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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Iowa Road Trip
By Tom Goldstein

This story actually begins in Denver in mid-July at the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) annual convention, an event that EFQ has participated in five of the past six years. SABR is one of those wonderfully eclectic organizations whose members run the gamut from distinguished professors, journalists, lawyers, doctors, and even former ball-players (Ted Williams was a member; so is Stan Musial, who lists his expertise in the annual directory as "hitting a baseball") to postal clerks, truck drivers, cabbies, artists, and students. Every summer the convention—a mixture of research presentations, forums, award banquets, baseball games, and trivia contests—is held in a city that hosts a major league team: Last year was Boston; next year is Cincinnati.

The highlight of each trip is watching a ball game with the five hundred or so attendees, though our seats, with the exception of Fenway and Wrigley, have always been of the nosebleed variety. So it was at Coors Field in Denver.

 

Coors Field

How high up were our seats? Well, the twentieth row of the upper deck at Coors is painted purple, signifying one mile above sea level. Our seats were in row twenty-three. I'm not saying our seats were a mile above the field, but they might as well have been. Once you get to the fourth deck of today's modern stadia, the players on the field become pretty tiny; when you're seated near the very top of the building, they're downright minuscule. To add injury to insult, the Rockies charge eleven dollars for the privilege of these seats (fourteen dollars if we'd been to the left of first base!). And MLB wonders why attendance is declining nationwide. . . .

To be honest, I have trouble paying attention to a game where the sights and sounds seem to reach me as if on time delay. But, on the positive side, inferior seating leads to great conversations with the folks nearby. As might be expected, there are a fair number of EFQ connections among the SABR crowd, and one of them, Gary Jarvis, a grad student at the University of Iowa, happened to be seated in the row behind me.

Gary and I got to be friends last year during a Northern League game in Brockton, Massachusetts, so we were catching up and chatting about minor league baseball. At one point he mentioned something about this being the last year for historic John O'Donnell Stadium in Davenport, Iowa, and how I might want to make it down there before the season ends. Well, I'd always heard great things about this majestic little ballpark along the Mississippi that, due to its close proximity to the river, sometimes experienced flooding, but I thought the place had already been torn down like so many other classic minor league parks across the country. No, Gary said, it was still there, but they were planning a massive "renovation" after the season. There are other historic parks in Iowa, Gary added; you might want to make a trip of it. And the more I thought about it, the better it sounded.

The Road to Clinton

Clinton, Iowa, is a city of thirty thousand situated along the western bank of the Mississippi, about sixty miles downriver from Dubuque. The LumberKings, the city's Single A franchise, play at historic Riverview Stadium (now known as Alliant Energy Field), a Depression-era ballpark that was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and opened on May 9, 1937. There's a simple elegance about the place, painted a traditional ballpark green (including the outfield walls), and all twenty-five hundred seats are located between first and third base, protected by an overhead roof. The first three rows are box seats, priced at just six bucks, while everything else is metal bleachers for a dollar less. There's no backrest on the bleacher seats, which is a drawback, but it's a small price to pay for the kind of proximity that only well-heeled season ticket holders enjoy at the major league level. Besides the joy of experiencing baseball on such an intimate level, there are also simple amenities like the free parking just outside the main entrance and the shower head in the exterior concourse that provides cooling relief for patrons on humid evenings such as this one.

Over the years, the LumberKings have been affiliated with several different major league clubs, including the Dodgers (Brooklyn and LA), the Giants (New York and San Francisco), the Pirates, the White Sox, the Seattle Pilots, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Tigers, the Padres, the Reds, and for the past two years, the Montreal Expos. (The team is now part of the Texas Rangers farm system.) As a result, Clinton has sent almost two hundred players to the majors, including slugger Sid Gordon in the forties, thirty-game winner Denny McLain in the sixties, and pitchers Dave Stewart and Orel Hershiser in the seventies. Hershiser, in fact, is being honored tonight—sort of—with the first five hundred patrons through the gates recipients of a Hershiser bobbing-head doll. Unfortunately, my son, Mathew, and I don't arrive early enough to get one, so as often occurs at minor league parks, he spends as much time outside the stands in hopes of a foul ball as he does in his seat. This night, like most, he comes up empty.

