How ‘Field of Dreams’ became an MLB reality

The original Field of Dreams, cut into a corn field in Dyersville, Iowa. (Yahoo Sports)
The original Field of Dreams, cut into a corn field in Dyersville, Iowa. (Yahoo Sports)

Note: This story was originally published in September 2019, when MLB’s Field of Dreams Game was first announced and set for August 2020. The game was later postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will now be played Thursday.

DYERSVILLE, Iowa — The news broke on social media midway through the morning of Aug. 8, 2019.

Seconds later, the phone at the Field of Dreams farmhouse started ringing. News may travel fast in a small town of just 5,000 people, but not as quickly as it can travel across the world on Twitter and Facebook.

One call tuned into two. Two calls turned into four. Four calls turned into eight.

“It literally did not stop ringing from the time of the announcement until the end of the day,” said Roman Weinberg, the site’s operations manager. “When I left at night, it was still ringing.”

A few miles away, in an office next to the National Farm Toy Museum, Karla Thompson also watched as her phones lit up and a steady stream of people started walking through the door of the Dyersville Chamber of Commerce.

The New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox were coming to town on Aug. 13, 2020, for the first Major League Baseball game held in the state of Iowa. (After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the originally scheduled game, the two teams will face off almost a full year later, on Aug. 12, 2021.) 

People had questions.

“Where do I get tickets, when do I get tickets and how much are they?” Thompson rattled off on a recent weekday afternoon when asked to list the top inquiries.

And how did the chamber’s executive director answer those questions?

“I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know,” Thompson said with a warm laugh. “There are still so many unknowns right now.”

It’s been 30 years since Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones brought this corner of the world into the spotlight with one of the best baseball movies of all time. In those three decades, the Field of Dreams movie site has become one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions and a must-stop on baseball pilgrimages made by fans from across the world.

Yet the iconic farm that sits just off Hewitt’s creek on the northeast side of Dyersville hasn’t grabbed this much attention since Ray Liotta walked out of the corn as Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Over the course of the next year, an 8,000-seat ballpark worthy of big-league play will be carved out of the corn, just a short relay throw from the field where the movie was filmed. Seating, concession stands and restrooms will go up for just one night and Fox Sports will show up to broadcast the game for the millions not lucky enough to get in.

To say that the people of Dyersville are excited about this event would be an understatement.

“I’ve suddenly become the most popular person in town,” Dyersville mayor Jim Heavens said. “Everyone thinks I can get them a ticket.”

Construction plans

Though the early August 2019 announcement came as a surprise to most, a Major League Baseball game at the Field of Dreams had been tossed around as an idea since 2015.

Looking for a way to inject excitement into the regular season, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and chief operating officer Tony Petitti started looking at hosting games before smaller audiences in off-path destinations where MLB doesn’t normally play. The Marlins and Braves started things off with a game at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg in July 2016; the popular and now-annual Little League Classic debuted a year later in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

For each game, the league has worked with BaAM Productions, a Canadian company that has staged everything from the NHL’s Winter Classic to the MLB All-Star FanFest to the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.

A regular season game at the Field of Dreams, however, was a different challenge.

But faced with Petitti’s idea to bring a Major League Baseball game to the middle of a cornfield in need of more infrastructure, BaAM president Annemarie Roe did not flinch.

“My initial reaction was, ‘We have to find a way to make this happen,’” Roe said.

“Yeah, same,” said BrightView’s Murray Cook, the turf specialist who builds the fields wherever Major League Baseball decides to play.

Thus began a series of clandestine trips to northeast Iowa with both MLB officials and stadium architecture firm Populous to judge the viability of the site. The envoys were met by Denise Stillman, who had purchased the site from the Lansing Family for $3.4 million in 2012 under the banner of Go The Distance Baseball.

Stillman, a medical marketing executive from Chicago, had the goal of building a $70 million, 24-field youth baseball complex beyond the corn named “All-Star Ballpark Heaven.” The project had been delayed for years by both the challenge of raising funds and a zoning-related lawsuit brought against the city by some Dyersville residents who were concerned about the environmental effects such a project would have on the rural setting.

But Stillman and her company pressed on. And when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in the city’s favor in 2017, Go The Distance was free to go all Ray Kinsella on its 194 acres of fields, including a site for whenever MLB might choose to come.

The field where the Yankees and White Sox will play is being construction just beyond the left field wall of corn. (Yahoo Sports)
The field where the Yankees and White Sox will play is being constructed just beyond the left field wall of corn. (Yahoo Sports)

Talk of the town

After overhearing a reporter talking to a barista about the Field of Dreams last week, Rita Ameskamp leaned over from her chair at the stylish Brew & Brew coffeehouse in downtown Dyersville and beckoned to him.

“I used to own the Field of Dreams,” Ameskamp pointed out as casually as if she were mentioning that she once owned a Corvette.

Ameskamp is a character. She and her late husband Al owned part of the movie site’s land when Hollywood rolled into town. The film’s producer knew he wanted the final scene to incorporate that sunset as the endless line of cars filed in and there was no way to do it without building the field on part of the Ameskamp’s land.

“Our property was where he needed third base and left field to be and you can’t have a baseball field with third base and left field,” Ameskamp said. “So we were involved with the movie.”

She even has a picture with Kevin Costner as they stood in her kitchen to prove it.

