By WILLIE STEELE
Ray Kinsella heard a voice. Ray Kinsella had a vision of the field. Ray Kinsella had a supportive wife who encouraged him to follow his wish of building a baseball field on his farm.
I heard no voice. I had no vision. But when my literary agent emailed me to say she’d secured tickets for me to attend the Field of Dreams game between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees in Dyersville, Iowa, my wife was as supportive as Annie Kinsella was to Ray.
Sitting in my hotel room in Charlottesville, Virginia – where I was attending a Civil War seminar – I checked my email and saw Carolyn Swayze, the same book agent Albertan writer W.P. Kinsella had for many years, had reached out to me and Kinsella’s oldest daughter, Shannon, saying there were four tickets available, but we needed to let her know immediately if we’d be able to use them.
Knowing I had to be in Ohio for a wedding rehearsal the day after the game was scheduled to be played, I called my wife Heather to explain the situation.
“Take the tickets. We’ll figure it out,” my wife said.
Annie Kinsella has nothing on my wife.
So I claimed the tickets and scrambled to figure out who would go with me. My youngest brother was the father of the groom in the upcoming wedding, so he was a scratch. My oldest brother just had the transmission go out on his car. He, the one who was notorious for uttering the line, “Never let the lack of money stand in the way of having a good time,” had somehow become a responsible adult over the past 25 years.
My wife reached out again and said, “You should take Marianne.” My youngest daughter was going to start her 8th grade year a few days later, and she would already be back in school when the game was played.
“If you’re OK with it, I’m OK with it,” I responded. “Who really learns stuff the first week of school anyway?”
As a teacher for more than two decades myself, I felt more than qualified to answer that question.
The next couple hours were spent looking at flights from our home in Tennessee to Chicago, the city with the closest airport where we could use our frequent-flyer rewards points, and then flights from Chicago to Ohio the next day so we wouldn’t miss the wedding. Normally, I wouldn’t have been so concerned about a wedding that wasn’t my own, but my nephew and his fiancé had asked me to perform the ceremony, so I felt like it would be strange if I didn’t show up.
DREAMS TAKING FLIGHT
A week-and-a-half later, my daughter and I were up before the sun, headed towards the airport to see the game that evening.
In the movie Field of Dreams, Ray drives an old Volkswagon microbus to kidnap Terence Mann to take him to a game at Fenway Park. In Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, on which the film is based, Ray drives an old beat-up Datsun to kidnap J.D. Salinger for the ballgame. My luck was much better than either version of Ray Kinsella. The woman at the rental car counter asked if I wanted a free upgrade. Having already pulled my daughter from school for two days to attend her first ever major league game, a game honouring Field of Dreams, I like to think I was a cool dad for a day. I solidified that status when I grabbed the keys to a white Ford Mustang and we hit the road.
Four hours later, we were in Dyersville, Iowa. And so was everyone else in the state it seemed.
You know how, when the camera pulls back at the end of the movie, and the line of 1,500 cars stretches out from the farm into town? And you know how that somehow felt peaceful and conveyed a sense of romanticism? Don’t believe it. That was entirely Hollywood. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, we parked the Mustang and made our way towards the Lansing Farm on which the film was made in the summer of 1988.
Sporting my Willie Stargell Pittsburgh Pirates jersey, I was surrounded by a sea of Yankees and White Sox shirts. One guy was yelling at some folks wearing New York hats, “Go Yankees!” And when he saw a Sox jersey, he hollered, “Go White Sox!” But when he saw me, he did a double take and yelled, “Go baseball!”
I thanked him and said, “Yeah, but not much of what’s being played in Pittsburgh right now looks like baseball. We’re in a rebuilding decade. Or four.”
My daughter and I had been to the Field of Dreams movie site two years earlier for the 30th anniversary celebration of the film. We’d also had my wife and oldest daughter on that trip. But this day was for the two of us. I wanted this to be a day we’d both remember for years to come, for all the right reasons. But having watched many of the decisions Major League Baseball (MLB) has made over the past couple years, including their dismantling of the minor leagues, I wasn’t confident they would pull this off. I’m not sure commissioner Rob Manfred couldn’t find a way to mess up a one-car parade.
AS AMERICAN AS …
As we entered the field, Marianne and I saw the trailer with the “hot dog apple pie” we’d heard about. If you’re unfamiliar with it, television personality and chef Guy Fieri had concocted this concession just for the occasion. It’s just like it sounds. An apple pie with a hot dog in it.
