People still come, Ray

What’s out there

I’ve been to heaven. Twice, in fact.

I first learned you could go there on your own time during my junior year of college. A friend of mine from western Illinois, Joe, had a photo of himself with several friends, a few I knew, together on the ballfield in the cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa. Until that point, I don’t think I knew that the Field of Dreams was still there, still a pilgrimage site for fans of the game and the movie, still a little piece of heaven in the Iowa corn.

I’d first read about it a few years earlier, while in high school, but my first trip didn’t come until some years later, during my post-graduate cross-country sojurn. I put Dyersville on the map as one of my definite stops and made it there on a perfect Saturday afternoon:

The map took me to Dyersville, the AAA took me north, signs took me east, and my deep-rooted love of baseball took me to Don Lansing’s farm and the Field of Dreams. It sat there, just like in the movie, as everyone expects it to — a little piece of heaven cut out of the cornfield. Turning down the driveway, seeing cars parked by the house, it all just felt right. Like on this perfect, warm sunny Iowa August day, that we should all be here, out in the field, standing at the plate, walking in the corn. Fathers pitched to sons, daughters took their cuts, mothers watched with cameras in hand. Some had brought chairs and sat in the shade along right field — there for several hours, no doubt. Everyone, it seemed, was smiling. People did come, and it was as they’d remembered it — maybe not form childhood, but from the movie. Out on the field, the men talked, chatted, joked together — a group of them may have come together. But standing there in perfect Iowa afternoon, I had the feeling that maybe they hadn’t known each other. Then, stepping on that field, they began to look familiar; they realized they were all fans — all kids again. And they talked like old buddies.

Everything from the movie came to life — the people on the field in pure enjoyment; the crunch of the gravel and red-dirt infield; the chirp of the crickets and rush of the wind; and the coarse rustle of the corn stalks tickled by the wind or brushed aside by the curious visitors investigating “what’s out there.” Before leaving, I magically remembered I had brought along a baseball tape, and I found James Earl Jones’ “People will come” speech. I sat there listening to it in stereo, for all the background sounds existed on that perfect Iowa afternoon.

The second trip was 10 times cooler. For his bachelor party, my friend Brad had a long May weekend of bars, baseball and cigars lined up, beginning with a reserved room at Chicago’s ESPNZone, then a Cubs-Brewers game the following day (a cold, rain-delayed experience, though we did meet up with some nice folks in the left-field bleachers who graciously saved us some space; we ended up chatting with them and pondered when the Cubs would call up the pitching prospect who was lighting up the minor leagues, Mark Prior). Following the ballgame, we got a late start west, deciding on dinner at a Hooter’s before we’d left Chicagoland and arriving at a new Super 8 or Comfort Inn just off U.S. 20 in Dyersville late that night. The next morning, we warmed up by playing catch in the parking lot as the stragglers in the group packed up and then — after a quick breakfast at McDonald’s during which we discussed Brad’s brother’s former soccer teammate, DeMarcus Beasley, and his prospects for that summer’s World Cup — headed off to the Lansings’ farm.

Brad’s “other friend Dan,” as he still refers to him (to me) to this day, had called ahead to arrange for us to meet with Becky Lansing before we took the field. As the website explains, the Lansings have continued to offer use of the field from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day, from April through November, politely explaining that they do not take reservations for groups, individuals or events. But if we arrived early — on a Monday in May especially — she had said, we’d likely have the field to ourselves for an hour or so.

Though Dan, as the best man, organized the trip, the idea had been Brad’s. “What I liked about the game is that everybody could play, everybody could relate to it,” he told me afterward for a potential story I’d hoped to write about our experience. I never did, but I kept my notes, so now I’m doing something with them.

“I had friends there from my dorm in college,” Brad said, “from the college newspaper, from work, from law school, and I had a brother at the game, too. That’s five different circles of friends, five different times of my life represented. When you have so many different groups, getting them to meld together can be really hard, particularly when their paths will only cross for a weekend. The people are thrown together, and with only a couple days it’s hard for people to get to know the others, hard to get to know them any more than beyond the typical superficial questions — where are you from, what do you do, et cetera.

“But when you get together to play baseball, everybody knows what to do. You don’t have to preface the game by explaining the rules to anyone. It’s baseball. And after the game is over, everybody has something in common with each other — they played a game of baseball together.”