The game itself is about average for Single A, with sloppy fielding (Clinton alone makes five errors), but speedy outfielder Cameron Coughlan provides some excitement for the home crowd by stealing second and third in the second inning, as does catcher Manny Santana with a two-run homer in the third. Clinton wins 6–4, keeping alive their Midwest League playoff hopes.

Change is coming to this ballpark, however, which is ordinarily never a good thing when it comes to a historic minor league park (so few are left). And it's not like Clinton, with an average attendance of thirteen hundred, is turning away folks at the gate. But, on its face, the $4.5 million renovation project—given the alternative—seems reasonable: Seven hundred new seats down the left field line, a berm area beyond the outfield fence, modern locker rooms and offices, a picnic area and added storage space, more restrooms. At least there's no talk of luxury boxes or tearing down the grandstand. Not yet, anyway.

 

Quad Cities

Next on our itinerary is a Sunday game in Davenport. The first pitch isn't until 2:00 P.M., but I want to get there early, both to scout out John O'Donnell and to get details on the political event the Quad City River Bandits are hosting that afternoon. Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, the congressman from Ohio, will be visiting the ballpark, accompanied by Ed Asner, the Emmy award–winning actor of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant fame. It's part of a "Meet the Candidates" day, an opportunity for the many politicians crisscrossing the state in anticipation of the all-important January caucuses to address the crowd. The event is the brainchild of intern Sean Jamieson, a student at nearby Augustana College, and though he sends invitations to all the presidential campaigns (including that of George W. Bush), only Kucinich accepts. So Mathew and I set off from our hotel at 11:00 A.M., giving us plenty of time to make the hour drive down from Clinton. I'm also anxious to meet up with Gary Jarvis, who will be making the trek from nearby Iowa City to serve as EFQ's official photographer this day.

Like Clinton, Davenport grew up along the banks of the Mississippi, and with its sister city Bettendorf (to the east) and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, just across the river, comprises the area known as the Quad Cities. But while the LumberKings' ballpark is very close to the Mississippi, John O'Donnell Stadium literally sits a stone's throw away. As we park next to the ballpark's beautiful brick facade, I'm already tingling with excitement. It's not every day one gets to "rub shoulders" with a historic stadium, and apart from Wrigley, Fenway, and Tiger Stadium, this is the oldest baseball venue (built in 1931) that I've ever visited. And none of those other places sits on a river. A short while later, Gary arrives with some friends, and the five of us enter John O'Donnell together. While Mathew watches the players, Gary and I head to the top row of the grandstand to scout out camera angles.

The view is simply breathtaking. One can hardly imagine a better place to watch a game. Below us the ballplayers go through warm-ups and take batting practice; just beyond the right field fence, the mighty Mississippi flows by. High above the first base line spans the majestic Centennial Bridge, connecting Davenport with Rock Island. And behind the third base line an occasional freight train rumbles by, the locomotive's whistle echoing off the river banks. For me, this is what heaven looks like.

But I also want to check out what's happening with the Kucinich visit, whether it's generating much local excitement. The congressman is supposed to arrive at 1:30, get about five minutes before game time to address the crowd, then throw out the first pitch. Around 1:00 P.M., some media begin to show up, including a documentarian who is following the candidate on his campaign. Unfortunately, not many Kucinich supporters are present. I chat with the few who are there, wondering how they feel about the impending renovation of John O'Donnell. A man says they kind of had to do it to keep the team. I ask if there had been any opposition. He says, "Sure, for the past five years. That's why not too many people come to games anymore."

John Friedrich, Kucinich's campaign director in Iowa, is worried because his candidate is running behind schedule this afternoon. Sean Jamieson tells him that the team has a set schedule, that they can't push back the starting time of the game. Friedrich makes some calls on his cell phone. When he's done, I ask him if the congressman will be on time. "I hope so," he says. Friedrich then begins handing out Kucinich "baseball cards" (listing the candidate's key campaign issues on the reverse) to passersby in hopes of drumming up some interest. One man refuses, saying that he doesn't like Ed Asner. Otherwise, most people are receptive.

