How They Built It

Thirty-two years after the beloved movie debuted, MLB is bringing a game to Iowa and the iconic Field of Dreams.

By Bill King
The White Sox will face the Yankees in primetime Thursday on Fox.Courtesy of MLB Photos

Walking the warning track of a pristine baseball diamond cut into an Iowa cornfield, Murray Cook stopped to look back at a vast stretch of 10-foot high cornstalks, then ahead at more 10-foot high cornstalks.

 

Beyond the right-field fence, a thick stretch of crop bled into a recently carved corn maze, fashioned in the shape of the MLB logo. Beyond that, the iconic site of the movie Field of Dreams beckoned — the field, and then the farmhouse, framed by a white picket fence.

“I’ve probably been here 20 times in the past two years,” said Cook, president of BrightView Sports Turf, the official field consultant of Major League Baseball. “And every time I walk out here, I get goose bumps.

“Every time. Every single time.”

Building fields suited for major league games at unlikely sites is nothing new for Cook. He has transformed a cricket pitch in Sydney, an abandoned golf course at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and a soccer field in London. Each had its own hurdles. This one involves turning a Dyersville, Iowa, farm and famous movie set into a facility suitable to host MLB’s latest made-for-TV endeavor, a “Field of Dreams Game” between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees airing Thursday, Aug. 12, on Fox. It may have been the most mind-bending — but also the most inspired.

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It required clearing corn and moving 30,000 cubic yards of dirt to level the surface, and then covering it with 4,000 tons of sand and 2,000 tons of gravel, creating a drainage system that would provide the base for a suitable blend of bluegrass. New corn was hand-planted on about 150 acres beyond the outfield fences and down the foul lines, using a variation that grows high enough to replicate the look of the movie.

The first time Cook visited the Field of Dreams was in 2015, when MLB dispatched him to consider its viability for a game. The owner of the property, Denise Stillman, was excited by the idea, seeing it as a way to revive interest in a tourist attraction that was fading as familiarity with the beloved 1989 movie declined. Her company, Go the Distance Baseball, was pitching investors on a plan to surround the movie set with 24 youth fields, creating a complex with the potential to draw tens of thousands of visitors to its tournaments each summer.

That plan had stalled, blocked by a lawsuit that challenged the necessary re-zoning. An MLB game could provide a lifeline.

“She actually took a picture of us, she was so excited to see us,” Cook said.

Walking the property, Cook knew the footprint was too small to accommodate a major league field and the 8,000-seat temporary stadium they’d need to erect around it. But Stillman and her husband, Tom Mietzel, had plenty of room elsewhere on their 197-acre farm.

They’d just have to plow over more corn.

Cook

Cook suggested a spot about 1,000 feet west, large enough to fit everything but close enough for fans to walk between the two. Stillman agreed. But she soon found that the financing of the farm prohibited changes to the land’s use until it had been paid off, so the whole idea was tabled.

But Stillman didn’t give up. Though battling a rare form of liver cancer, she continued to work on the project. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of the re-zoning at the end of 2016. Soon after, the group refinanced the property, allowing her to re-engage MLB.

Once the league established that the site was viable, the rest of the pieces fell into place. The White Sox, the obvious home team by virtue of the franchise’s role in the film, signed on immediately. The Yankees, MLB’s first choice as the opponent, quickly followed. Fox Sports didn’t have to be asked twice.

“From the first I heard of it, I said ‘Do it,’” said White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. “I loved the movie. I thought it was great, and that it was logical that it should be the White Sox.”

“It was a no-brainer,” said Brad Zager, Fox Sports executive vice president and head of programming and operations.

Sadly, Stillman died on Nov. 7, 2018, three months before the deal to bring the game to Iowa was signed and eight months before MLB announced it. The league has provided tickets to the game for her parents and two children, Claire, 22, and John, 20.

“It’s been bittersweet for me, seeing her dream come to fruition and not having her be here to see it,” said Mietzel, who took over as president of Go The Distance when Stillman became too ill to work. “But it’s been great for the kids to see that their mom’s vision is continuing.”

The 1989 film starring Kevin Costner (above left) made $84 million and was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture.getty images

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In the past five years, MLB has taken the national pastime to new locations across America, and even abroad. But unlike the NHL, which struck gold with its outdoor games, or college basketball, which twice put games on aircraft carriers, MLB quickly found that its dimensions precluded most sites. League executives looked at football stadiums and even speedways. Most were non-starters. So they turned their attention to more baseball-friendly venues.

In July 2016, for a game between the Marlins and the Braves, MLB constructed a field and a temporary 12,500-seat stadium at Fort Bragg. The next year, the Pirates and Cardinals played the first Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pa., with MLB upgrading a then 92-year-old, 2,200-seat ballpark. In June 2019, the Tigers and Royals played the first regular-season game in Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, site of the College World Series. And later that month the Yankees and Red Sox played two games at West Ham United’s London Stadium, marking MLB’s first regular-season action in Europe.

Along with bringing major league baseball to fans who typically live nowhere near an existing franchise, the trips have allowed MLB to polish regular-season games into events of broader interest.