We sat in the sun eating the snack, watching people who were enjoying the movie site, filing into the corn maze, and soaking up the atmosphere. I didn’t mind the unique treat, but my daughter passed hers to me with one bite taken from it and said, “Is this Heaven? No, Dad, this is from the other place.”
I’d have to find something to do to make sure that the taste of an apple pie hot dog didn’t ruin her day.
Earlier in the summer, I’d sent my dad’s 1950s era Billy Pierce model glove to a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota to be relaced and reconditioned. Dad died unexpectedly, about two months after Kinsella, in 2016. Having published Kinsella’s biography in 2018, it was a bit surreal to play catch with my daughter, using Dad’s glove on the field that was inspired by Kinsella’s writing.
With the game getting closer, we made our way through the corn maze towards the field. I’ve been to more games than I can count over the years. Major league stadiums. Minor league ballparks. High school and Little League fields. Sandlots. I’ve seen all types, from large to small, from elaborate to the bare bones. But I’ve never seen anything as unique as the diamond nestled into an Iowa cornfield.
We settled into our seats, ten rows up from home plate, slightly towards the first base dugout where the Yankees were. My daughter had already declared, “Dad, I can’t cheer for the Yankees. I’m going for the Field of Dreams team.”
Shannon Kinsella, the author’s daughter, appreciated Marianne’s stance and told us, “Dad always hated the Yankees. I can’t cheer for them either.”
During the pregame, when Kevin Costner emerged from the corn, the film’s soundtrack playing over the sound system, I felt a lump rise in my throat. When the Yankees and White Sox stepped from the corn field, I glanced to my left and saw Shannon tearing up. And I found myself missing my own Dad. He’d have enjoyed this.
My daughter did not want to miss any of the game, forgoing even a pretzel or hot dog from the concession stand to watch every at-bat. “It’s ok. We can eat something later,” she said.
Feeling comfortable with Chicago’s 7-4 lead in the top of the 9th inning, I was already thinking about the drive back. But when Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton each hit two-run home runs, I had a sinking feeling my nearly perfect day was about to have the wheels fall off.
“ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN”
I know people often say this after the fact, but I promise you the following conversation took place:
“All we need is for one guy to get one base and then have someone hit a home run,” I told my daughter.
“You think?” she said.
“Anything can happen,” I responded.
Following a Danny Mendick groundout, Seby Zavala walked.
“All we need now is a home run,” I reminded Marianne.
A minute later, Tim Anderson connected with the pitch from Zack Britton, and everyone there, including the Yankees, knew it was headed for the corn in right field.
Shannon Kinsella, in tears, wrapped me in a big hug. We both had tears in our eyes. And as I high-fived and hugged my daughter, I heard people tell Shannon, “Your Dad couldn’t have written a better ending to this game!”
And they were right.
Under the glow of the stadium lights, Shannon and I talked about the game and her father.
None of this would have happened had W.P. Kinsella not written “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa” in 1978.
None of this would have happened had that story not been expanded into the novel Shoeless Joe.
None of this would have happened had Phil Robinson not adapted that novel into Field of Dreams.
And even if it had somehow happened, I wouldn’t have been there with my daughter had W.P. Kinsella not reached out to me in 2012 about writing his biography.
In both the book and the movie, the Voice gives Ray three messages:
“If you build it, he will come.”
“Ease his pain.”
“Go the distance.”
However, my favourite line from the Voice is in the novel, but was omitted from the film.
At the end of the story, the Voice says, “Fulfill the dream.”
And that night in Iowa, with my daughter happily cheering for the White Sox as the fireworks marked the game’s end, we watched the dream being fulfilled. Kinsella’s story wasn’t on the page. It was no longer on the big screen. Kinsella’s story was playing out in real time as the last of the fireworks fell from the sky against a backdrop of a summer Iowa night.
Several times on the way back to Chicago, my daughter thanked me for what she called, “An awesome day.”
The next morning, after two hours of sleep, she thanked me again.
And when she was working on making up a lot of missed homework the following week (it turns out they DO teach things during the first week after all), I asked her if she was sorry she’d gone to the game.
“No way!” she blurted. “That was awesome! It was my first major league game!”
I don’t have the heart to tell her they won’t all be like that.
But for now, it doesn’t matter. Kinsella wrote it, and people came.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Willie Steele is the author of Going the Distance: The Life and Works of W.P. Kinsella. He is also a professor of English at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee and the editor of NINE: A Journey of Baseball History and Culture. Many thanks to him for sharing this guest column with us.