Kucinich arrives just before 2:00. There's no time to address supporters, which is probably a good thing, given that few have materialized for the event. Asner gets out of the backseat, and he's limping. He's twenty years older and a bit heavier from his last starring role on TV, but he's cheerful and friendly, greeting people as he goes. Campaign staff hustle the two featured guests into the ballpark and out onto the field. Kucinich's name is announced before the small crowd of about five hundred, and he waves. Then, without a warm-up, the candidate tosses the first pitch toward the River Bandits' catcher. It bounces in the dirt about five feet short. Hopefully this isn't a bad omen for Kucinich's longshot campaign.

Outside the ballpark, Kucinich answers reporters' questions with fiery, forceful rhetoric. He talks about the evils of energy deregulation, how he fought it in Cleveland when he was mayor, and how there is "no umpire in the game" right now. Asner stands nearby, pretty much ignored by the media, so I inquire about his rooting interests while growing up. He says he used to follow the Kansas City Monarchs and the Blues. Did he ever get to see Satchel Paige on the mound? No, Asner replies, "There was too much prejudice back then." He remembers watching Hank Bauer at the ballpark, but can't seem to recall anybody else just then. I know that Asner is former president of the Screen Actors Guild, so I ask him what drew him to the Kucinich campaign. He tells me he's always admired the congressman's work, that Kucinich is the "best qualified" candidate in the field, a progressive with the "kind of spark" that the Democratic party especially needs right now. Asner had done some campaigning for him in California and now is helping him in Iowa.

Meanwhile, the interviewing of Kucinich is winding down, so I plunge in and, searching for a relevant topic, ask the candidate about the "Baseball Fan Protection Act," a bill of which he is a sponsor. Kucinich says that it gives fans two important options: first, if someone buys a team, the owner can take advantage of the federal depreciation only if he airs all local games on public TV; second, fans must have the chance to buy the team at a fair market value when an owner decides to sell. Although the other media have melted away, Kucinich continues to speak vigorously, as if a large crowd is gathered around him. As he and Asner prepare to head off to their next campaign stop, I ask Kucinich if he's a baseball fan. He opens his wallet and produces a 1966 Rocky Colavito Topps baseball card. The corners are worn.

By this time, I've missed the first few innings of the game, and I end up not really paying much attention to the outcome, especially since the River Bandits are getting thumped by the South Bend Silver Hawks. But I'm also feeling a lot of emotion, knowing that Quad City will be ripping out the grandstand as soon as the season is over and that next year the only people who will have the magnificent view of the river—the one we enjoy for most of the game—are those who get to sit in the twenty luxury boxes that will be hung from the ballpark's roof. I want to ask Kucinich about that, about whether he realizes what's happening to historic ballparks all across the country, but there's no point. It's not important enough to be a campaign issue, and there's little he or I can really do right now, anyway.

The final score is 9–0. Quad Cities manages just three hits. But Mathew scores a bunch of autographs, including one from Saint Paul native T. J. Prunty, and also snares a game ball from one of the South Bend players. After a final look at this little gem along the Mississippi, we set off for the Comfort Inn in Dyersville, a motel just a short drive from the Field of Dreams movie site.

 

Disharmony at the Field of Dreams

In his recent book, Is This Heaven?, Brett Mandel relates the many stories of redemption that have graced the picturesque baseball diamond cut into an Iowa cornfield for the making of the popular movie Field of Dreams. Fathers and sons reconciling, long lost friends finding one another, couples getting married at home plate.

We'd been to Dyersville once before, stopping off on the way back from a weekend vacation spent with college friends in Galena, Illinois, about six years ago. I remember Mathew, just four years old then, taking up a position at short and his mother lobbing a pitch to me. I drilled a liner that almost took his head off, and that was my only at bat on the Field of Dreams. I thought it was interesting that a former movie set could become such a huge destination point for so many people, but the place didn't feel particularly magical to me.

