DYERSVILLE, Ia. — It’s a little after 2:30 p.m. on a hot summer afternoon when a car with a Wisconsin license plate creeps down the gravel road of the “Field of Dreams” movie site.
The car, full of visitors in the front and back seats, stops before it gets to the famed ball diamond. The driver rolls down the window to greet Marcia Weigel, who is taking donations and providing directions.
“You can walk, run or crawl the bases,” Weigel tells the group.
It’s a conversation Weigel, a resident of Dyersville who was an extra in the 1989 movie, has been having for hours this July day. Cars with plates from Missouri, Colorado, California and beyond have also made their way down Lansing Road in rural northeast Iowa in a pilgrimage to a ballpark made famous by Hollywood and enjoying renewed interest because of the Major League Baseball game to be played here this month.
On Aug. 12, the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox, two historic franchises featured in the film, will play in the first official MLB game in Iowa history on a specially built field right next to the diamond featured in the movie.
“Because of the MLB game, a lot of people like to try to go back there to see it,” Weigel said. “But of course, you know, they can’t go back there (to the new field).”
In the movie, James Earl Jones’ character sketches a vision for farmer Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, of a mystical baseball field built out of Iowa cornfields that will lure people who are seeking to reconnect with childhood memories of baseball and are yearning for simpler times.
“People will come, Ray,” Jones says, “people will most definitely come.”
And they have, baseball fans and movie buffs alike.
After the MLB announced in August of 2019 that two teams would play here, people have flocked to Dyersville in record numbers. The matchup will be broadcast nationally on FOX.
“This is as big as it gets,” said Roman Weinberg, director of operations for Go The Distance, the organization that owns and operates the movie site. “Especially in baseball, there’s no bigger platform than Major League Baseball. When you get someone of that … caliber shining the spotlight on your location, all you can do is tip your cap, smile and say, ‘Thank you very much.'”
After announcement: ‘Hundreds or thousands of calls that same day’
The game had an immediate impact on Dyersville the moment it was announced. Tickets would not be sold for two more years, but the phone at the Super 8 by Wyndham in Dyersville rang nonstop. People wanted to make sure they had a place to crash if they were lucky enough to land the hottest ticket in baseball.
And with only three hotels in the city of about 4,000, it made for a busy day for hotel staff.
“We probably had almost hundreds or thousands of calls that same day,” said Dipen Patel, the hotel’s general manager.
But the 2020 game never happened. MLB eventually pulled the plug and rescheduled it for 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, interest never waned. Patel said as soon as a makeup date for 2021 was scheduled, the phones started ringing again.
Four months before the game, the majority of his 45 rooms were booked.
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Kathy Polfer, manager of the Plaza Antique Mall in Dyersville, has seen business pick up, and it hasn’t stopped. The business has over 150 vendors selling antiques, farm toys and, since the 2019 announcement, as many “Field of Dreams” collectibles as they can.
“We’ve seen a great increase,” Polfer said.
Karla Thompson, executive director of the Dyersville Area Chamber of Commerce, said other businesses, including boutiques and home décor stores, have benefited, too, as national media have done stories on the town.
“We were up to 120% just on the website views and hits,” Thompson said. “That was back in June.”
New life for the movie site — for years?
In the movie, Kinsella plows under his corn to build a baseball field for Joe Jackson and other members of the 1919 White Sox team, banished for gambling on baseball. Soon, ghosts of baseball legends materialize from out of the corn. The farm faces bankruptcy because of Kinsella’s supposedly foolish decision to destroy his crop, but by the movie’s end, a string of headlights of cars headed to the field signals that tourists will indeed come, and the farm will be saved.
Just like in the movie, the diamond became a tourist attraction — but not without plenty of controversy along the way. Land from two farms was used for the diamond, and the families that owned the farms feuded in and out of court for years, even operating competing souvenir stands on opposite sides of the field. Then Dyersville was roiled by yet-unrealized plans to build a youth sports complex near the diamond, envisioned as hosting tournaments for traveling teams and bringing jobs to the region.
Still, through 32 years, people have come.
On a warm July day this year, Sam Stein stands on the mound at the “Field of Dreams” diamond and gets ready to throw a pitch to a random stranger.
Stein, 47, is from Wilmington, Delaware, and made the stop here with his two sons and a friend.
“Nothing hot back up the middle,” Stein says as he gets ready to throw.
The four had never been to the site before. After watching the movie together earlier that week, they showed up in Dyersville, walked in and out of the outfield cornfield, played catch and took hacks in the batter’s box.
“We got to do everything we wanted to do,” Stein said. “It was great.”
That’s how most visits go. The difference these days is how many fans are coming.
In past years, most visitors have come during the summer, then traffic dies down after Labor Day. When the game was announced in 2019, the site welcomed a record 150,000 visitors. This year, Weinberg expects to see traffic through the fall and hit 200,000 visitors.
“It’s put us on another platform and has helped us reach a whole other level of brand awareness for baseball fans and the national and international markets out there,” Weinberg said.
Some visitors had never heard of the movie site until the MLB announced the game, Weinberg said. The league has featured the site heavily since, and FOX included shots of the new park during the All-Star Game earlier this summer.
“Is it a godsend?” Weinberg says. “Yes, I would say so.”
Weinberg hopes the renewed attention could propel the organization’s goal of putting in youth baseball fields near the original diamond.
Jessica Molnar, from Arizona, had hoped to visit before construction started on the new MLB field. When she and her family came to Dyersville in July while visiting relatives in Iowa, it was too late for that. Final preparations on the MLB park were underway.
“I just hope it doesn’t take some of the beauty away from it,” Molnar said of the movie site diamond.
Rolling out the red carpet
A busy week lies ahead for Dyersville and the movie site — and how the week goes could influence the area’s future for years to come.
City leaders have organized live music, vendors and a movie viewing the night before the game. Fans without precious tickets — distributed in a lottery for Iowans only and sold for $375 apiece or available on StubHub for up to $11,000 or more — can gather for a viewing of the game in the city square.
It’s another opportunity for businesses in town to shine — and profit.
“We are looking to roll out the red carpet and welcome all the guests,” said Polfer, the antiques mall manager. “And we hope they find us.”
It’s possible the MLB could make a trip to Dyersville part of its calendar for future seasons, as it has with the Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. That prospect may hinge on how Dyersville and the “Field of Dreams” movie site does with hosting the game.
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Both are working hard to make a good showing. The city has helped MLB find volunteers for the game, including ushers. Go The Distance has provided its iconic diamond as a spot for fans to walk on during their trek over to the new field.
Polfer and others in Dyersville would love for an MLB game to become a regular event.
“That would be wonderful,” Polfer said of an annual return by MLB. “It would be a game-changer.”
Tommy Birch, the Register’s sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He’s the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at [email protected] or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.