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Bradley Golfer’s Family Helped Bring MLB Game To Iconic Movie Site

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Joe Deacon
Actors portraying ghost players warm up on the infield at the "Field Of Dreams" movie site in Dyersville, Iowa.

The seeds of the idea that led to Major League Baseball hosting a prime time event at the “Field of Dreams” movie site in Iowa can be traced back to Bradley University.

John Stillman, a junior on the Braves’ golf team, will be among the contingent of Chicago White Sox fans in the crowd of about 8,000 for Thursday night’s showcase game against the New York Yankees.

John Stillman.jpg
Bradley University
John Stillman

“It’s obviously super cool. I’m as die-hard a White Sox fan as they come; I even cheered against the Cubs in the World Series in 2016,” said Stillman. “For me, it’s pretty awesome because the movie is about the White Sox.”

Granted, the pros won’t be playing on the very same field that summoned the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in the 1989 classic starring Kevin Costner. Instead, to meet MLB standards, a new diamond modeled after the original Comiskey Park was built just a little deeper into the rows of corn.

“I know there's some people that think the movie site was just meant to be a tranquil place, nothing else,” said Stillman. “But for me, I think it's one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life. They had this beautiful, amazing stadium built out there.

“The main attraction is always going to be where the original movie was filmed, but I think this only adds to it.”

But seeing his beloved team play in a unique setting isn’t the only reason Stillman will be in Dyersville. Much like the film, it’s all about family.

Stillman’s parents, Mike and Denise, met when they were RAs at Bradley in the early 1990s. They settled in the south side suburb of Oak Lawn, only a few miles from the White Sox’s stadium. Growing up, John played on travel baseball teams and developed a love for the sport.

“The relationship I have with my dad, he taught me the game of baseball and he’s just always been there for me,” said Stillman, eluding to the movie’s final scene where Costner plays catch with his father as a young man. “I think it symbolizes that you never want to take moments for granted.”

In 2010, Mike and John traveled to Minnesota to see the White Sox play the Twins. On the way back, the Stillmans stopped at the popular tourist destination and soon learned the property was for sale.

Denise Stillman then had a grand vision for the rural farmhouse with a ball diamond nestled into a cornfield.

“It just immediately hopped into my mom’s head: ‘What if we made it like the youth baseball complex at Cooperstown? A Cooperstown of the Midwest.’”

Not long after, the Stillmans were leading a group of investors looking to purchase and develop the site.

“A month later, we were sitting in the farmhouse with the previous owners, the Lansing family. The farm had been in their family for over 100 years,” said Stillman. “Then it was officially under contract that November, and in 2012 it was officially handed over to the investment group.”

Travel Baseball History
Ryan J. Foley/AP
FILE - This 2012 file photo shows the entrance to the "Field of Dreams" movie site in Dyersville, Iowa. There are many destinations of interest to baseball fans around the country outside ballparks from museums and statues to historic homes. (AP Photo/Ryan J. Foley, File)

In the years since, the project faced a host of obstacles — from bureaucratic red tape and legal roadblocks to family upheaval. Stillman’s parents divorced, and Denise got remarried to Tom Mietzel.

In 2018, Denise succumbed to cancer. But by then, she was certain James Earl Jones’ prophetic line in the film would ring true: “People will most definitely come.”

“My mom laid the foundation, and all we had to do was just go out and execute the plans she had in place,” said Stillman. “She was the most optimistic person I've ever met in my life, no matter what was thrown her way. She really never gave up, and she kind of put it out there to the world that this was eventually going to happen.”

MLB got on board with the idea of staging a game at the “Field Of Dreams” site in 2019. But just when it seemed all the logistical hurdles had been cleared, a new problem emerged when COVID-19 postponed the event a year ago.

“It’s really kind of amazing that something’s going to happen now,” said Stillman. “It’s been a lot of years in the making, but in my opinion that just makes it all worth it. It’s going to be a time of celebration.”

After Denise’s death, Mietzel took over operations of the “Field of Dreams” property; eventually, Stillman and his sister Claire will share in the ownership. He said the site, like the movie it yielded more than 30 years ago, retains a magical quality that endures.

“It’s a place that’s different than any other that I’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s a place where families can enjoy a moment that has a special place in their heart.”

Stillman admits it will be tough not having his mother in the stands with him. But if, as the father character says in the movie, heaven is “the place dreams come true,” then maybe Iowa will again be heaven for a night.

“She’ll have the best seat in the house to see her vision come to life,” he said.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.