Of course, six years ago was a few months before I became involved with EFQ, before I'd become fully immersed in the culture of baseball, before I'd experienced enough spiritual growth to fully appreciate the special powers that emanated from this baseball Mecca. So when we rolled down the dusty dirt road that leads to the Lansing and Ameskamp farms, I was hoping for some kind of redemption.

Apparently others were as well, since ten cars and a motor home—all from neighboring states—were already parked beside the field when we arrived at 10:30 on Monday morning. I ask Becky Lansing, wife of Don and proprietor of the Lansing family souvenir stand (located next to the white farmhouse in the film) if it is always this crowded in the morning. "This isn't crowded," she says.

Mathew and I grab our gloves and venture out onto the field, where several families are already taking swings at the plate. There is some squabbling among the kids in one family about whose turn it is to bat, so we just toss a ball around for a few minutes in foul territory by first base, observing the action. A little while later, I suggest to Mathew that he get in line to hit, and I move over to play the vacant first base position. A grandmother roams in short center field; a woman in a ponytail patrols the left side of the infield. Given my Little League coaching experience, it's probably just a matter of time before I migrate to the pitcher's mound, and that's eventually where I end up. Other families move on and off the diamond, and like any friendly gathering, we let the little kids run the bases unfettered, turning taps in front of the plate into inside-the-park home runs. After about an hour of lobbing pitches to all comers, I figure it's someone else's turn to throw, so I give up my spot on the mound and go off to explore something that's been bothering me since I arrive. And that's the whiff of money in the air.

Near the beginning of the path leading from the parking lot to the Field of Dreams backstop hangs a little glass display case attached to a white sign. Tacked up inside the display case are two small placards. One welcomes visitors to the movie site. The other, printed in black and red lettering, reads:

 

THANK YOU FOR
YOUR BUSINESS

ALL PROCEEDS FROM PURCHASES MADE
AT THE GIFT SHOP LOCATED CLOSEST
TO THE HOUSE GO TOWARDS THE HIGH
COST OF MAINTENANCE AND UPKEEP
FOR THE FIELD, FARM, HOUSE, AND ALL
THAT YOU HAVE ENJOYED TODAY!
THE OTHER SOUVENIR SHOP IS
OPERATED BY AN INVESTMENT BANKING
FIRM AND IS NOT ASSOCIATED WITH THE
LANSING FARM OR FAMILY.

 

It's a bit unsettling to read this message just before stepping on what's supposed to be hallowed ground, so I wanted to know about the feud between the Lansing family and their neighbors, the Ameskamps, who own the land encompassing left and center field and operate their own souvenir stand down the left field line.

I ask Becky Lansing about the sign. "Yeah, I'm angry," she says. "Their property is leased to a group of investment bankers from Milwaukee, and they've rezoned the land for business commercial use." The implication is that a bunch of outsiders are simply exploiting the Field of Dreams phenomenon for a profit, not conscientious stewards like the Lansings. But the complaint and the sign seem strange, given that the Lansing family's souvenir stand features sixteen different T-shirt designs, eleven styles of ball caps, ten varieties of commemorative pins, and the usual assortment of key chains, mugs, earrings, and other paraphernalia that one typically finds in a museum gift shop. Later I ask Betty Lansing Boeckenstedt, business and marketing manager of Field of Dreams, whether their souvenir operation is a nonprofit. "No," she says, "but there's not a lot of profit after the employees get paid and all the upkeep is done." Does the family still live in the farmhouse? "Yes, the house is still a residence."

I doubt that anyone would begrudge the Lansing family earning money over the years to keep this pastoral setting and lush green ball field as lovely as it is. But the sign seems crass, disingenuous, suggesting that the maintenance of the property is somehow intended only for the benefit of the many visitors, and not the kind of commonsense investment that any intelligent tourist attraction operator might undertake.

