked, packed our fists into our child-sized ball gloves, and quick-stepped over to the field. It is exactly what you remember from the film. The old white farmhouse wasn’t just a set; it’s still there. And the field stretches out in front of you, the outfield wall replaced by a wall of cornstalks. The ivy at Wrigley pales in comparison.

Waiting for our turn to bat was a painful experience, as the line to take a swing wrapped halfway up the first baseline. All the adults manned the field, and there were probably two or three kids at each bag waiting for the ball to be hit so they could finish making their way around the bases. No one was keeping track of runs or anything, but it was definitely a serious game. Had to show the masses what you were capable of with a bat.

There’s a home video somewhere of Kyle waving a bat high over his shoulder, chomping on a huge wad of gum like a big-leaguer while he waited for the pitch. His little ball cap’s bill aimed towards the sky, and his shortish shorts and high socks made for a pretty iconic picture of early ‘90s children’s fashion. Right before the pitch came in, the wad of gum slipped from Kyle’s mouth and landed on his shoulder. Unfazed, he carefully craned his neck to the shoulder to retrieve the treat, but the movement caused it to drop to the dirt a millisecond before his lips hit the gum. Despondent, he used the tip of his tennis shoe to rub the candy carcass into the dirt. America’s Funniest Home Videos, here we come.

After making a donation in a left field box we each pocketed a little vial of dirt from the outfield, and we made our last minute rounds of the grounds before heading back into town for dinner. The only disappointment of the afternoon was weaving into the rows of corn on a search for Ray Liotta, to no avail.

It wouldn’t be the only trip to the field, however. My dad tells me that we went a total of three times. Our first trip was great, but it’s the second go-round Pops seems to treasure most. We came back much later as the sky changed to deep gold and swirling purple, one final group of fellow tourists heading out for the night as we came to claim the empty field for ourselves. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure there wasn’t much baseball played in the twilight. Parking ourselves on the bleachers, we watched the sun set over the corn, casting sweet summer shadows on the outfield grass. None of us really said anything, despite the twins being only six, so the silence of the country was that much more pronounced. There was an unidentifiable howling of some animal off in the distance, but nothing intimidating or scary. Just a fellow wanderer letting us know that we weren’t alone in the world.

Day three was our time for saying goodbye. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, even a wedding party, did their thing at the film site on a really busy weekend morning. My dad calls it “basking in the mystery of baseball,” and it’s helps explain why the movie has been so successful and why so many people consider baseball to be the American pastime. Team allegiances have been passed down four or five or more generations. There are legends in this game older than our grandparents. There are stories of heroes and improbable victories and heartbreak and redemption. The history of baseball is in so many ways parallel to the history of America, and that’s why a father takes his three kids to a baseball field in a small Iowan town three months after losing their mother.

There were, of course, tons of pictures being taken that morning, tons of bats being swung, tons of baseballs being tossed around. It was a lot of what we did on the previous day but busier. We didn’t care. “The Field of Dreams” was one of our favorite movies growing up, so to be there experiencing it all was enough for us. My dad bought us each a “Field of Dreams” shirt before we left, even buying a 1917 White Sox hat (which I still think he has somewhere) for himself. Then, inevitably, we headed home, back to real life and back to getting on with our lives.

In talking to my father about this vacation recently, he mentioned that he’d like to go back but he’s afraid to have a less magical experience than the first time. I suppose some memories are best left as they are. It certainly wasn’t the same when Kyle and I went back to visit in 2006, but it was interesting to see it all again. The corn wasn’t as high as it needed to be, there were now two entrances and two gift shops (there had been a property battle since our last visit), and because we showed up for a fifteen minute clear window on an otherwise rainy day the place was barren. I can say pretty confidently that it wasn’t the experience we’d had the first time, but it was still the Field of Dreams. What a name for that place.

1 comment:

Nick Ponton said...

I'm so jealous. I've always wanted to go there and actually made plans several times when I lived in Peoria. Never happened and now I'm a lot farther away.

By the way, I love your writing style. I come back every week to catch up on a week's worth of posts. If your novel was anything like this, it's hard to imagine you're not seeing a lot of interest in it.