Bob Dyer: Baseball dream comes true
Published: July 28, 2018 - 10:35 PM | Updated: July 29, 2018 - 10:58 AM

DYERSVILLE, IOWA: On the 206th day of 2018, Ethan Bryan of Springfield, Mo.,
played catch for the 206th consecutive day.
This time, the site was his version of Nirvana: the baseball field used for the beautiful
1989 movie Field of Dreams.
On the other end of most of his throws was an 83-year-old guy from Cuyahoga Falls
who loves to play catch almost as much as Ethan.
When Stan Sipka goes on his annual June vacation to Hilton Head, he walks down
the beach with two gloves and asks people to toss with him.
How did the guy from Ohio and the guy from Missouri wind up together on this
mystical patch of ground in the middle of Iowa’s cornfields?
It began in late January, when Stan emailed his favorite columnist and asked
whether I could put him in touch with a baseball addict he had seen on a network TV
feature story — a 43-year-old man who had vowed to play catch every day of the
year.
I tracked down Ethan, who was open to hooking up with Stan. But logistics were an
issue.
When I looked at a map and noticed that Iowa was roughly midway between them,
the light bulb lit. This field, near this tiny town in eastern Iowa, is the best place on
the face of the earth for a casual game of catch, an activity done for the simple joy of
flinging a ball and hearing the cowhide smack leather.
And so it came to be that on an absolutely perfect day for baseball — 82 and blue
— two total strangers, a man from a different time zone and a local man who is only
three years less than twice his age, stood 60 feet, 6 inches apart and had a catch.
You could have seen their smiles from outer space.
Stan loves the game so much that, although he grew up in the North High School
district, he enrolled in Hower Vocational School because North didn’t have a
baseball team and Hower did.
“My whole life revolved around baseball,” he said.
After 20 minutes of throwing, as he sat at a picnic table in the shade of a tree next to
the famous white, two-story farmhouse, Stan volunteered that playing catch “is part
of my DNA. It makes me feel good that I can still do this.”
He certainly can. For an octogenarian, he has incredible velocity and accuracy and
can snag anything thrown his way.
Stan plays an occasional game in a senior baseball league, but jokingly downplays
his ability.
“People ask me if I throw smoke,” he said. “And I say, ‘No, it’s more like a slow-
moving fog.’ ”
His wife of 60 years, Joanne, accompanied him on the long drive and was thrilled to
see how much fun he was having.
How it started
For Ethan, a freelance writer whose book America at the Seams is being sold at the
Baseball Hall of Fame, the streak began innocently enough, with a Christmas
present from his 13-year-old daughter, a ball on which she had written, “Dad, you
want to play catch?”
He decided to cash in the offer Jan. 1 — when the temperature in Springfield was 1
degree. He shot a selfie of the two bundled-up throwers and posted it online.
The next day, his older daughter asked if she could play. Afterward, she said, “Dad,
what if you played catch every day of the year?”
Next thing you know, it’s Day 206.
As the streak began to grow, and Ethan began to lean on more and more people to
keep it going, he started to question why he was doing it. “Am I just doing this for the
sake of a number?” he asked himself.
He wasn’t. “As you get to tossing the ball, you just start talking and you’re like, ‘Oh,
this is more than a number. There’s a real relationship here.’ And they’re doing this
not only to help me out but there’s a mutual joy.”
So far he has tossed in 10 states with countless partners, ranging in age from his 3-
year-old godson to 85-year-old Mary Moore, who appeared in the film A League of
Their Own, and 87-year-old Bill Virdon, who starred for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Stan’s adventures on the beach have been many, as well. The former Cuyahoga
Falls vocational teacher plays mostly with old guys — only after getting permission
from their wives, one of whom turned to her husband and said, “Where is your life
insurance policy in case I need it?” — but also with girls who play fast-pitch softball
and one little girl with Down syndrome.
In Ethan’s words, “There’s something about this simple game that brings out the
best in people, that exemplifies the best of who we can be.
“When everything on TV and in news is all about division, all about hate, all about
paranoia, all about fear, this game says, ‘There’s still some good.’ You might have to
look for it, but if you go out and play a little, you’ll find it.”
We didn’t have to look very hard on Wednesday. Everyone was of the same mind,
including 9-year-old Jack from Milwaukee, whose parents had inexplicably forgotten
to bring baseball gloves. Suddenly, he and Ethan were tossing back and forth as
the boy’s parents beamed. Another glove was loaned and soon Jack was tossing
with his dad.
On the set
The Field of Dreams looks exactly like it does in the movie. Exactly.
Feels the same, too.
It is impeccably maintained, with lush grass and laser-straight dirt cutouts.
If the field is not literally in the middle of nowhere, it’s pretty close. Dyersville is a half-
hour west of Dubuque, and the last 5 miles are gravel roads, on which the rare
passing vehicle raises a Mount St. Helens-size cloud of dust.
When I arrived, I was shocked at how casual the whole thing is. There’s no charge to
park, no charge to play and nobody supervising. You just walk right onto the field.
(A well-stocked souvenir stand apparently pays the freight.)
Families and pals, almost all from out of state, wander randomly on and off the field,
taking turns on the mound, swinging a bat, long-tossing in the outfield and venturing
into the gigantic stalks of corn in search of Shoeless Joe.
During my two hours there, as many as 15 people were on the field and as few as
zero.
Ethan and his 74-year-old father, Doug, showed up at 9 a.m., two hours before our
scheduled rendezvous, for the ultimate father-son game of catch. A large family was
dominating the infield, so they headed to center field.
“The grass was still dewy,” Ethan said. “There was no traffic. Incredible quiet. The
only noises were the noises of the game, the noise of the bat, the catch of leather.
“In my mind, I was saying, ‘I don’t want to make this too big a deal. It’s my favorite
movie. I don’t want to blow this out of proportion.’ I was worried I would tear up when
I got out here.
“But it was literally just all smiles. It was like, ‘Yessssss! This is great!’ ”
It sure was. Your favorite columnist got in a few throws, too. (OK, at least 50, truth
be told.)
Ageless love
Toward the end of our visit, we looked out on the field and saw an old man walking
very, very, very slowly with a cane around the bases. Don Hull, 83, of Reedsburg,
Wis., was hunched over and unsteady but seemed to be relishing every step.
It brought a tear to my eye. A good tear, a tear like the ones most of us shed near
the end of Field of Dreams.
When Don completed his circuit, Stan walked over and introduced himself. Decades
ago, Don had been a catcher — and has the mangled fingertip to prove it.
They chatted for a while. Stan gave Don a baseball.
“This means a lot to me,” Don said.
“It makes me feel good,” Stan replied.
So simple. So powerful.
Shoeless Joe didn’t show. Neither did Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones or Burt
Lancaster.
But you could feel their magic all around you.
Stan Sipka Class of 1952