If you film it, they will come

If you film it, they will come: A passionate sports fan begins his cross-country pilgrimage with a visit to Iowa's Field of Dreams. Excerpted from "Road Swing," by Steve Rushin.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

A sign said that this ribbon of road had been adopted by the Women of Tomorrow. How oddly uplifting, I thought, that a group of preoperative transsexuals should find time to clean up the interstate highway system. The notion left me feeling strangely proud to be an American as I pulled off the highway for a late lunch in Austin, Minnesota, which exports to the world a uniquely American product of its own. HORMEL FOODS hollered a large billboard in town. Where Good Friends Make Good Food. Never mind that this "good food" consists principally of Spam, the processed porklike substance whose name is an apparent contraction of "Spoiled ham." The locals were proud nonetheless.

The streets of Spam Town USA -- another billboard -- were littered with a dyslexia of large plastic letters blown free from movie-theater and fast-food marquees. It looked as if God had barfed Alpha-Bits on Austin. I had come here hoping to catch the city's celebrated Spam Jam. Held over three days each July, the Spam Jam is what the Olympics would be if Olympians used Hormel products instead of sporting goods. It is a capital idea and one that works remarkably well. A can of Dinty Moore beef stew, for instance, is roughly the same size and weight as a shotput shot, if not nearly as flavorful.

But it wasn't meant to be. A poster in a bank window informed me that the extravaganza came and went just last week, climaxing with a three-mile Spam Walk for Health. But I could still catch the Chimilewski Polka Band at the street fair on Thursday night. Marvelous. I could feel time receding already -- to a simpler, more delusional era when Spam was synonymous with good health and polka music was not yet an oxymoron.

Buoyed by the thought, I left Austin after lunch, hope and Spamburger lodged in my heart. I steered south, toward Iowa and a landscape as flat as ballpark beer. Every 20 miles I passed through some tiny town, each one time-warped and almost too picturesque. The businesses all had names like Koster's Kar Korner, Kountry Kinfolk, Kum 'N' Go, and Kopper Kettle Kafe. With each mile, my pulse quickened. And is it any wonder? I was making for a cornfield near tiny Dyersville, Iowa. I was on my way to the Field of Dreams.

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It was clearly a place with curative powers, a Medjugorge of the Middle West. Six years after the film "Field of Dreams" was released, the movie's principal shooting location -- a ballfield cut into a cornfield -- continued to draw 500 visitors every summer day. The figure is astonishing, because Dyersville is centrally located in the middle of nowhere. Townsfolk have to drive 175 miles just to get to Des Moines. This is the municipal equivalent of the man who is so sick that he'd have to rally just to die.

And still they came, 20,000 tourists annually, tripling the town's population daily. What's more, they arrived from all over the world, bursting through the front door of the Dyersville tourism office and asking, "Wo ist die Fieldofdreamz?" Really. In any language, "it's the number-one question we get," confirmed the town's tourism director, Julie K. Frye, whose name was carved magnificently from a single piece of driftwood on her desk. "Right after 'Do you have a bathroom?'"

Frankly, I was worried that Dyersville would be a bathroom, a tourist-choked toilet. But its streets were still storm-slick when I arrived in early evening -- the town was gleaming in the gloaming -- and the people were all so solicitous that I instantly felt like a heel for having doubted them. "Did you know," Frye had asked me, "that ghosts walk out of the corn every Sunday to play ball with fans at the field?"

"Real ghosts?"

"No," she said. "Just locals with regular jobs and stuff. But I was talking to one of them last week, and he said that he's never met a rude person out there. Everyone at the Field of Dreams is so nice."

Indeed, the last entry in the guest book on her desk was signed. "The Fravert Family of Loyal, Wisconsin," and I couldn't help but think -- the Fraverts of Loyal, they sounded so ... nice.

Having secured the last vacant room at the Colonial Inn, I strolled across the street to the Country Junction restaurant. I was seated beneath wagon wheels and farm implements while an aproned matron served a rack of ribs unrivaled in size since the opening credits of "The Flintstones." Unbidden, the waitress then brought tottering side dishes of green beans, coleslaw, macaroni salad, hash browns embalmed in melted American cheese, a basket of fresh-baked bread, and so many Millstream lagers that I thought I was manning a conveyor belt in a bottling plant. My server hovered like a specter until I shoveled it all in.

Understand, I am a skinny man, and Iowans treat skinny strangers as Mormons treat agnostics. Which is to say, with a missionary's zeal to convert. Only when I looked like a snake that had swallowed a hamster was I allowed to hoist myself from the table, retrieve my car, and repair to a gas station next door. "You're in luck!" the woman behind the counter said when I had filled my tank. "I have one bag left!" She hooked a thumb ominously toward a sign outside: Free Popcorn With Gas!

"Back off!" I snapped, trying not to sound ungrateful. "I was just taxidermied at the Country Junction." Suddenly I regretted not having a souvenir T-shirt emblazoned with those very words.