Not only did we play a game, but we got some one-on-one (group) time with Becky Lansing. Before taking the field, we sat ourselves down on the bleachers — the same set along the first-base line with “Ray loves Annie” etched into the top bench — as Becky gave us some of the backstory to how her farm was chosen, what filming was like, and what the next 13 years had brought.

“The Dubuque Chamber of Commerce and the Iowa Film Board came by in late 1987,” she said. “They were looking for a long lane with a two-story white house. They looked at 250 farms from Georgia to Canada.”

The Lansings’ farm, which has been in Don Lansing’s family for 105 years now (97 when we visited in ’02) was almost perfect. The house — in which Don himself was born — was showing its years and needed a little work.

“The front of the house is the east side, away from the field,” Becky told us. “So they put in a new door, fixed up the porch and put in bay windows.”

Filming took 15 weeks during the summer of 1988, and the field wasn’t supposed to remain when they were finished.

“It took four days to build the ballfield,” Becky said. “What you see in the movie is what is happening. It covers three and a half acres. To a young farm family, losing that much corn might make a difference. It’s $7,000-8,000 worth of crops here [in 2002].

“The original contract with the studio was to have them put everything back — replant all the corn — after filming was finished. Next door, they put all the corn back in left field the week the movie premiered. A year and a half later, they put the field back in.”

“Next door” is the neighbors’ property, including left field. I first learned of the movie site in an article discussing that corner of the field (I believe it was in Beckett Baseball Card Monthly) in the early ’90s. While the diamond, backstop, bleachers and farmhouse from the movie all sit on Don and Becky Lansing’s land, left field was in fact cut out of the neighbors’ corn. Parallel to the Lansings’ lane leading to the field and farmhouse is another driveway. Between the two are a series of telephone poles and power lines that mark the property line. Since then, there have been two sides to the Field of Dreams: Drive down the right driveway and you’re on Don and Becky’s farm; buy from their souvenir stand and the money goes to help maintain the field. Drive down the left driveway and you’re on “left field” land. Buy from that stand and the money goes into the bank.

“We pay Universal Studios royalties, a portion of the proceeds from the shop,” Becky explained. “The rest of the money goes back into maintenance. This is not a money-making opportunity.

“Left field was leased to private investors, but our intensions were to keep it small and simple. They wanted to build a corn maze in left field, but you can get lost in my corn for free!”

Of course, in mid-May, there was no corn in which we could get lost. We had to settle for our imaginations, but otherwise, visitors to the site feel like they’re in the movie.

“We work three times as hard to keep it that way,” Becky said. “Corporate America comes in every year, but we turn them away. People notice every single detail if it changes from the movie.

“Donny and I do all the field maintenance. We close at 6 p.m. because the field needs to rest and we need to rest.”

When it was time to play ball, we divided up into our predetermined teams — the Yankees (Brad’s favorite team since his days growing up in the Bronx suburb of Fort Wayne, Ind.) vs. the Cubs (Brad’s adopted National League team from his post-college years in Chicago) for a nine-inning pickup game. Because Dan had ordered numbered T-shirts for each of us that we’d be taking home, I requested to join him on the Cubs, even though Brad, our friend Matt and most of the other Notre Dame grads would be on the Yankees (the Cubs consisted of Brad’s Chicago friends, those from his recently completed first year of law school, and the friends of his brothers invited along for this outing to help fill out the teams). I still have that Cubs T-shirt, but doubt that would be the case had it been a navy-blue NY shirt.

The warmth of the morning sun was nullified by the cold wind whipping across the barren cornfields, so many of us were bundled up under our team shirts. I found swinging and throwing to be restricted, but I still managed to attempt an athletic, off-balance throw on a dribbler down the third-base line (the runner was safe, if I recall), collect a couple of base hits and drive in a run with a respectably deep (read: deep enough that no infielders had a shot and the center fielder didn’t have to sprint in from his position) fly ball.

What made the morning so special was that, like in the movie, we were two teams of former players getting one more chance to play baseball on a private field in an idylic setting, something we could never be sure we’d be able to do again. And now, eight years later, I still have yet to take a baseball field with a glove on my hand and spikes on my feet and play nine-on-nine with overhand pitching. The closest I’ve come is regular batting practice/shagging flies with some friends from work these past few years or the occassional softball game among friends, but never the combination of nine-on-nine (or more) and overhand pitching. As we enjoyed ourselves, Becky spent some time watching, standing behind the backstop or beside the bleachers as we laughed and ran and swung and threw.

