Taking in the scene, I started thinking about the paradox of the field. Why is it, I wondered, that people feel so compelled to seek out and preserve a pastoral simulacrum built entirely for commercial purposes by a multinational movie studio? Part of the appeal, of course, is how closely the land still resembles the ball field people saw onscreen. But something deeper struck me, too: even though it’s a Hollywood fabrication, this slice of the heartland feels authentic. By conserving the site, Dyersville has built a bizarro time machine on the cheap, one that transports visitors into an actual setting that seems to occupy a mythical place in the American past—the wholesome sandlot we’ve long outgrown.
In such a surreal atmosphere, on land that’s stark and imbued with nostalgia, it’s easy to turn introspective. More than a decade ago, Brett Mandel, a writer and nonprofit consultant based in Philadelphia, gathered stories of pilgrims who visited the Field of Dreams and were moved by the experience. Finding material was not difficult, he says; it’s something of a folk tradition for townies to share touching tales they’ve heard about or witnessed. There was the Japanese baseball diehard who flew from Osaka to Dubuque, glimpsed the movie site, and then jumped on a plane back to Japan the following day. And there was the man from western Pennsylvania whose son died in a plane crash near Sioux City, Iowa, and who later acknowledged that a stop at the Field of Dreams a few days before the first anniversary of the wreck helped him reconnect with the spirit of his child. In 2002, Mandel published the stories he’d collected in a book called Is This Heaven? The Magic of the Field of Dreams. “People associate the memories of the film with something that’s important to them,” he explained to me. “They feel able to say different things or can feel emotions at the Field of Dreams they aren’t comfortable feeling at home.”