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STILL THEY COME // At the Field of Dreams, the vision of what baseball should be never fades

If you want to understand what is happening here, you have to know about the cows. Yes, the cows. The ones that graze alongside the two-lane blacktop that leads to the Field of Dreams.

They stand there all day, these cows, their brown squishy mouths churning grass into seaweed, their tails lashing flies, or lashing nothing. They do not seem to notice the cars _ thousands of them _ that whoosh by on the way to Don Lansing's farm, where Kevin Costner once made a movie.

People notice the cows, though. Especially city people. In the summer, people from New York and L.A. and Chicago arrive by the Lexusful to visit the Field of Dreams. They come "as innocent as children" (as James Earl Jones said in one stirring scene), brimming with hope that Iowa will be as Hollywood portrayed it: purer, simpler and somehow more American than whatever paved-over, crime-infested, racially fractured place they came from.

And then they see Bessie and Bossy and Clarabelle and all their hopes are realized. At last, the Heartland! Some even pull over to take pictures.

Look! Real cows!

When was the last time a movie so entwined itself in our imaginations? In the six years since its release, the shamelessly sentimental story of a farmer who hears a voice in the corn _ and follows its instructions _ has become a fixture, and arguably a classic, of American popular culture.

The very title _ Field of Dreams _ has become part of the vernacular; you see and hear it everywhere. This newspaper has published the words "field of dreams" an average of once a week since 1989, only occasionally in articles about the film. This year alone, the phrase has been used to describe a baseball stadium in Texas, the city of Dunedin, and actor Sally Field.

The film has made several other contributions to the language: Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa. Ease his pain. Go the distance. If you build it, he will come.

That last one turned out to be prophetic. A crew from Universal Pictures built a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield in the spring of 1988 and people have been coming ever since _ 50,000 people a year, according to the locals.

"Nobody had any idea that this would become such a part of America as what it is," said Keith Rahe (pronounced "Ray"), founder of the Ghost Players. The Ghost Players dress in old Chicago White Sox uniforms like the ones in the movie and play games at the field and around the country.

Visitors to the field come mostly from the Midwest, but also from many other states and nations. They arrive in tour buses and minivans, in pickup trucks and luxury cars, just as they did in the last scene of the film. Dyersville is 25 miles from Dubuque, 300 miles from St. Louis, 50,000 light years from New York.

"You sit down here and you talk to people and it gets pretty interesting," said farmer Al Ameskamp, who, with his wife Rita, owns left field. "There could be somebody here from Austria and, by God, right behind him there's somebody from Australia."

A capacity crowd of corn plants surrounds the visitors as they put on their gloves and play catch or field grounders. There is no cost to do this. Don Lansing and the Ameskamps have never charged an admission fee, but they will happily sell you a Field of Dreams sweatshirt, hat pin, T-shirt, poster or shot glass.

"People will come, Ray. People will most definitely come," James Earl Jones said, and so they do. But why?

In the movie, people came because they loved baseball. "It will be just like when they were little kids a long time ago," a precocious girl said in Field of Dreams. "They'll watch the game and remember what it was like."

In real life, people come because they love the game _ and hate what has happened to it. Even today, as the Braves and the Indians go hatchet-to-hatchet in the World Series, many Americans still have not forgiven the big leagues for last year's strike. Why should they? Cal Ripken Jr. aside, baseball is controlled by arrogant millionaires who give us slothful games on pseudoturf. Is it any wonder that people drive to Nowhere, Iowa to see baseball played by energetic children in a cornfield?

People come to Dyersville looking for the kind of magic they saw in the movie, the kind that made long-dead ballplayers sprout from someplace in the corn and ask, Is this heaven? Many people find it. Lovestruck couples get married here. Dying people ask that their ashes be scattered on the base paths. No one has had a baby here, but give it time: People will most definitely come.

Still, the field's undeniable magic does not fully explain its popularity. Is this heaven? No. It's America, which is a lot more complicated.

The people of Northeast Iowa learned a thing or two about moviemaking in 1987. They did not like what they learned.

