It was an early Saturday morning in mid-August in 1992. I felt the warmth of the sun on my face as I awoke in the backseat of my parents fully packed minivan. I check my surroundings still half asleep and confused. Next to me in the slightly smaller middle bench is my little brother, Thomas, sound asleep. In the far back seat are my sisters, Melissa and Allie. While Allie’s head is buried deep into her pillow, Melissa is up dancing to the music from her portable Walkman. She is staring out the windows at the endless rows of corn we can’t seem to escape from now matter how fast my father drives. Melissa sees me and flashes a big grin.
Her excitement triggered mine as I suddenly remembered where our destination was to be, “The Field of Dreams” sight. “Field of Dreams” was a hit movie in from the early 90’s. It starred big time actor Kevin Costner and was an instant classic. The movie was shot in a small Iowa town, Dyersville, and wasn’t far from where we lived. It was a favorite among our household but especially mine. I used to watch it before my little league games. This year my parents told us that they were going to have a big celebration and celebrity game at the movie sight and since it was scheduled a week before my birthday we decided to make it a birthday trip.
My cousin and best bud, Justin, also had his birthday coming up so my Aunt and Uncle and cousins decided to come along as well. Justin and I were the same age and always hung out together when we could. We both had a love for sports and often competed against each other in local leagues. My anticipation was beginning to get the best of me as I squirmed about in my seat to look out the back window. Sure enough there was my Uncle’s car not far behind us. As we turned onto a gravel road my father announced that we were getting near and the van began to buzz with joy.
As we neared the entrance, the sunlight beamed off of the sea of cars parked in the fields across the gravel road. After parking what seemed like a mile from the road, we exited out of the van. The aroma of fresh buttery popcorn filled the air and the sound of music was audible in the distance. After our two families had a quick stretch from the drive we decided to eat lunch before entering. During this time we also decided to celebrate Justin’s and my birthdays. We ate lunch, had cake afterwards and then opened up some gifts.
Our favorite of the day was a brand new clean white baseball with “Field of Dreams” stamped across it between the stiches. Justin and I both received this from our grandparents to get autographs while there. Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Kelsey Grammer, and Meatloaf were just some of the celebrities that were going to be there. Pen and ball in hand, we were ready to enter the sacred grounds. As I entered the site I was amazed. To the left was this pristine baseball field with corn as its outfield fence. It was maintained as well as any pro baseball field I have ever seen.
To the right was the very big, all white farm house from the movie. In between and to the sides were many tents, booths, and concession stands. Justin and I were looking for Reggie to get his autograph. Sure enough we spotted him with a line nearly double of any other. We didn’t care as we wanted his signature more than anyone else’s. After what seemed like hours of standing and waiting, we finally reached his table. We exchanged greetings and watched as he signed our baseballs. We were speechless and had trouble answering his small talk.
I mean here is Reggie Jackson, “Mr. October”, in the flesh and blood. My grandfather and father had told me about his accomplishments for years. My mother, one who never wastes an opportunity, spoke up right before we were done and mentioned that it was both our birthdays. Reggie personally wished us both a happy birthday and invited us behind the table to take a picture. We happily obliged and all of us held up 8 fingers to symbolize our new age. I still have this picture framed and sitting on my dresser to this day. It was an awesome start to the day.
Justin and I then ran from line to line to get as many autographs as we could before the start of the celebrity baseball game. Meatloaf, Kevin Costner, and James Earl Jones were some of the standout autographs that we had got. We tried to get Ray Liotta’s autograph but the game was about to start and he had to go get dressed. As the crowd began to fill in around the field, my uncle and father had saved us all space on a hill along the first base line. It was a great spot to see all the action. While we waited for the game to start, Justin and I marveled over the newly acquired signatures we got.
When the game finally started, the crowd rose to applaud the 24 celebrities and athletes that graced us with their presence. They played for a little over an hour and it was full of fun and laughs. When they were done, they invited all kids to come take a swing on the field. Justin and I looked at each other with disbelief and without even asking our parents, we sprinted towards the third base dugout. Since we were pretty close to the field to begin with, we got to the line pretty fast. I was ahead of Justin and there were about 20 kids ahead of us.
