Fighting Over the Field of Dreams

A quarter century ago, in rural Iowa, a Hollywood crew built a temporary baseball diamond for a now-classic movie. Maintained as a tourist attraction since, the field has recently been sold, and a developer’s new plans for it are dividing some of the community’s landowners. Which raises a curious question: Should the field's fake authenticity be preserved? 

Two winding roads, cutting through rolling farmland and past archetypal barns, connect Dyersville’s downtown with its famed estate. I arrived late in the afternoon. The cornfields had long since been plowed under, and several inches of snow had fallen the night before, obscuring all but a sliver of the pitcher’s mound and the bag at second base. It was cold, with temperatures in the single digits and slipping; the wind was howling; a lone Christmas wreath hung from the white picket fence.

Taking in the scene, I started thinking about the paradox of the field. Why is it, I wondered, that people feel so compelled to seek out and preserve a pastoral simulacrum built entirely for commercial purposes by a multinational movie studio? Part of the appeal, of course, is how closely the land still resembles the ball field people saw onscreen. But something deeper struck me, too: even though it’s a Hollywood fabrication, this slice of the heartland feels authentic. By conserving the site, Dyersville has built a bizarro time machine on the cheap, one that transports visitors into an actual setting that seems to occupy a mythical place in the American past—the wholesome sandlot we’ve long outgrown.

In such a surreal atmosphere, on land that’s stark and imbued with nostalgia, it’s easy to turn introspective. More than a decade ago, Brett Mandel, a writer and nonprofit consultant based in Philadelphia, gathered stories of pilgrims who visited the Field of Dreams and were moved by the experience. Finding material was not difficult, he says; it’s something of a folk tradition for townies to share touching tales they’ve heard about or witnessed. There was the Japanese baseball diehard who flew from Osaka to Dubuque, glimpsed the movie site, and then jumped on a plane back to Japan the following day. And there was the man from western Pennsylvania whose son died in a plane crash near Sioux City, Iowa, and who later acknowledged that a stop at the Field of Dreams a few days before the first anniversary of the wreck helped him reconnect with the spirit of his child. In 2002, Mandel published the stories he’d collected in a book called Is This Heaven? The Magic of the Field of Dreams. “People associate the memories of the film with something that’s important to them,” he explained to me. “They feel able to say different things or can feel emotions at the Field of Dreams they aren’t comfortable feeling at home.”

On the grounds, trying to stay warm, I took in a brilliant red sunset from the weathered bleachers. Its glow lit up the farmhouse, the park’s wooden light standards, and a solitary flagpole stuck in right field. I began to understand the draw. The place is different from some anachronistic Disney streetscape. It genuinely tricks you. As Marv Maiers, the Ghost Player, told me during my visit, “What’s out in front of you is real.”

Adam Doster is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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