"My husband and I built that place," she volleyed back cheerily. "Just sold it last year."

Her name was Jeanine Koch, and I asked her for directions to the field. She tore a printed map from a tablet full of them, then catapulted into a story about the heady summer of 1988, when Kevin Costner and the Universal film crew descended on Dyersville.

"They were here for two months," Jeanine said. "Only they didn't live here. They lived in Dubuque." She made the second syllable sound like "puke." "I'm not much for TV people, but my daughter, she saw the red-haired guy from 'Thirtysomething' one night at dinner and just about fell over. It shook her all up."

I didn't know how to respond to this. "Well," I said dumbly. "I can't wait to see the field in the morning." It was almost nine o'clock, and I was ready to collapse in a blubbering blackout-curtained coma back at the motel.

"Why don't you go now?" she suggested.

"My guidebook said it closes at six."

Jeanine looked at me sideways. "It's just a farm," she said. "Like anybody else's. The man who owns it, he doesn't care. There were people out there in the storm today. I'm sure there's people out there right now. Go on. Go on." She made a little whisk-broom motion with the back of her hands, like an umpire sweeping home plate, and off I went, almost involuntarily, like flotsam: north out of town and across a rickety one-lane bridge, where a strolling old farmer and his wife waved to me giddily in unison. I found myself grinning inanely and waving back. Seconds later, I passed a Jeep whose Iowa plates read GHOST 1. The driver waved giddily, grinning inanely. Then I was plunging down a private road and up a long dirt drive, feeling at once dopey and like a trespasser, when it abruptly appeared around a bend: the familiar white farmhouse and wraparound porch, its wooden swing creaking softly in the evening breeze.

Four cars were parked on the drive -- two from Illinois, one from Georgia, another from Missouri. I added my Minnesota plates to the mosaic, turned toward the field, and -- clang! -- fairly heard my jaw drop like a cartoon anvil.

The grass was the brilliant green of highway signage. From home plate, the field fanned out to a wall of rustling corn that stretched to the horizon. The sun was sinking into the stalks in left field like an enormous beach ball alighting in the bleachers. And silhouetted against that circle as if spotlit, a father and son played catch.

The father was in a catcher's crouch, butt cleavage peering from the decolletage of his Wranglers, and as he shouted, "Chuck it in there, Tucker" or "Tuck it in there, Chucker" -- honestly, it was difficult to tell which -- the beatific smile on his face left no mistake about it: His were the Georgia plates.

Still, the scene was captivating, and I didn't care if it was corny in every conceivable sense. I couldn't wait to return first thing in the morning. And yes, it really was the field that I dreamed about as I slipped into unconsciousness at the Colonial Inn.

I awoke to a TV news report that baseball-sized hail had dimpled much of the area yesterday. A beaming plump woman in a floral-print housefrock produced one such hailstone from her freezer and proudly displayed it like a pie for the camera. The reporter then announced gravely that "bowling-ball-sized hail" had fallen "elsewhere" in northeastern Iowa. There were no pictures. But it's my duty to warn you: One can be killed in Iowa by a bowling ball that has dropped from the sky. And try keeping a straight face while delivering that eulogy.

My father once very nearly killed himself at a driving range when he drove a golf ball sideways, directly away from his body, on a line perpendicular to his stance. The bullet pinged off a steel post that divided the driving stalls and rocketed right back at him, raising a cartoon lump on his left knee before careening harmlessly toward a cluster of luxury sedans in the parking lot. But had the ball struck him in the temple, say, or in the nuts, he would have died instantly, or wished he had anyway. And the coroner likely would have ruled the tragedy a suicide-by-banana-slice. As dignified deaths go, this would have ranked somewhere below a Buddhist monk setting himself alight to protest man's inhumanity to man and just above being conked on the noggin by God's bowling ball while standing in the middle of a vast Iowa plain.

Which is where I found myself after breakfast, back at the Field of Dreams. A man named Don Lansing owned the farm and farmhouse. He owned the ballfield, too, with the exception of left and center field and the corn behind it, which belonged to Al and Rita Ameskamp, who billed their property, somewhat desperately, as Left and Center Field of Dreams. Both Lansing and the Ameskamps had trailers parked at the field, from which they sold T-shirts, refreshments, and souvenirs so inexpressibly useless -- decorative spoons, pewter corncobs -- that one could only be listed as Ornament: $2.50. Needless to say, I bought three of them. A gray-haired lady at the Lansing stand tended to a dozen clamoring souvenir seekers. It looked like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. I asked her if it was always like this. "No," she said. "It gets busy in the afternoon."

Still, there was no admission charge. Commercial shoots and corporate shindigs were forbidden on the property. Lansing and the Ameskamps maintained the field at their own expense, and Lansing even provided four Porta Potties for the tourists. I wondered how this could be and went to ask the great man himself. I found him reposing on his grand front porch, lemonade and tinkling ice cubes sweating through a tall glass. It was not yet noon and 94 degrees. Lansing had foregone the wooden porch swing for an aluminum-framed lawn chair, the kind whose nylon latticework leaves your ass looking like a flame-broiled hamburger when you rise.