Most of the big time celebrities were now standing along the baselines watching each kid get a swing at a pitch and no matter how hard or where you hit the ball, the fielders made sure that nobody got out. When I finally reached the on deck circle, my nerves were beginning to show. I sat there and prayed that I would not swing and miss. The kid in front of me hits a slow grounder to the second baseman who dramatically makes an error and watches as the ball goes between his legs and into the outfield. Here goes nothing I thought as I began to make my way to the box. I stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded.
All I was think was to make contact with the ball. The pitcher lobbed one down the middle and I swung. Crack!! I hit a nice line drive just over the third baseman’s head. I could hardly contain myself as I rounded first and headed to second. I reached second safely and let out a “WoooHooo” as I looked back at Justin. I just knocked in two RBI’s at The Field of Dreams. Life couldn’t get better I thought at the time. The guy playing second base gave me a high five and congratulated me on a nice hit. I didn’t know it at the time, but later on found out that that guy was Tom Arnold.
Up next was Justin and I knew he wanted to get a better hit than me. Deep down I knew he was a better hitter but I would never admit that to him. He stepped up to the plate and the pitcher again lobbed a juicy one right down the middle. I swear Justin swung so hard he almost spun around in the box, but he nailed it deep in the left-center gap. I watched the ball while trotting to third. It hit the grass and one bounced into the cornfield that the players emerged from in the movie. “Holy crap” I gasped as I rounded third and headed for home. Once I reached the plate I turned quickly to watch Justin round second.
The outfielders were still looking in the cornfield by the time Justin reached third. Now I excitedly was bring him home by waving my hands in a windmill formation. When he touched home the crowd roared with applause. Even Kevin Costner was cheering and gave Justin the thumbs up. We jumped and high fived each other while running back to our parents with the biggest grins our mouths could form. What a way to end a fabulous day. The best day of my life I thought on the way home. I didn’t think it could get any better. About a month had passed since our great day in Dyersville.
School had started and with that football starts too. Justin and I were again going to be competing against each other in our local youth football league. We had a game scheduled against each other coming up in two weeks. I had just gotten home from practice when I walked in the door to find my mother and father comforting each other on the couch. I could tell my mom had been crying by her red, swollen eyes. My dad, who I had never sensed a weakness from, all of a sudden looked like he was ill. They told me to sit down because they needed to tell me something. My mind raced through the day’s activities. Did I get in trouble or do something wrong? ”
I thought to myself. My mom came over and hugged me and told me that Justin had died at the hospital just an hour earlier. He had had an undiagnosed heart problem that caught up to him at his own football practice. My body felt numb. I wanted to cry but couldn’t believe what they were saying. How could he be here one day and gone the next? As my mother cradled me I finally let loose. My sobs were heavy and heartfelt. How do you replace someone like that? Even surrounded by my grieving family, I felt alone. Justin wasn’t just my cousin, but one of my best friends.
He was the first person I always sought out at family gatherings or on the field of whatever sport we competed in. We had many great times and even a few bad ones but we always knew that we could work it out. Those days are gone now and only memories and photos of him still exist. I will always cherish memories from that great day in Dyersville. That day will be etched into my mind whenever I think of him. The photo of us with Reggie still sits in my room right above the ball full of autographs. I will always feel blessed that I was able to spend a whole day full of fun with him before he was gone.
I recently went back to Dyersville this past summer for the 25th anniversary of the movie. It was quite an emotional trip. The place looked exactly the same from my last visit in 1992. This time before I left, I went down to the dirt behind home plate and filled a container. I took this container to Justin’s grave and sprinkled the dirt around his headstone. I know he would have loved to have gone with me to the 25th anniversary but since that wasn’t possible, I brought a little back to him. It’s been some years now since his death but the memories of him will live forever. He truly was a homerun in my heart.