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Hardball disturbs Field of Dreams

The Iowa cornfield where Hollywood built the movie set is riven by a feud between two farm couples.

All that really happened here is that someone shot a movie.

It's not the house where Elvis was born. Or the theater where Lincoln was shot. In fact, what is striking is how people can get nostalgic over make-believe these days, steered by the emotional pull of a vivid Hollywood invention.

But that is not how people here see it. They consider themselves custodians of a slice of the American dream. They paint it as a battle between entrepreneurial freedom and the moment that a landmark, even a made-up landmark, becomes too commercial.

And since it is an American story, it is, of course, also about baseball.

The place is a cornfield in eastern Iowa where Hollywood built the set of Field of Dreams. The 1989 movie was a sensation _ a fanciful, sentimental story of a farmer (Kevin Costner) who hears a voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in his field _ "If you build it, he will come" _ and is rewarded with the magical appearance of his dead father and the unfairly maligned Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Suddenly, some 50,000 people a year did start coming to the baseball diamond in the cornfield.

People still come, but now the object of their pilgrimage is ensnared in a bitter disagreement between the farm couple who own most of the outfield and the farm couple who own most of the infield. One side feels the other has over-commercialized things and is going to court in an attempt to stop that trend.

The rift has other symptoms. Each side, for instance, has its own entrance sign. Don and Becky Lansing, who own rightfield, most of the infield and the white farmhouse used in the movie, have a sign proclaiming their property the "Original Field of Dreams Movie Site" and calling the gravel road to their side the "main entrance."

Steps away, on a parallel gravel road, Al and Rita Ameskamp, who own leftfield, most of centerfield, third base and the cornfield from which the movie's phantom ballplayers emerge, have a sign promoting "Left and Center Field of Dreams" and directing visitors to "enter here."

Each side has a gift shop, with the Lansings selling white pickets from the movie fence for $25 apiece and the Ameskamps selling $2 vials of "dream dirt" from the field, complete with an "affidavit of authenticity" signed by Al and Rita. Both shops, incidentally, sell "temperature-sensitive" T-shirts featuring a cornfield that reveal baseball players when the shirts get warm.

This summer, for the movie's 10th anniversary, the Ameskamps wanted to attract tourists with a maze in their cornfield shaped like Shoeless Joe. They got their property rezoned for it, and since July 31 they have charged visitors $6 to walk through.

To the Lansings, who say they want the movie site to be authentic and not over-commercialized, this was the last straw. The couple, who no longer allow organized events, like ball games, on the infield, are suing to try to prevent attractions like the maze in the future.

"Everything we want to do, they say no," Mrs. Ameskamp lamented. "Sometimes it brings tears to your eyes. We love our Field of Dreams."

Mrs. Lansing, who says her side wants only to make enough money to keep up the site, was asked if the two farms could mend fences.

"What's going to make communist countries and non-communist countries come together?" she retorted. "What's going to make men and women come together? What's going to make blacks and whites come together? We're just trying to protect this piece of heaven. We want to tell the world that preserving historical sites is important."

This friction saddens the author of the book on which Field of Dreams was based, W.P. Kinsella, who is on Christmas-card terms with both families and is not offended by the corn maze.

"It's too bad that they can't get along, because I think they both sort of want the same thing," he said. "The Lansings sell souvenirs and stuff, so what's the difference? People expect that sort of thing from a tourist attraction. If I were the Lansings, I would certainly make a buck out of it."

Kinsella noted that in his book, Shoeless Joe, and the movie the seemingly foolhardy economic step of plowing up corn for a ballfield draws people willing to pay $20 apiece.

"I would go by the book, by my book," he said. "If I owned the property, I'd be charging $20. After all, this is America."

Truth be told, for a figment of Hollywood and a tourist site that could easily get smothered in kitsch, the Field of Dreams is remarkably unspoiled. Anyone can come for free and hit balls, run bases or stroll the cornfield where James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta and Burt Lancaster disappeared.

Except for a highway billboard (paid for by the Lansings) and competing tourist brochures and Web sites, there is little promotional hoopla.

And people go miles out of their way to recapture the movie's nostalgic air, rekindle father-son relationships or play ball with tourists they don't know.

Paul DuCharme, who brought his two young sons from Chicago, said the experience reminded him of playing catch with his dad.

Joye Giroux, making a detour with her daughter and grandson on a trip from North Carolina to Wyoming, said the tension between the farms was sad. "It's the American way, I guess," she said.

The ballfield was built on two farms because the movie people liked the sunset in that direction. After the filming, Lansing built the first souvenir stand. Ameskamp plowed under his portion and planted corn for a year or two, until tourists asked for the outfield back.

In the early cinematic afterglow, the farms jointly managed their famous basepaths and cornstalks. They allowed Buick and Wheaties commercials, a fantasy camp and a baseball card company's celebrity ball game.

In 1995, Becky, 45, came as a tourist from Colorado and met and married Lansing, 57, who grew up on his farm.

Things began to change. The Lansings say they felt the movie site's essence would be compromised by commercialism and fanfare. They objected in 1996 when the Ameskamps leased their property and made a profit-sharing arrangement with a group called Left and Center Field of Dreams, financed by four out-of-state investors, including a heart surgeon and a clothing store owner, and run by a former Dyersville farmer. The group manages the Ameskamp gift shop, the maze and the Ghost Players, who stage baseball exhibitions in old-time uniforms.

The Ameskamps, 63 and 59, farmers here for 32 years, say they were about to retire and merely wanted things managed by skilled people.

When the Ameskamp side sought zoning board permission for batting cages and a gift shop expansion, the other side blocked the cages and allowed the shop to grow only as big as the Lansings'.

At some point, the Lansings stopped organizing infield events, including free Ghost Players exhibitions. (The players, several of whom were in the movie, now emerge from the corn and play only in left and centerfield.)

The Lansings have also put up signs that say things like "The souvenir stand at third base is operated by an out-of-state investment banking firm and is not associated with the Lansing farm or family."

This summer, the Ameskamps decided to rezone part of their farm commercial so they could charge admission for things like the maze without getting approval each time. Mrs. Lansing sued to get the zoning overturned, warning that commercial zoning could lead to "hotels, bowling alleys, bus depots, banks."

Keith Rahe, who manages Left and Center Field of Dreams, said the rezoning bars permanent structures. He said his side wanted only occasional events like baseball demonstrations, which he said would help Dyersville, a town of 3,700 that rests on a limping farm economy and whose other attraction is the National Farm Toy Museum.

He said the rezoning would bring tourists and money to the Lansing side, too.

"You have this trivial little squabble over this," Rahe said.

Mrs. Lansing said it was hardly trivial.

"You think the Field of Dreams and the issues that involved one of the most popular movies at the end of the 20th century is petty and small?" she said with a gasp. "You think it's silly for us to protect a vision?

"It's not petty. It's huge."

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