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DYERSVILLE — The ghost players made way for some major-leaguers at the shiny new stadium in town Thursday.
The Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds swooped in for one day only to entertain a national audience starving for a bit of nostalgia along with their baseball. They tuned in to see heroes of the past emerge from the corn, hear the late Vin Scully recite a stirring speech from a fictional character about what was once good (and can be again), and to see millionaires in throwback uniforms enjoy playing a game in a place none of them would ever have dreamed of when growing up.
The weather was perfect, as was the pageantry surrounding the second modern Major League Baseball game ever played in this state.
Even Rob Manfred, the sport’s lightning-rod-in-chief, managed to stay out of the way, steering clear of media interviews as he strolled through the familiar outfield at the Field of Dreams movie site hours before the game, graciously posing for photos with fans and even ignoring the fact that one of them was wearing a replica jersey of banished former major-league star Pete Rose.
“They’re probably going to make me delete that photo later,” the young fan told his companions with a smile afterward, watching as Manfred and his entourage walked toward a red barn that serves as a souvenir shop, where Clydesdale horses paraded out front.)
Yes, everything seemed pristine and an early 20th century aesthetic prevailed.
The fans sure seemed taken by it all, cramming 7,823 strong into the cozy stadium, where people stood two-deep all around the top of the bleachers. There were equal amounts of Chicago blue and Cincinnati red, and respectful applause from both sides for each good play that occurred.
The game itself wasn’t nearly as riveting as last year’s extra-innings showdown between a pair of American League playoff teams, the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees.
These are not vintage Cubs and Reds teams, as they battle with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the bottom of the National League Central (the Cubs are winning that standoff at the moment). Chicago took an early 4-0 lead, but Cincinnati provided some drama with a seventh-inning rally before falling 4-2. The fans were on their feet for the entire at-bat when Cubs closer Rowan Wick struck out Cincinnati's Matt Reynolds to end the three-hour, 21-minute game.
Earlier, Cubs All-Star outfielder Ian Happ remarked about how appreciative he was of the chance to play a Major League Baseball game in front of people who wouldn’t usually find themselves so close to one.
“The more we can do to bring baseball to anyone who wants to watch, to be here, to be a part of it, the better we’ll be as a sport, as a community,” he said.
Still, this was professional sports in 2022, which means the Field of Dreams has a corporate sponsor, and those Clydesdales were not present to assist with any farm work.
For the locals, it was a welcome chance to take in this temporary ball diamond where they are not allowed to play their favorite pastime. That’s OK with them, though. There are plenty of other well-worn ballparks nearby.
For example, the Field of Dreams game was just an interlude in the ongoing 72nd annual Whitehawks Baseball Tournament being played at Commercial Club Park here. The championship is Saturday. That’s the brand of baseball that runs deep in northeast Iowa, where some 17 “town” teams compete in two leagues each summer. All the towns in Dubuque County play host to annual "semi-pro" tournaments.
And that’s where the ghost players come in, guys like Randy Olberding and Jim Offerman, who have made ballfields in this region their personal haunt for decades. On Thursday, they were among the 25 players who donned Chicago White Sox uniforms in the style of a century ago and greeted fans at the movie site, playing catch with eager children and sharing stories about the sport that consumes them.
The ghost players, important backdrops in the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” have been ambassadors for the sport ever since. Offerman, 53, said he’s been as far as Japan three times playing exhibitions for enthusiastic fans of baseball and the movie.
The ghost players volunteered their services Thursday, even having to buy a ticket if they wanted to stay to watch the big-league spectacle.
And that was fine with them. They knew they’d soon get back to their routine of weekend ballgames against their usual assortment of rivals.
“I think, overall, it’s starting to turn more positive,” Offerman, a graduate of Dyersville Beckman High School, said of the reaction from his neighbors to the hullabaloo brought on by the new stadium created in the corn.
“Years ago, it wasn’t so much, because people wanted the serenity of the field, and they didn’t want to look over there seeing that.”
Offerman was pleased to be joined in the group of ghost players by his 19-year-old son, Nick, for the first time Thursday.
He said it was the ghost players, like himself, that kept alive the legend of Field of Dreams for years after the movie’s release, leading up to the day when MLB took notice. He still competes on occasion, but is heartened to see a new generation of eastern Iowans sticking around and adding to the tradition here. There’s nowhere else in Iowa, or really the Midwest, that clings to small-town baseball competition quite like this.
“We’re all good friends. We have to be. We’ve traveled the world together,” Offerman said of the ghost players of his vintage.
“I usually play outfield now, because I can run a little better than some of the older guys, I guess.”
Olberding is 66 and also a native of Dyersville. He has been amazed to watch MLB visit his town twice, happy to get to be a small participant in the goings-on.
“I don’t hear too much bad about it,” he said. “It’s great for the community, Dyersville, Dubuque County, the entire state of Iowa.”
Olberding started playing town ball at age 16, a pitcher and first baseman despite being right-handed, which makes things a little awkward on that side of the diamond.
“We only have so many lefties,” he explained.
Olberding tells a story that reveals just how passionate people who grow up in northeast Iowa can be about baseball.
As a child, he rooted for the “Big Red Machine” Cincinnati teams of the 1970s.
But that came to an end when he started competing against the team in Cascade that also called itself the Reds.
“I’m a baseball fan,” Olberding said, simply.
Go The Distance, the company that owns the Field of Dreams site, has already said that MLB won't return for a 2023 game, although the possibility exists of visits here again after the next wave of construction.
It would be a shame if the tradition ends after just two games, given how much attention the sport gets from this event, and how much the local community has come to embrace it.
But diehards like Offerman and Olberding make it clear: Baseball will thrive in this region with or without the sport’s big stars alighting here once a year.
It’s woven into the fabric of life.
Olberding charts the growth of baseball in this region by noting the number of entrants in the Eastern Iowa Hawkeye League and the Prairie League. And he said that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the popularity of “Field of Dreams.”
“Towns that didn’t have a team three or four years ago now have a team,” he said. “A lot of college kids stick around now and play ball in their hometowns in the summer rather than go to some bigger city.”
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Field of Dreams game is backdrop to baseball passion in northeast Iowa