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A little piece of heaven still exists

7/26/2005

DYERSVILLE, Iowa -- The cornstalks caught my eye first. When a gust of wind came rippling through and they all swayed to one side, it sounded a bit like a crowd roaring in the distance. Rather appropriate.

There wasn't a lot of wind here Tuesday morning to go along with the bright blue sky and the burning hot sun. But there was plenty of action on the field. About a dozen kids, most wearing Cubs hats, were
scattered around the infield, fielding grounders and pop-ups with the grace of the Bad News Bears. Out in right field, a young dad was hitting slow rollers to a child who can't yet have reached kindergarten. And in left-center, another father-son combo were having a catch, the boy employing a full windup on almost every throw.

Just another day at the Field of Dreams.

Sixteen years after the film "Field of Dreams" was released in theaters, fans continue to flock to the site where the movie was made -- an estimated 65,000 people per year. And Wednesday, ESPN's "SportsCenter" pays the field a visit on its "50 States in 50 Days" tour.

My colleague, Jim Caple, came here two years ago, and target=new>described the place beautifully. So I just want to share some of the things I learned, and experienced, two years later.

The town of Dyersville, population about 4,000, was previously best known for the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier and the National Farm Toy Museum. Not anymore. But after the movie was
finished, it seems hardly anyone thought the site would survive. Heck, one of its owners, Al Ameskamp, decided to return his portion of the baseball field to farm use. But he changed his mind when tourists began showing up soon after the film was released.

Suddenly, a small cornfield in rural Iowa became a shrine.

And it's preserved like one. In fact, it still looks almost exactly like it did in the movie.

"I never would have believed it," Keith Rahe says. "I don't think anyone would have. Now it's become a little piece of Americana."

Rahe is the manager of Left and Center Field of Dreams. Confused? The Field of Dreams property is actually owned by two separate families. The Lansing family owns the famous white
house, the infield and right field. The Ameskamp family owns left and center field.

Both families signed on when director Phil Alden Robinson wanted to make his movie. And at first, the two families got along. But over the years, some bad blood has developed. In fact, only Left and Center is cooperating with ESPN on the "50-50" shoot. None of us was allowed to walk on, or even photograph, any of the Lansings' property, which they've dubbed the Field of Dreams Movie Site.

When you arrive here, you see two separate driveways. Two parking lots. Two welcome displays. Two souvenir stands.

One very sad sight, at an otherwise magnificent site.

But people continue to visit both, in large numbers. Rahe says the second half of the 1990s was the site's busiest period, but traffic has stayed relatively steady all along. Left and Center is officially
open from the beginning of April through the end of November each year. "But people show up every day," Rahe says, "even when there's snow on the ground."

In particular, people show up -- usually a couple thousand -- on the last Sunday of the months of June, July, August and September.

Why?

To watch the Ghost Players.

One Sunday afternoon, not long after "Field of Dreams" was released, Rahe and a few other locals decided to surprise those gathered at the field that day by emerging from the cornfield in those old White Sox uniforms. They played a little ball with the fans for about 45 minutes, before tipping their caps and disappearing back into the cornfield. It was supposed to be a one-shot deal. But the following
Sunday, 400 people showed up, waiting for the players to emerge again. And thus, the Ghost Players were born.

Today, there are 28 of them. Many are former minor-league or semi-pro ballplayers, and 11 actually appeared in "Field of Dreams." Besides their exhibitions in Dyersville each month, they also have traveled
across the country and around the world, giving clinics, playing games and appearing at charity events. And they do it all as volunteers. "It's an honor just to put on the uniform," says Ghost Player "Clueless" Joe Scherrman.

One thing both Field of Dreams owners agree on -- no admission charge. Despite the famous James Earl Jones speech towards the end of the film, during which he says people would pay $20 to come see the field (and many probably would), it costs nothing to enter either site. Both owners depend on souvenir sales and donations to provide enough money to keep up their half of the field.

Just inside the door of the Left and Center souvenir shop, there are two maps hanging on the wall -- one of the United States, and one of the entire world. Both are littered with small multicolored pins, representing the hometowns of visitors in the past year. When I looked at the U.S. map Tuesday, there was absolutely no room left to place a pin on my hometown, New York City. And on the
world map, pins were placed as far north as href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severnaya_Zemlya" target=new>Severnaya Zemlya, and as far south as Antarctica.

Back out on the field, I spoke with several families, most of whom had similarly sweet stories to tell about why they came to the Field of Dreams. One such family was the Clarkes. Rick Clarke was playing catch in left-center with his two sons, 11-year-old Julian and 8-year-old Sean. The Clarkes are moving cross-country, from California to Connecticut, and stopping at a few tourist spots along the way. Thus far, they'd hit places like Lake Tahoe and Yellowstone. But what was the No. 1 destination Julian and Sean had requested to visit?

You guessed it. Dyersville, Iowa -- and they weren't even born when the movie was released. "They live for baseball," Clarke said about his sons. "The movie touches everyone's heart. It's great that this
place exists."

Julian is a die-hard Yankees fan. And Sean? He's devoted to the Red Sox. Apparently that causes quite a few arguments around the house. But at the Field of Dreams, the two got along famously.

I heard lots of great stories -- about people getting engaged here … people getting married here … even people spreading the ashes of loved ones around the field, or in the corn. But when I asked
Rahe, who has worked at the Field of Dreams since its inception, about his most memorable moment, he told me a dandy -- one about two brothers who had had a falling out and hadn't spoken to each other
in 25 years. They lived in different states -- but both, by chance, happened to bring their families to the Field of Dreams for the same Sunday Ghost Players show about 10 years ago. And when the two saw
each other, they embraced and ended their feud.

As Rahe says, "There's something magical about this place."

After Rahe was finished giving his introductory speech to a large tour group that visited on Monday, he asked the group if they had any questions. One man raised his hand and asked, "What did James Earl
Jones find when he went out into the cornfield at the end of the movie?"

"Wouldn't we all like to know," Rahe replied with a chuckle.

That I cannot tell you. I must admit, I didn't find anything when I wandered into the cornstalks myself. But what I found on the field in front of them, the stories I heard and the kids I saw playing baseball, was very special. Makes you realize the power a movie can have. The power a place can have. The power of a game of catch.

I think I found what I was looking for.