That year, some Hollywood types came looking for a farmhouse in which to make a film called Miles From Home, with Richard Gere. In Worthington, a few miles south of Dyersville, they discovered a lovingly maintained, century-old farmhouse, a classic of farm-belt architecture. The owner was happy to lease it to them. The filming went well until ...

"They blew the house up," said Sue Riedel, a volunteer with the Iowa Film Office.

Actually, they burned it down. A special-effects shot got out of control and the house was destroyed.

The people of Worthington and Dyersville were also offended by the way the movie people carried on during their off hours. They are still appalled at all the unseemly things Richard Gere did, though modesty prevents them from saying what those things were. His behavior was unspeakable _ literally.

When the Field of Dreams people arrived later that year, everyone in Dyersville naturally assumed that they wanted to turn the place into Gomorrah. One resident told the movie people, "If you're anything like that other movie, we don't want you here."

Life in Dyersville has always had a certain reassuring predictability. For one thing, virtually everyone in this city of 3,800 is descended from German Catholics. There are Ostwinkles and Oberbroecklings, Kneppers and Knippers, Digmanns and Dingbaums. The community is so close-knit that people put their nicknames in the telephone directory. Among them are Bing, Barney, Shorty and Smiley. And those are just the Kramers.

The city has two small hotels, a post office, a Catholic high school and a traffic light. The corner drug store is called Corner Drug. The movie theater has one screen and is closed on Mondays. Nobody minds. Dyersville has always prided itself on being a place where nothing much happens _ which explains why people objected to whatever (or whomever) it was that Richard Gere did.

The community need not have worried about the Field of Dreams crew. The field was built in five days. The infield and most of the outfield were constructed on Don Lansing's farm; left field extended onto Al and Rita Ameskamp's. The entire film was shot in an efficient and businesslike way during 14 hot, dry weeks in the summer of 1988. Director Phil Alden Robinson did not burn anything down. Kevin Costner's behavior was speakable.

"I don't think anybody could ask for better people," said Al Ameskamp, proprietor of what he now calls the Left Field of Dreams.

It turned out that people in Dyersville did not know much about the movies after all. In April 1989, a couple of days before the film's world premiere in Dubuque, Ameskamp climbed onto his tractor and plowed under left field. He figured the whole thing was over.

Soon after the movie opened, Ameskamp started getting notes in his mailbox: "Would you please put left field back in?" He refused. He had planted corn there and fully intended to harvest the crop.

Still, people came. Don Lansing, a lifelong bachelor, had maintained his part of the field "in case it becomes legendary," he told Newsweek in 1989. According to newspaper reports, about 7,000 people visited the field that first summer. They ran the bases and fielded grounders _ all with 6-foot-high corn plants looming right behind third base. Ameskamp later resodded left field, returning the field, and his reputation, to their original condition.

They arrived, those first visitors, still sprouting goose bumps from the movie. Field of Dreams collected all the sweetest myths of American life and wrapped them up in a 106-minute package. The movie had everything _ corn, hot dogs, a happy farm family, an almost Christ-like country doctor and a big-hearted former social activist who now wrote children's stories.

And of course it had baseball. In Field of Dreams, a regular American kid _ regular except that he had been raised from the dead _ lived out a dream by playing in a big-league game.

People who go to Dyersville live out similar fantasies all the time. One day this summer, a middle-aged guy arrived to find a group of kids tossing and hitting baseballs. He watched for a few minutes, then asked, "Can anybody play?" He stepped into the batter's box and hit a couple of respectable pop flies, then walked dreamily to the sidelines.

The man was Marc Rosenberg, an AT&T executive from New Jersey. He was in the area on vacation and decided to make a side trip to the field.

"This is the highlight of my trip. It's sort of like history, you know? Very cool history," he said.

The baseball scenes in Field of Dreams were well done, but nothing in the film gave viewers as many warm fuzzies as the parts about fathers and sons. In a climactic scene, the Costner character asks the young catcher _ his father, summoned from the beyond _ if he would like to play catch. Oh, how men sobbed! Or wished they could. Every movie theater in America was filled with the snorting, snuffling sound of guys trying not to lose it in public.