Over the years, the Ameskamps appeared in many an article as a feud with the Lansings — who owned first base, home plate, right field and the farmhouse — led to separate driveways, souvenir stands and media interviews.

Rita Ameskamp said she worked at their souvenir stand 80 hours a week as tourists pulled in from all over the world. Hot dogs were $1.50 and she’d sell 180 on a good weekend. She made sure her ice cream cones were filled to the bottom. (“I’d sell as fast as I scooped.”) One tourist from Japan cleared her completely out of Field of Dreams merchandise one day so he could bring it back home to sell.

“One guy got out of his car and said, ‘I’m from Chicago and hot dogs there cost five dollars so I’ll take three,’ ” she said, chuckling at the memory. “They were big hot dogs, too.”

Asked if she plans on going to next year’s game, Ameskamp resolutely shakes her head.

“I’m not a big baseball fan,” she said. “Plus it’ll be too expensive.”

Ameskamp sold out to the Lansings after her husband died and moved to a regular home in nearby Farley. But she still comes to Brew & Brew most weekdays where a group regularly meets over coffee. They talk about all sorts of things, but lately next year’s game between the White Sox and Yankees has topped the list.

As you might expect, a group of women who regularly inhabit a highly trafficked area in a small town knew about the game well ahead of the announcement.

“I can’t reveal how, though,” Pat Steger said, politely.

Though Ameskamp is indifferent to attending the game, the other three women — Steger, Patti Bell and Luann Bries — were eager to find out information on how to get tickets and even asked a reporter if he’d heard anything. He shook his head. Major League Baseball has yet to release any details.

After that, the women had one other request.

“This is going to be a good article, right?” Steger asked. “I want to go on record as saying we’re excited. A guy from the Quad Cities wrote that it wasn’t a good thing for Dyersville and Iowa. I disagree with that.”

The challenge ahead

As a MLB game at Field of Dreams moved closer to being a reality, the question on where the game would be physically played needed to be answered.

Holding the game on the original field was quickly dismissed. There are significant issues with both the smaller dimensions and uneven grading. More importantly, no one had a real appetite for altering a quasi-religious site for fans of the sport.

Building something deeper into the corn was a more palatable option that shouldn’t leave any lasting impact to the original site. While the field with the dimensions of Chicago’s old Comiskey Park will remain after the Yankees and White Sox head home, everything else will be quickly disassembled.

Plus, it’s amazing how much corn can conceal. On a recent visit to the site, you could stand at shortstop and still not see the combine harvesters or earth movers that were busy preparing an 18-acre parcel of land for Cook’s crew to work its magic.

Roe and Cook don’t seem daunted by the challenge ahead of them. They have a year to build the ballpark, compared to just the 120 days of lead time they had to build the Ft. Bragg ballpark on an abandoned golf course. Cook’s window for the London Series held in June was even shorter — only 23 days to construct a diamond on top of West Ham’s heavily-protected football pitch.

Putting in drainage and erosion-control systems will take up most of the fall before the site shuts down for the winter. Cook will return in the spring to install the clay and the turf while workers contracted by Roe’s company will start to build the stadium.

The movie site will remain open to tourists throughout the year. A record 115,000 people visited the park in 2018, a figure that’s expected to be surpassed in 2020.

“We know they have a business, too,” Cook said. “People will be able to peer over at us and say ‘Wow, look at what they’re building.’ It’s going to be exciting for the tourists.”

As for planting the corn next spring, that task is also on Cook’s crew, which contains at least six native Iowans.

“They know how to grow some corn,” Cook assured.

Baseball City, USA

A memorial plaque that rests behind the Field of Dreams backstop serves as a reminder that MLB’s visit will be a little bit melancholy. Go The Distance CEO Denise Stillman died from a rare liver cancer in November 2018 at the age of 46. Though she was involved in talks with MLB for years, she passed away before the game became official.

“She had wanted this for awhile,” Roman Weinberg said. “I know she’s smiling down now.”

Weinberg is “optimistic” that the increased attention over the next year will help push Stillman’s vision for the site over the fundraising goal line. Though Go The Distance is reassessing its original 24-field plan, the concept remains the same.

Old ballparks will be resurrected with similarly shaped layouts. Hall of Famers from all eras will be featured on plaques and displays. All while youth baseball players from across the country compete against each other on the diamond.

“In the movie, the audience never gets to see what’s behind the corn,” Weinberg said. “The whole premise is that we’re showing the world what’s behind the corn and that’s All-Star Ballpark Heaven.”

But before that happens, the White Sox and Yankees will come calling for one memorable night under the star-filled Iowa sky.

There’s still plenty of work to be done and details to be ironed out. But if MLB or any of the other companies associated with completing the venue run into trouble, they won’t have to look far for help.

When that first wave of calls came in on announcement day, both Weinberg and chamber of commerce president Karla Thompson were blown away at the amount of people willing to volunteer their time.

A man from Cedar Rapids called and offered to sing the national anthem. A local VFW volunteered the use of their field-sized American flag. Others offered to open their homes and farms so out-of-town fans wouldn’t have to drive all the way back to the hotels in Dubuque at night.

“People are just trying to help out and be a part of it in any way possible,” Thompson said. “They realize it’s history and just want to be around it. It’s been fantastic.

“The whole thing has really been a dream come true.”

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