“The only two things that weren’t perfect that day were the final score and the fact that mid-May is too early for six-foot-tall corn stalks,” Brad told me. “The game was close until the sixth or seventh, but they [the Cubs] broke it open after that. I had a chance to close the gap when I batted with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh (I think), but I grounded out. What a waste. And it would have been cool to have had the opportunity to knock a ball into the corn stalks and watch it disappear like James Earl Jones. But those are minor complaints. After all, I still went 2-for-5.”

The Cubs won, 15-3, even after some in-game trading in an attempt to even out the squads. My final line was 2-for-6, with that RBI and a run scored. I batted sixth and played third base. We kept score, and afterward Dan sent around the box score with all our names and batting averages listed. The pack rat that I am — both digitally and physically — I dug up my old laptop and inserted the — get this — floppy disk to transfer the box score and the file with Brad’s comments onto a flash drive and then onto my current laptop. I found Becky’s comments in one of the dozen reporter’s notebooks I still have packed away. I’d always toyed with the idea of crafting a first-person account of our trip for a potential submission, such as to the Notre Dame alumni magazine, but I never truly made the effort. Now, with the farm up for sale, I wanted to get it all down.

We finished our game just as the first visitors to follow us began to arrive, but we took our time packing our things. Becky opened up the souvenir shed to take our donations (on a cold May weekday, it seems the business hours of the stand were customized to when someone showed up) and then allowed us where most visitors aren’t allowed to go: Onto the porch of the farmhouse for a group photo she took with our cameras, mine included.

Looking back, we could’ve asked for more — a warmer morning, a later date so that the corn was growing — but had we gotten either of those, we probably wouldn’t have had the field to ourselves for so long, or had the chance to visit so long with Becky. If more visitors had been there as we were preparing to leave, we might not have been allowed onto the porch for a photo. I’m not sure I’d change a thing about that day; I’d only ask for the chance to do it again. Hopefully, the new owners keep things the way they are.

“My husband’s favorite actor from the movie was James Earl Jones,” Becky said eight years ago. “He said to us, ‘What do you want for the farm?'”

I wonder if he’s still interested. If only Brad, Matt, myself and a few others had the resources to pull together $5.4 million — and someone to live on the farm and continue maintenance so that we could all reconvene there once a year for another game.

“Playing a game of baseball, I thought, was a better event for a bachelor party than the typical events,” Brad said, “because after you’ve been to a few bachelor parties, your memories of them can run together. Bars in Chicago look pretty similar to bars in New York (although they do look a lot better than bars in South Bend — trust me.) But how many times does a bachelor party involve playing in a baseball game?

“The point is, I realized that the bachelor party was one of the few instances I’d ever have where 18 guys I know had to do what I wanted. And what I wanted to do was play baseball with my friends. As you get older, how many more chances do you have to do that?”

As we now know, none so far. Brad and his wife have two children and live in Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., where they work. Brad’s National League allegiance has shifted from the Cubs to the Nationals — and now, it’s the Nats that seem to be the team on the rise out of those two. I’m married, living in northern New Jersey, and working in New York. Matt remains close friends with the two of us and, married himself, lives in South Jersey, working in Trenton. The three of us have managed to get together at least once a year since then and have included ballgames in many of those meetings, but for those we’re drinking beer and cheering on the home team, not putting on gloves and swinging bats.

As great as Brad’s idea and Dan’s planning were, all the credit to such a memorable trip goes to Don and Becky Lansing, simply for keeping the field. They had a once-in-a-lifetime experience in having a movie filmed at their home, and they could’ve quickly gone back to the way life was afterward, but they didn’t. And it all started with the first visitor.

“The first person to come was from New York,” Becky told us in 2002. “We were sitting down here on a Saturday afternoon and he just drove up the lane. He said he just saw the movie and had to stop by. It’s a pretty amazing story — art imitating life and life imitating art.”

They kept coming from there: 7,000 in the first year, doubling each year until topping out at 55,000 annually. After 20 summers, Don and Becky Lansing have earned their retirement.

“We hope to keep the farm the way it was portrayed in the movie,” Becky said eight years ago. “We can’t promise it will always be that way when we get up to our retirement years, but right now it’s really important.

“Sometimes, we lose sight of the wonder of it all. When we do get a chance to talk to people, we get a chance to relive it.”

Thank you for that, Don and Becky.

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