I also want to question Keith Rahe, manager of the Left and Center Field of Dreams venture, about the squabble. He's the Dyersville resident who formed the Ghost Players team back in 1989, a group made up of several local ballplayers who worked as extras in the movie and who now entertain visitors during the summer by emerging from the corn in left field the last Sunday of every month. The first time the players appeared impromptu on the field, dressed in their White Sox uniforms, forty or so visitors were on hand. The following Sunday, about four hundred people awaited their appearance. The group has performed across the country and on military bases overseas, but at the Field of Dreams they're no longer allowed on the diamond or any of the Lansing property. That's a change that happened in 1996, about the time Becky and Don got married.

Unfortunately, Rahe is not around, so I don't connect with him until several weeks later. Is there a feud between the competing souvenir stands? "There's tension," Rahe says, "which is really kind of sad. The whole thing with the sign is pretty ridiculous." He claims that no investment bankers are getting rich from the deal, that business is steady, with some residual income for Rita Ameskamp (husband, Al, died of cancer a few years ago) and enough to pay employees like himself. Rahe dismisses claims that Left and Center Field of Dreams merely wants to commercialize the site, noting that the Lansings proudly participated in many Ghost Players' performances that brought Hall of Famers (like George Brett) and other celebrities to the field in the early 1990s.

"It's frustrating," Rahe says. "Having competing souvenir stands makes no sense, and dividing the field just alienates visitors. [And] it's not like we were monopolizing the field with all sorts of events." Unfortunately, Rahe doesn't see an easing of tensions in the near future.

 

I take no joy in reporting any of this. I really want to find some magic in Dyersville, but I don't. Maybe it's the aluminum bats that I see being used when we first arrive. Or the softball that some guy from New York lobs in underhand to a beer league player hoping to belt one into the corn. Perhaps it's the concrete squares that mimic real bases at first and second. Or the "welcome" sign on the Lansing property that really seems to say, hey, don't shop with those other guys—something one wouldn't expect to find in baseball heaven.

Or maybe I'm just mystified that a cornfield in Iowa, a movie set that has become a pop culture icon, a tourist trap, could draw fifty to sixty thousand visitors a year while an idyllic little ballpark along the Mississippi in Davenport, Iowa—a real field of dreams—is largely ignored. What is it about America that causes so many to flock to fantasy retreats like Disney World or Six Flags Over Texas, yet we abandon and tear down so many real things in our lives? It's a question I often ponder.

 

We depart Dyersville at about 2:30, our four-hour visit a mixture of fun and sadness and disappointment. And a four-hour drive back to Saint Paul awaits us. But as we head north through the Iowa countryside, I begin to feel an easing of my burdens. I remember the pleasant drive down to Clinton that we had just two days earlier, the traffic sparse along scenic US Highway 52, the road winding through little towns like Chatfield and Canton, Minnesota; Ossian and Postville and Monona and Guttenburg, Iowa. There were few distractions from the picture-perfect scenery, the rolling farm fields, the historic churches and bank buildings still standing in many of those places. I'm sure that each of these towns has its petty politics and cliques and tribalism like anywhere else (certainly that's the case in Postville, where the migration of Hasidic Jews who opened a kosher slaughterhouse there has led to ethnic strife between the residents and the Jewish newcomers), but there's something real about their isolation, their dependence on one another to make it through every year, every season.

So maybe that's why I took this trip, why I search for community at minor league ballparks. There's a vulnerability at this level, an uncertainty and freshness of purpose, a lack of pretense and artificiality that accompanies the orchestrated experience at a major league stadium. I want my son to see the difference, to grow up with some memory of a truly intimate ballpark before they're all torn down or renovated into cookie-cutter sameness.

No, I didn't experience heaven at Dyersville's Field of Dreams. But I'm sure it exists along the banks of the Mississippi River in little ballparks like those found in Clinton and Davenport, shrines where real ballplayers sweat and toil and smile when they play the game.

—EFQ

 

TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly. He has never caught a foul ball at a professional baseball game, minor or major league.

GARY JARVIS is a PhD. student in American history at the University of Iowa. His archive of minor league ballpark photos can be found at www.minorleagueballparks.com.

This column first appeared in EFQ 20:4, Fall 2003

© 2003 Tom Goldstein

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