6/11/2013 10:51 P.M. ET
'Field of Dreams' farm remains slice of heaven
By Ryan Eshoff / Special to MLB.com
DYERSVILLE, Iowa -- On a cold, gray February Saturday 25 years ago, an old maroon Chevy cruised through the Iowa countryside north and east out of Dyersville.
Few non-locals ever made it out to this part of the state -- an hour and a half from Iowa City and twice that from Des Moines -- but of the three men in the car, only the driver was a native Iowan.
The Chevy turned right off of Dyersville East Road onto Lansing Road, a dusty strip of pavement with few houses but plenty of farmland on either side.
A half-mile down Lansing Road, the man in the passenger seat abruptly ordered the driver to stop. The Chevy parked on the side of the road, the man jogged off to the north side of the road, his fellow passengers in hot pursuit.
Down there was a house nestled against a small hill and next to a narrow creek. Though it was still early in the year, still a few months before corn stalks taller than the average man would fill the landscape, the man stopped in the field just down the driveway from the farmhouse.
He looked out over Iowa and took a few swings with an imaginary baseball bat. He turned to his fellow travelers and grinned a grin of confirmation. He'd found his baseball paradise. He'd found the Field of Dreams.
Don Lansing wasn't at home when Phil Alden Robinson rang his doorbell, but when he returned to his farm a few hours later, Robinson and his colleagues were still there waiting for him. Lansing owned the farm, which had been in his family since his grandparents purchased the land in 1906.
Robinson, meanwhile, was a Hollywood man, perhaps best known at that point for penning the screenplay for "Rhinestone," a 1984 comedy that paired Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton. Accompanying Robinson that day were a producer named Brian Frankish and the manager of the Iowa Film Office, Wendol Jarvis.
Don Lansing had never met anybody from Hollywood, and certainly not anybody who wanted to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield and film a movie there.
"I laughed at them and told them they were crazy," Lansing says. "But after they explained the idea to me, I eventually agreed to do it. I remember telling my mom, and she laughed at me and told me I was crazy. But I'd say it worked out pretty well."
It certainly has; Robinson and his crew released "Field of Dreams," an adaptation of the W.P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe in 1989. The film's popularity inspired Lansing and his wife Becky to keep the baseball field on their property intact for the last quarter-century.
About 65,000 visitors come to the field each year. There's a small souvenir and information stand, but admission is free, and the Lansings encourage tourists to leave their memories in a guestbook.
Over time, as Don and Becky grew older and sought a more stress-free lifestyle, they received offers for the farm; nearly all wanted to turn the site into a for-profit tourist destination. Don turned them all down.
But in the summer of 2010, the Stillmans -- a family of four from Chicago -- stopped at the field. Parents Mike and Denise were huge fans of the film, and their young son John was a Little League fiend. The Stillmans spoke with Don Lansing and learned that he was thinking about selling the field. They immediately expressed interest and that, to borrow a line from another classic film, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
"For a year, I couldn't sleep," says Denise Stillman, recalling the days spent trying to nail down a proposal that the Lansings would agree to. "Thank God, they never said no."
Denise, an experienced business consultant, spearheaded an investment group called Go the Distance Baseball LLC that now includes Hall of Fame baseball player Wade Boggs and actor Matthew Perry. Two and a half years after their trip to Dyersville, the Stillmans closed the deal and assumed ownership of the Lansing farm at the beginning of 2013.
Don and Becky received $3.4 million for the site and retired to a new house in Dyersville.
The new plan is to keep the Field of Dreams and the farmhouse intact as a free tourist destination. But the surrounding area will be turned into All-Star Ballpark Heaven, a 24-field facility designed to host massive tournaments for youth baseball and softball teams from all over the country. Construction will begin later this year, and the Heaven will open its gates to teams in the summer of 2014.
Not surprisingly, the project had its fair share of local critics. Neighbors of the Lansings complained about increased noise, lights and traffic. Locals worried about the economic feasibility of sustaining the new facility.
Both the Lansings and the Stillmans, though, are confident that the plan is a perfect way to preserve the legacy of the Field of Dreams while simultaneously giving young ballplayers a new state-of-the-art venue.
"We're not growing corn, we're growing kids," she says. "This is something bigger than us."
Denise knew that her boyfriend Mike was a huge baseball fan, so one evening in '89 she suggested that they spend a date night watching the new movie "Field of Dreams" in his room at Bradley University in Peoria.
"He cried at the end," she remembers, all these years later. "There was just this sense of fantasy that we held in our hearts."
Mike Stillman certainly wasn't the first to fall victim to the story's emotional tug. That honor likely belongs to Wendol Jarvis, who came across the script in the Iowa Film Office in the late '80s (his role was to entice moviemakers to film in the state).
"In the position that I held, I read thousands of scripts," Jarvis says. "There are a few that really, really stood out. When I read "Field of Dreams" for the first time, I knew this was a magical motion picture."