“The key theme for us here is that this is really about telling the story of baseball in a way that’s different and unique and making that experience available to an audience that doesn’t get a chance to experience the sport,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer. “We think it’s important when you’re playing 162 games a year to have a few of these events every now and then to remind people how special the sport is.”

Welcome to the Field of Dreams

Location: Dyersville, Iowa
Seating Capacity: 8,000
Field construction: 30,000 cubic yards of material to build the ballpark; 4,000 tons of sand and 2,000 tons of pea gravel installed under the grass
Dimensions: 335 feet down the lines, 380 to LCF and RCF, 400 to center field
Lights: Provided by Musco, which is based in Iowa; will also light up the corn
Concessions: Aramark

That goal resonated with the constituents MLB needed in order to pull the game off: the White Sox, who will give up a home date; the Yankees, who will incur an extra leg of travel; and Fox, which will air the game in prime time. It is telling that each of them not only agreed to the arrangement but jumped at the chance.

It doesn’t hurt that MLB will make both teams whole financially. For the White Sox, that means covering all travel expenses and any revenue the team may sacrifice by giving up a home game against the Yankees, who typically are a strong draw. Reinsdorf said he’d have agreed to play regardless of the chosen opponent.

“I just think anything that calls attention to baseball with anyone who would not otherwise be paying attention to baseball is a good thing,” Reinsdorf said. “The more there is awareness on the part of people as to what the role of baseball is in this country, the better it is. These games point out the specialness of baseball. That’s why I like them.”

So do the broadcast networks. In its most recent rights renewal with MLB, Fox asked MLB for mid-week, prime-time games, preferably built out into larger events. Next month, they’ll have the Yankees against the Mets at Citi Field on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The 8,000-seat stadium will host the first MLB game ever in the Hawkeye State.Courtesy of MLB

With its potential to deliver striking visuals unlike any seen before, the Field of Dreams game gives Fox a regular-season baseball game that will feel more like a larger event, such as the All-Star Game or World Series.

“It’s pretty rare, after all the years of sports on television and leagues doing new things, that you hear something and say: Wow, that’s cool,” Zager said. “This hits all the notes you’d want for an event during the summer. I feel like everybody, when they hear about this concept … has the same reaction: That’s great. That’s something I’d want to see. Our reaction was no different.”

Mietzel hopes the game will not only revive interest in the Field of Dreams site, but re-invigorate his company’s hopes to expand to a larger youth complex. They’ve started moving in that direction this year, adding a restaurant, bar and gazebo and turning the barn into an events center. They’ve reset the interior of the house to look as it did in the movie, allowing for rental to overnight guests. The next phase, a $6 million project that would add six fields, is on the drawing board, awaiting support from investors.

The temporary ballpark and clubhouses will come down when MLB leaves, but the field will remain. Mietzel wants to attract a collegiate summer league to play there. He also hopes MLB will return, though there have been no discussions yet about a second iteration.

“This has put us back on the radar,” Mietzel said. “We’ve been working to generate additional revenue so we could build our own fields. We’ve had some modest success but are still looking to bring in more serious investors. This has given us the opportunity to go back and reimagine Denise’s plan.”

Denise Stillman (right), who died in 2018, helped convince MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to hold a game at her farm.getty images

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Within weeks of MLB’s announcement of the game in November 2019, Cook’s group began clearing corn. By spring, the land was leveled and prepped for the installation of the field. COVID restrictions shut them down briefly, but they were back by late spring to finish the field and plant about 150 acres of corn, which border the foul lines and outfield fence and stretches to the movie field.

Though the pandemic forced the cancellation of the first four months of the 2020 season, MLB hoped it could still hold an August game. It continued work on the temporary stadium — MLB wouldn’t confirm the final cost — installing decking, but no seats, since it knew there wouldn’t be spectators. Because the revamped schedule did not have the Yankees playing in Chicago, MLB replaced them with the St. Louis Cardinals. But in late July, an outbreak forced the Cardinals to shut down for 16 days, wreaking havoc with the MLB schedule. The league had little choice but to cancel the Field of Dreams game.

“Looking back, it was unrealistic,” Marinak said. “But we didn’t know. There was so much excitement around it that we tried to pull out all the stops. It just turned out it didn’t make sense.”

With the game pushed back a year, MLB had the stadium dismantled. But the field still had to be maintained, as did the corn. When a drought hit, Cook’s crew had to install a watering system to make sure the corn near the field wouldn’t stall or go brown. Just one month ago, on July 1, construction crews went to work rebuilding the temporary seating bowl and putting up a temporary clubhouse.

In with the new

MLB’s Field of Dreams game isn’t the first time a sport has tried a twist on their regular competitions since the pandemic started, and most of the other efforts have been a success with audiences.

NBA

Event: Play-in games
Date: May 18-21, 2021
Network: ESPN, TNT
Skinny: The Lakers-Warriors showdown got 5.6 million viewers, and the four-game set averaged 2.9 million. The format will return in 2022.

