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COLUMN: A Malat Musing: The Dyersville Reality

Updated: 05/06/2014 1:32 PM
Created: 04/03/2014 2:33 PM KSTP.com
By: Phil Malat

It defies all rationale. A tiny piece of farm land tucked away in the northeast corner of Iowa has become a real slice of Americana. For 25 years it has had an amazing and profound impact on hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people worldwide.

Donnie Ungs is a lifelong resident of this magical corner of the state. He was a denizen long before the April 1989 premier of the motion picture 'Field Of Dreams' - long before a baseball diamond sprung up in a corn field just a few miles from his Dyersville house.  

The Ungs family is a baseball family. Donnie has two sons. Nic pitched for both the Florida Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers organizations before retiring in Atlanta to start a sporting goods business. The younger son, Matt, still plays town baseball long after most tire of the travel and inevitable aches and pains associated with growing older.

According to Donnie: "All Nic had to say [when asked where he was from] was Field of Dreams.  They then immediately knew exactly where he came from."

"You figure it out. I certainly can't," Ungs said. "It is exactly as Costner said in the movie.  It's 'totally illogical,' 'completely nuts,' but nevertheless, a reality.

"Tour buses have been showing up here for years and they're not just charted for Podunk Travel, USA," Ungs quipped. "They come from all over the globe.

"Believe it or not, this guy flies in from Japan, comes directly to Dyersville, visits The Field of Dreams, soaks it all in, leaves and immediately returns home to Japan." Ungs said. "That baseball field was the only, the sole reason, he set foot on American soil. You figure it out."

The Ghost Players

As the movie site grew in popularity, a team comprised of semi-pro players from around the area was formed. Occasionally they would unexpectedly emerge from the corn in the outfield - hence the name Ghost Players. They would then enchant all present with exhibitions of baseball skills and frivolity. As their recognition increased, so did their travel. Demand to see them play took them all over the world.

"These local guys saw the world and it never cost them a nickel," Ungs said. "You figure it out."

Then there are all those controversies and disputes.   

The baseball diamond was built on land adjoining two separate farms. While acquiring the movie rights from both farmers wasn't difficult, once Hollywood left Dyersville the wrangling began.

It ranged from one farmer returning most of the outfield to a corn field and eventually back into the outfield.  There ensued disputes over commercial development of the site to maximize its cash cow potential. 

Finally, as all this contentiousness and bitterness built to a fever pitch, law suits and counter law suits blossomed.  

As the field's popularity neared the ninth inning, the farmers reconciled long enough for the outfield farmer to sell the land to the infield farmer who then promptly sold the whole kit and caboodle to a development firm in Chicago.

The developer naturally has big plans for their $3.4 million investment.  It includes the investment of another $70 million to construct "All-Star Ballpark Heaven," a 24-field baseball-and-softball complex, resplendent with a dormitory, to host 152 teams for 13 consecutive summer weeks. This has naturally led to turmoil between the town folk and the developer that makes the farmer disputes look like child's play.  

The last election in Dyersville was a historic house cleaning. Three of the city council members - all proponents of the development - and the towns' five-term mayor where given their unconditional release. Ungs called it heartbreaking.

"Progressive thinking, progress and growth are necessary to a community's health and viability. But it is so sad to watch good, decent people - people I've known all my life, people I greatly admire and respect - bitterly bickering over money and politics," Ungs said. "Totally illogical? Completely nuts? You might say that."

A new baseball season is upon us. Yes, our national pastime, one of God's greatest gifts to mankind, will once again be filled with thrills and reminders.  We will be reminded of how it "has marked the time."

We will indeed be reminded of "all that once was good and could be again" and we may even pause to consider the Dyersville reality, a reality that also reminds us that no matter how much the world changes, the luster and allure of the game played on a baseball diamond are as compelling today as they were some 25 years ago.

Phil Malat is a columnist for KSTP.com.

The film 'Field of Dreams' was released in 1989.
Photo Courtesy of Phil Malat

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