Jarvis admitted to getting teary-eyed while reading the script late at night. As the story goes, a farmer in Iowa named Ray Kinsella (yes, same last name as Shoeless Joe's author) hears a mysterious voice tell him to build a baseball field in his corn. A subsequent vision leads Ray to believe that his field will allow the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson to play ball again. Shoeless Joe, one of the great players of his time, was banned from professional baseball for life in 1919 for his participation in a scandal by members of the Chicago White Sox to accept money from gamblers and lose the World Series on purpose.
Jackson is widely believed to have accepted money, but he led all players with 12 hits in the Series and didn't commit any errors. Disputes over his guilt in the scandal raged even after Jackson's death in 1951 (he acquired his famous nickname when he once played a game in socks because a new pair of cleats he had been wearing hurt his feet).
The field in the story proved to be a source of redemption for Jackson and other ghosts of baseball past. It's more than that, though. Other characters come to the field and find revitalization, inspiration or redemption. The film's emotional climax involves baseball, but it's also about a father and his son, about family, about the deep-seeded connection between a sport and a country.
The film helped launch the career of its leading man, Kevin Costner. It also starred James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan and Burt Lancaster.
In his review of "Field of Dreams," the late movie critic Roger Ebert called the film "a religious picture, all right, but the religion is baseball."
Upon visiting the actual field more than two decades after first seeing the film, Denise Stillman expressed a similar sentiment.
"In an odd sense, it's a holy place, it's a reverent place," she says. "There's a connection of fantasy and reality when you go there."
Strangely enough, there almost wasn't anything there at all. Phil Alden Robinson found his farm -- chosen out of hundreds of other possible locations across North America -- and the Lansings were willing hosts.
But 1988 was a tumultuous time in Iowa. The Midwestern farming states had been hit hard by the recession of the mid '80s. The "death of the family farm" became a campaign and helped Democrat Michael Dukakis win Iowa away from the Republicans in the '88 presidential election.
The survival of many of the state's farms was already in question before the Drought of 1988 hit the country. Crops across the nation fell victim to the water shortage.
The Lansing farm, already in the midst of a Hollywood overhaul by the time the drought struck, wasn't exempt from the devastation.
"The producers came to me very, very concerned," Don Lansing recalls. "They said, 'Where's the corn? We need the cornfield!' I told them, 'Look, there's no water. There's nothing we can do!'"
Mother Nature didn't respond fast enough, so the filmmakers were forced to improvise: they painted the cornstalks yellow and the grass of the baseball field green.
Although the ownership of the farm changed hands in January, Don Lansing still makes frequent visits to the property.
He admits that of course it was a tough decision to sell the 193 acres of land that made up his farm. But he wholeheartedly supports what the Stillmans want to do with the site, believing his longtime home is in good hands.
On a brisk spring afternoon in April not unlike a certain day 25 years prior, Don stands on the Field of Dreams talking to another Californian. Don's voice has a slow, meandering cadence -- perfect for Iowa and perfect for baseball.
His face, adorned with glasses and topped by a Field of Dreams cap, betrays a certain weariness from seven decades on the farm, but he still speaks emotionally about 25 years of magic and memories.
"It's just been a really remarkable ride," Don says.
He's standing just about where the left-handed batter's box would be, where the lines are painted on the field. Where Shoeless Joe Jackson stood to hit in the movie.
The sky is blue but filled with low-hanging white clouds, themselves spectators inching forward in their seats to get a better glimpse of the field. The famed corn stalks, from which the ghosts of the ballplayers came and went in the movie, are still a week or two away from sprouting from the earth to surround the field. You can almost feel their anxiousness.
Without the stalks to define the outfield wall, you can see beyond the field deep into the Iowa heartland, where All-Star Ballpark Heaven will soon appear out of the now-empty flatland. Therein lies the magic of baseball captured in the story: the universality of the sport, the way it penetrates and permeates a place, a people, a family.
"It's the open-endedness of the game," says W.P. Kinsella, a native Canadian who wrote Shoeless Joe after doing his graduate studies at the University of Iowa. "Other sports are twice enclosed, first by rigid playing boundaries, then by time. But on a true baseball field, the foul lines diverge forever, taking in a good part of the universe, and this makes for larger than life characters. It makes for myth."
The Lansings never expected that their small slice of the myth would draw so many people: 65,000 over 25 years is a lot of people, especially for a small family farm on the outskirts of a town with 4,000 residents. Don still remembers the first -- a lone man stopped by the field not long after the film was released, on his way west from New York. He didn't leave his name, but he did leave an old New York Giants cap, itself becoming part of the myth once the team moved to San Francisco in 1958.
"I still have that hat," says Don, smiling as he tears up.
Don remembers the filmmakers persevering through the Drought, finally releasing "Field of Dreams" on April 20, 1989. He is reminded that, as a matter of fact, today is April 20, 24 years to the day.
"Well, how 'bout that?" Don chuckles, looking off into the distance. "It was a special day; a special, special day."
Most days are special at the Field of Dreams, Don says. It's still quite early in the tourist season, but on this day, a few families arrive and take a look around throughout the day. Over by where Joe Jackson patrolled left field, a middle-aged dad laughs as his young son, no more than 8, frolics in the grass.
The boy is immune to the chill. He wears nothing more than shorts, T-shirt and ballcap. And, of course, he is shoeless.
Ryan Eshoff is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.