Many people visit the field just because a movie was made there. The practice of visiting film sites is so widespread that an Illinois State University professor has given it a name: "movie-induced tourism." At Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the setting for part of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, tourism jumped 75 percent after the release of the movie. And this was a busy summer in Madison County, Iowa, where Bridges of Madison County was made. If you film it, they will come.

Bridges is a sensitive topic in Dyersville. Some people in town believe the Iowa tourism office is promoting the bridges at the expense of the field. They point out that Field of Dreams is a squeaky-clean family movie and Bridges of Madison County _ about an adulterous affair _ is not. Promoting the bridges means promoting extramarital sex, they say.

With that in mind, Dyersville civic leader Danny McClean wryly proposes this tourism slogan: "Iowa: We'll Do Anything for Tourists."

Jack Foco used to be a corporate drone: He worked in middle management for Unisys Corp. in New Jersey and Philadelphia. At 40, he abruptly quit and moved to Iowa to become a landscape painter. It was a risky move. Foco had never painted a picture in his life.

"Something told me to do it," he said one day at the field.

In a way, Foco is much like Ray Kinsella, the Kevin Costner character in Field of Dreams. The movie character built a baseball diamond in his cornfield because something _ a voice _ told him to do it. In the movie, everything turned out okay: People paid money to see the field and the farm was saved. People are paying Foco now, too. He gets $150 to $900 for a landscape.

"I think the real trick is to do what you want, if you can," Foco said.

There is magic in the field if you look for it. Foco came because his own crazy dream was so similar to the one portrayed in the movie. His visit strengthened his belief that he had made the right choices in his life, a magical feeling indeed.

Some people find magic at the field no matter what. The story of Al Ameskamp's corn rows is an example. Farmers generally plant rows of corn about 18 inches apart. One year, without meaning to, Ameskamp put a little extra space between the rows in the left field corner.

When the corn was high, a woman visiting the field sought out Ameskamp and shook his hand.

"I just want to thank you," she said.

"What for?"

"For making those rows wheelchair accessible."

One day this summer, a couple of young go-getters showed up at the field and began posting red, white and blue signs reading, "Go Pat Go." About that time, a red minivan rolled into the lot, slipped behind Don Lansing's house (the house you saw in the movie), and stopped in deep right field. Out stepped Pat Buchanan, the TV pundit who is running for president.

Buchanan was here to campaign. "He wants to be associated with that good feeling," said Keith Rahe of the Ghost Players. Rahe had been hired to emerge from the corn alongside the candidate.

Politicians often appear at the field. Paul Tsongas campaigned here in '92. Terry Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa, makes frequent appearances; a left-leaning pitcher once drilled him in the arm with a pitch. The odd beauty of the field, its lovely green simplicity, is never so apparent as when a politician is trying to exploit the place for his own purposes. Paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa and you'll realize how much you used to like the Mona Lisa.

As soon as Buchanan was ready, his advance men began shooing people toward right field so the candidate would appear, on TV, to have a crowd of supporters. "This really is a nation that is a field of dreams," Buchanan said after appearing from the corn. He promised, if elected, to give American kids the kind of country he enjoyed in the 1950s. Then he signed some autographs.

Finally, Buchanan put on a Field of Dreams cap and picked up a bat. He stepped into the batter's box and said, "I'm worried about taking that first pitch right in the head! HA HA HA!" (Phil Gramm could only hope.) Then somebody lobbed a ball over the plate. Buchanan took a big clumsy swipe and missed by a foot. Everybody laughed. He missed the second, third and fourth pitches, too. By now the cheers were fading and Buchanan's chuckle was becoming more forced. This was getting embarrassing.

Finally, Buchanan belted a clean single up the middle, tossed the bat, and mugged for the cameras as one of his loyal, nameless advance men waved a "Go Pat Go" sign in the background.

It was a warm evening at the Field of Dreams. For the first time in weeks, Don Lansing switched on the floodlights that surround the diamond, washing the field in warm yellow light.

