Monday, March 3, 2008
Is this Heaven?
There is a holy place in Iowa. It’s not the sort of place that has services, or sacraments, or sacred music. It is a place of pilgrimage, a place of peace. If you go, I’d suggest you go in the late summer or early fall, just before harvest time. Leave the highway, drive through a small town, take two-lane roads to a driveway that ends in the most improbable location ever. Get out of the car underneath one of those impossibly high, blue Midwestern skies and feel, just for a moment, the peace of that place. Spend an hour, an afternoon, leave a donation, buy a memento. For it is money you have, and peace that you seek. It is an amazing place, this holy destination. If it weren’t there would be no need for pilgrimage. It’s one of those places that resonates within the human spirit, filled with laughter and thick with joy. It’s a cathedral, one with a space set aside just for you. It’s known as the Field of Dreams, and for twenty years it has told a story bigger than the makers of the movie could have dreamed. The last time I was there was the fall of 2006. I was finally getting around to graduating from Western. My parents came out to visit and we decided that since we were already close, we should go. It wasn’t the first time I’d been there and I hope it won’t be the last. There’s something special about going to the Field of Dreams. You feel it as you drive up, park, and get out of the car. It doesn’t matter if you’re 6 or 60, you immediately know you’re in a special place. Three college baseball players were there on the same day in 2006. I don’t remember if they were students at a juco or a small, regional school, but they were on the team. None of them had ever been to the field before, and as they took turns knocking balls toward the rows of corn it was obvious that for them this was no ordinary batting practice. Even though they had hit, pitched, and caught in real games, this was different, meaningful on a different level. The story behind the Field of Dreams is almost the same as the story in the movie. The field really sits on top of high-quality Iowa cornfield next to a picturesque white farmhouse. Corn really grows right up to the edge of the outfield, defining the arch like a wall at a more traditional park. There are lights out in the outfield and a single set of wooden stands along the first base line. And just like in the movie, the Field was nearly plowed under until a miracle occurred. It takes up a lot of space, and farmers work pretty close to the edge of profitability. The dirt used up by the field is worth its weight in gold and the owners of the farm planned on returning the field back to its earlier purpose once the movie wrapped. Most of left field and part of center did, in fact, go back to agriculture for a while. See, the Field of Dreams is on two different farms and the owners of half the outfield were far more interested in getting back to business than the owners of the in- and right field. There was a great deal of animosity between the two that still lives on today, as evidenced by the two sets of driveways and two souvenir stands. But even if the owners couldn’t agree, the Field of Dreams prevailed. Tourists poured in, the field began hosting special events and old-timer games that recalled the barnstorming spirit of baseball teams long gone. The Ghost Players re-enact the Black Sox emerging from the corn in the outfield on certain special days. And people come. They stand in amazement, take the field in awe and have a catch, just like they could in their own backyard. But this is no ordinary game of catch. The ancients believed that every once in a while the gods touched the earth and created special places full of transcendent power. Those places were often marked with altars upon which special sacrifices were made, perhaps just once, perhaps more often to commemorate that day. That burnt sacrifice reminded everyone who witnessed or recalled that the special, the divine, did not come to us without a loss. We carried that forward, even as we began to realize that there could be consecrated ground upon which god had not walked. Abraham Lincoln offered the clearest, most succinct defense of our own power to consecrate in the Gettysburg Address: “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Sacrifice of blood. Otherwise there is no purpose for the altar; the only way in which the holy can be marked. Without blood, can there be something divine, something greater? I have been to that holy field in Iowa. I can tell you that the answer is yes. It sounds silly, nearly twenty years on, to make a pilgrimage to a baseball field cut out of an Iowa farm for a movie about a game played by men in pajamas. But that movie tapped in to something deep in the American psyche. In Shoeless Joe Jackson we can all see a bit of ourselves. We’ve all made mistakes, hurt something or someone we love, longed to correct them, and ended up searching desperately for redemption. In Ray Kinsella, too, we can all see a bit of ourselves. We’ve all had crazy dreams that no one else believed in. Most of us, though, have gotten to the proverbial point of plowing under the crops and stopped, deciding that it’s better to stick with the corn than see what’s out there. Terrence Mann is that little piece of us that sees the great movements fail and decides to quit, to hide, all the while longing for a half-crazed dreamer, a message on a scoreboard, or a call from the great, invisible beyond to reawaken that tiny spark of hope. The Field of Dreams is a holy place, but not one consecrated by blood. It’s consecrated by the shared hopes, joys, and losses of the people that made it, that have kept it in place through love and sheer force of will for nearly two decades. Its power is sustained and kept by the dreams and memories of everyone who visits, hoping to have a catch or simply sit and be a part of something bigger than anyone could have ever imagined. For it is money they have, but peace they lack. The great baseball stadiums are considered cathedrals, holy buildings dedicated to the great American religion of baseball. Their names alone invite awe: Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium. We even hold a special place for the fields long gone: Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Old Comiskey Park. Carved out of a cornfield, next to an old house, at the end of miles of two-lane road is a field that can rival all of the great baseball cathedrals. We don’t speak of the great championships won at the Field of Dreams, nor do we have records of career milestones, World Series wins, or great catches by great players to snatch victory from the high, booming home run of defeat. The Field of Dreams has none of those things. It has something different. Something better. For twenty years the Field of Dreams has had the love, the support, and the hopes of everyone who visits, everyone who watches the movie, everyone who understands that baseball is something bigger than just a silly game. We can go sit in the stands at Wrigley, get a beer at Fenway, eat a hot dog at Chavez Ravine and watch others play the game. But we can walk out on to the Field of Dreams and, just for a moment, participate. It’s hard to explain to those who have never been there, but the Field of Dreams is a special place, perhaps one of the only wholly good places there is. It’s a feeling that pervades every sensation, floods every perspective. It is a holy place, a special place, one that only gets better with time. Those collected hopes and dreams seem to stay on that field, offering a harvest more bountiful than any amount of corn. Everyone who goes seems to feel it and, even better, take a bit of that harvest home. Even better, though, some of those hopes and dreams we take with us to that field stay behind. They add, little by little, to the mystique of that special, holy place where fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and strangers get to play baseball beneath the high, clear Iowa sky on the most improbable cathedral ever built.