NHL

Event: Lake Tahoe game
Date: Feb. 21-22, 2021
Network: NBC, NBCSN
Skinny: After the first game on Saturday endured an eight-hour sun delay that hurt NBC’s audience size, the Bruins-Flyers game on Sunday drew 1.02 million viewers for NBCSN, the network’s best NHL regular-season game ever.

NFL

Event: Virtual Pro Bowl
Date: Jan. 31, 2021
Network: ABC, ESPN, Disney XD
Skinny: At 1.84 million, the virtual game played on EA’s Madden platform was easily the least-watched version of the event on record.

MLS

Event: MLS Is Back
Date: July 8-Aug. 11, 2020
Network: ESPN, ESPN2, Fox, FS1
Skinny: The 47 games averaged 200,000 viewers and the Aug. 11 tournament championship between Orlando City and Portland averaged 365,000; both figures were well below typical for the league’s regular season and MLS Cup.

NASCAR

Event: iRacing
Date: March 22-May 9, 2020
Network: Fox and FS1
Skinny: The networks averaged more than 1 million viewers for the six races in 2020 and renewed it for a second season that took place this spring.

In recent weeks, MLB has shuttled staff to Iowa to nail down operational aspects. Members from its events group have been out twice. A group from marketing visited to get a better feel for what imagery to use in promotions. Tech specialists traveled there to review ticket scanning and security components.

MLB also has worked with local municipal staff on procedures to get spectators in and out on the rural, two-lane road that provided a memorable end scene in the movie, when a stream of headlights from cars headed to the farm twinkled for as far as the eyes could see.

While the game has once-in-a-lifetime appeal, attending it will require extreme effort for most. MLB and Fox swallowed up nearly all the rooms in Dubuque, meaning that the few outside Iowa who managed to land tickets might not find anything much closer than Chicago.

The White Sox got about 1,500 tickets, which they offered to sponsors and some season-ticket holders. The Yankees also got a small allotment. But most were sold via a lottery restricted to Iowa residents, priced similarly to face value for All-Star and World Series games: $375 and $450. To lessen the likelihood of resale, MLB won’t send buyers bar codes until shortly before the game.

“The day it was announced, my computer lit up,” Reinsdorf said. “Everybody wanted to go. But after a while, when people realized the inconvenience of going, that sort of tamped down the demand. A lot of my friends who were bugging me for tickets, when they realized that there’s no place to stay and there’s one road in and one road out, so you better plan on it taking a long time to get out after the game — a lot of people said, ‘I’ll watch it on television.’”

Craig Kimbrel

It is likely that the most memorable moment from Thursday night’s game will happen before it begins. The right-field fence will open to allow players to enter the field, emerging from the corn as Shoeless Joe Jackson and his Black Sox cohorts did during the movie.

The director of Fox Sports’ broadcast, Matt Gangl, and the network’s VP of field operations, Brad Cheney, each have made trips to Dyersville to make sure that moment, and the rest of the game, are captured from the best possible angles.

“Major League Baseball gave us this amazing canvas to produce this game,” Zager said. “We want to take advantage of it and try to enhance it, but not get in the way of [this being] Major League Baseball players playing a kids’ game in a cornfield. That’s how we’ve approached it in terms of what people will see.”

Fox will treat this game as one of MLB’s jewel events, with a pregame show hosted by Kevin Burkhardt, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas. Along with scouting the field for camera locations that would best show off the surroundings during the game, its production group made sure the pregame set will have a recognizable backdrop.

“You’ll see the corn behind them,” Zager said. “We wanted to make sure we positioned everything to show off that we’re in the middle of Dyersville, Iowa, and to make sure we catch people’s eye immediately. This is something they haven’t seen before.”

D.J. LemahieuMLB

There will be more wide shots, especially as they reset coming back from commercial breaks. Graphics will be simple and representative of the setting.

“When you’re doing as much sports TV as we all do at Fox Sports or any network, sometimes an event like this re-energizes you because you have to start from scratch,” Zager said. “That’s what has been so cool about the Field of Dreams game, from a production and operations standpoint. It’s made all of us not rest on our laurels of ‘Oh, we’ve done baseball before.’ Because none of us have done baseball from the middle of a cornfield before. So we had to think about every aspect of producing a baseball game and a baseball studio show in a way that we haven’t before.

“It’s been an energizing event to talk about for the last year and a half. Having a baseball game that was really starting from scratch has given all of us something to look forward to.”

It has given Dyersville, and Field of Dreams site proprietor Mietzel, something to look forward to, too. Hotels are full. Neighboring farms have rented out space for parking. Though MLB will bring in Aramark to handle concessions and has taken over the farmhouse and barn for the entire week as part of its rental agreement, it will allow Mietzel to keep the gift shop open.

Mietzel chuckled as he promised record sales, one more small step toward fulfilling his wife’s vision.

“Denise always saw this as a great way to bring great things to the Field of Dreams, and now it’s finally happening,” Mietzel said. “I’m sure people will bring their gloves and a ball and have a catch. I can’t wait to see it. It’s going to be a little bittersweet for me, but I’m still incredibly happy it’s here.”

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