This was a special night. The Ertl Company, whose plant is in Dyersville, was using the field for an employee outing. The workers wore white T-shirts that said "Sales Meeting of Dreams" on the front and "Is this heaven? No. It's Ertl" on the back. Ertl, which employs 1,000 people, manufactures farm toys _ tractors, plows, harvesters, you name it. It was founded in 1945 by Fred Ertl, who fashioned the first toys from war-surplus metals.

Dyersville _ home of two other farm toy companies and the National Farm Toy Museum _ rightly bills itself as the Farm Toy Capital of the World.

As part of the outing, Ertl hired Dyersville's Ghost Players to play softball against its sales force. At one point, the umpire turned to the Ertl employees in their white T-shirts and shouted, "Get on the field, you white people! I mean, you white team."

The Ertl employees _ all caucasian _ laughed at the umpire's slip. Then one of them said, "You're lucky you're in Iowa. You couldn't get away with that anywhere but Iowa."

Dyersville, Iowa is indeed a very white place: Of the 3,800 people living here, exactly two are African-American. The people who visit the field are virtually all white, too. Still, when you talk to people about the field, they never mention race. They talk, instead, about nostalgia. There is a connection. To understand that, it helps to go back to Pat Buchanan's visit.

Buchanan said _ as people often do _ that the field reminded him of the good old days of the '50s. But how good were those days, really? When Buchanan made that remark, he was, intentionally or not, evoking an era in which white people dominated American life _ and blacks were made to suffer one grotesque humiliation after another. To feel nostalgic about the '50s, it helps to have been one of the privileged and powerful. If, on the other hand, you were barred from certain drinking fountains because white people thought your lips would dirty the water, you might not remember those days so fondly.

Nowadays, white people increasingly must share power with _ or surrender power to _ people they used to simply disregard. So it may not be surprising that they feel nostalgic about Iowa, and especially about the field. The Field of Dreams is blissfully detached from the incendiary arguments over affirmative action, crime, welfare and immigration. It exists perpetually in the 1950s, and its 1950s-style simplicity is part of its appeal.

But let's keep things in perspective: Race is only one of the forces that draws people to Iowa. Visitors bring to the field all of their quaintest and most romantic ideas about America. (Remember the cows?) People come to Iowa in search of the Heartland, a sunny place where hardworking family farmers raise food for the nation and the corner drug store is called Corner Drug. Dyersville is the Farm Toy Capital of the World, for God's sake. Life is better here.

The truth is, Iowa sometimes can't live up to people's hopes for it. A while back, an Iowa newspaper published a telling cartoon. It depicted an overwrought farmer struggling to grow corn in the midst of drought, flood, hail, and, finally, unbearable heat. The caption said, "Is this hell? No. It's Iowa."

No, things are not what they seem. Take Ertl, the largest farm toy company in the Farm Toy Capital of the World. What a great American story, right?

Not really. The company was long ago acquired by Hanson PLC, a huge British conglomerate. Ertl is as American as shepherd's pie. And there are persistent rumors that Hanson PLC is going to move the Ertl plant to Mexico.

Late last year, a travel agent in Boulder, Colo., started dreaming about the Field of Dreams. She dreamed she was supposed to go there at midnight on New Year's Eve, reason unknown.

The woman's name is Becky DuBuisson. On Dec. 31, 1994, she and her aunt drove to Dyersville. When they arrived early that evening, DuBuisson got Don Lansing's number and called him. She said she wanted to go to the field at midnight. Lansing normally did not allow late-night visits, but this time he said yes. Something told him to do it.

That night, DuBuisson and her aunt bought hot dogs and root beer and drove to the field. There were 6 inches of snow on the ground. The two women ran the bases. They ate their hot dogs. They raised their root beers and said, "Thank you, God."

Back at her motel, DuBuisson dreamed that she had to return to the field in the morning. The next day, when she arrived, the very available Don Lansing was standing there. They had never seen each other before.

"I'm Becky," she said.

And he said, "I knew it was you."

She's still there.