An affable man of 53, the farmer told me how movie producers selected his property for its obvious beauty, then became baffled that corn didn't immediately spring from the ground, literally on cue, like obedient extras. "'Eighty-eight was the drought year," Lansing explained with the certainty of a sommelier. "And the corn -- well, the corn wasn't for shit." His face fissured into a shy smile at the swearword. "The movie people kept asking, 'What's going on here?' But we irrigated it and irrigated it and, finally, up it come."

Lansing dragged contemplatively on a cigarette. "Now," he exhaled, "I gotta keep it up every year, because everyone who comes here wants to walk out of the corn." Indeed, as the farmer spoke, all along the perimeter of the outfield, tourists photographed each other popping out grandly from between cornstalks, like Johnny Carson from behind a curtain.

There must have been 50 people on the field -- playing catch, running the bases, shagging flies. A biker in a black leather jacket, black jeans, black boots, and grimy Oakland A's cap roared up on a black Honda, dismounted, took a few snapshots, and roared back down the drive in a melancholy dustball, an American flag fluttering from his seat. Just beyond the porch, a feed-capped man with two crooked rows of nubby yellow teeth, like corn on the cob, videotaped Lansing's upstairs bedroom window with the dementia common to all people who Camcord inanimate objects. "That's it," the hayseed said, elbowing his unmoved wife. "That's where he had his dream."

"He," of course, was Kevin Costner's movie character, and his dream was a disembodied voice that came in the night and whispered, "If you build it, he will come." So he built a ballfield, and the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson emerged from the corn to play ball with other decedents, among them James Earl Jones. Ultimately, Costner is reunited with his estranged father. If you build it, he will come.

Dave and Patty Emrick came from Pittsburgh with sons Tyler, Trevor, and Trenton, stopping on their way to Yellowstone via Mount Rushmore. They packed gloves, balls, and a bat expressly for the field. "It appealed to me, mostly," said Dad when asked why he abandoned the interstate for this. "It was real sentimental to walk onto that field. I did what everyone does, I suppose, and stepped out of the corn."

Becky DuBuisson, a widow from Boulder, Colorado, arrived in 1994 on a cross-country drive with her aunt. Ms. DuBuisson had been having a recurring dream, in which she was told to be at the field at midnight on New Year's Eve with a hot dog and a root beer. When DuBuisson arrived in D-ville, the field lay silent beneath a down comforter of snow. She ran the bases in the muffled night. She came back several times in the next year, and just yesterday she became engaged -- to Don Lansing, who had already given her the world's biggest diamond.

I asked Lansing why these tourists came, and he didn't respond for a moment. Then it occurred to me, alarmingly, that he hadn't heard a word I'd said today. I had just noticed that he wore small rubber ear plugs. He had been taking a break from mowing the lawn when I found him. He appeared always on the verge of answering, but I couldn't tell for sure. It was like anxiously waiting for a car engine to turn over on a winter's day. But finally he spoke, to my visible relief.

"I think they come for as many reasons as there are stars in the heavens," he said. "Some think that Kevin Costner lives here. A lot of people don't understand that Universal built this field -- they think my family built it before there was a movie. And then a lot of people don't know that the house is real. They think it's just a movie set."

Wasn't he bothered that some people still treated his house as a movie set, taking photos through windows and so forth? "Naw," he said. "For the most part, they respect my little area here. Sometimes at night they'll ask me to turn on the lights" -- there were six stancheons surrounding the field -- "but I only do that for special occasions." Lansing pointed to a stancheon 280 feet down the right field line. "Joe Pepitone hit the top of that one," he said, mentioning the ex-Yankee with a toupee like a shag toilet-seat cover. "No one else has done it."

Indeed, every September a host of ex-big leaguers descends on Dyersville to play a Celebrity Game. This year Rollie Fingers, Lou Brock, Brooks Robinson, and Maury Wills were among those confirmed. It always draws a big crowd. "It's neat to see all the people and where they come from and their reactions to the field," said Lansing. "We've had 'em from Australia, Japan, all over Europe. Places without baseball."

What could possibly be the appeal to someone who doesn't know baseball? Lansing chewed on that question as if it were a cud. The farm had been in the family for 95 years. Lansing played ball on the property with his father, LaVern, and LaVern played ball there with his father before that.

"I think," Lansing said at last, "it has a lot to do with fathers and sons."

Now we were getting somewhere.

This chapter is excerpted with permission from the book "Road Swing," by Steve Rushin, published by Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. © 1998 by Steve Rushin. All rights reserved.

By Steve Rushin

A senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Steve Rushin has written dozens of articles, including the centerpiece article for the magazine's 40th anniversary issue.

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