Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Iowa and the Ghost of Ray

Iowa and the Ghost of Ray - A short story


I’ve always been a light sleeper - even when I was a kid. That’s why, as a 6-year-old, the shadowy figure standing in my bedroom doorway at 4 a.m. didn’t frighten me one bit. I knew it was just my dad coming in to say goodbye to my brothers and me before leaving on his yearly pheasant-hunting trip to Iowa.

My brothers were sleeping, but I was wide-awake. Of course I never let my dad in on that little fact when he kissed me goodbye on the forehead. As soon as he left the room I would wait to hear his car pulling out of the driveway and wonder why he left so early. Then I would drift back to sleep and dream of Iowa.

That was nearly 40-years ago. A lot has changed in that time. My dad stopped hunting pheasant a long while back, but the memories of his trips to Iowa remain some of his fondest.

As for me, I’d never been to Iowa in my life. Never had any reason to – at least until last week when I was sent to Iowa City to photograph the Michigan versus Iowa football game.

My original plan was to take the entire family, but apparently the appeal of a 7-hour drive through cornfields wasn’t strong enough to get them on board. So I found myself alone on the morning of October 9th, packing my car full of camera gear, golf clubs and CD’s, before heading west … alone … on the very same route my father had driven childless many times before me.

Ten minutes into my drive it became crystal clear why my old man enjoyed his Iowa trips so much. The lure of the highway and the lack of noise from the backseat are powerful narcotics. With only myself as company, I stopped when I wanted, ate when I was hungry, peed when I had to pee, and sang as loud as I pleased to songs I wanted to hear.

Even though I’ve never been all that close to my father, at that moment I felt a real kinship with him as I plowed westward on I-80 through a driving rain. My fears of falling asleep at the wheel were unfounded. My mind was alive with thought the entire drive. Not even the hypnotic rhythm of the windshield wipers could put me down as I crossed the Mississippi River and entered the state of Iowa for the first time in my life.

“So this is Iowa.”

Iowa came as advertised - basically Ohio, just further west. Maybe a little hillier than I thought, and more trees for sure, but for the most part it was corn and farms - farms and corn. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I like cornfields. Corn is America’s crop - knee-high by the Fourth of July; lush and green by mid-summer; dry and brittle in the fall. I especially like it in October right before they cut it down to nubs.

On a rolling landscape, cornfields become a canvas for both man and nature. Whether they know it or not, farmers weave beautifully intricate patterns of green, yellow, crimson and brown, up and down the land. Pieced together like parts of a quilt, the beauty is there if only you open your eyes and look.

For the last two hours to Cedar Rapids I decided to turn off the music and enjoy the hum of the road mixing in with the fields of soybeans and corn.

This is our country’s homeland. Where things are their most real.

A few weeks ago when I was walking my son to school he asked me what was the most important job in the world. I had to pause and think, but I told him I thought being a farmer and a carpenter were the most important jobs, because if you can grow your own food and build your own shelter, what else do you need?

Now I was in the land of reality - a land of carpenters and farmers. I felt safe - I felt at home, but after 7 bleary-eyed hours on the road I also felt extremely tired as I pulled into Cedar Rapids at dusk. For the first time in a long time, I knew I was going to get a good night’s sleep.


After a quick shower and a bite to eat I turned on the television set in my hotel room to watch the American League playoffs. I didn’t know how long I would last, but watching baseball in Iowa seemed as perfect as the drive.

Iowa, after all, is the home state of hall of fame pitcher Bob Feller - the “Heater from Van Meter” as he came to be known after leaving his dad’s farm as a 17-year-old to pitch for the Cleveland Indians. Iowa also is where they filmed “Field of Dreams” one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, so what better place to watch a ball game than Iowa?

Sleep, as it turns out, won out over baseball by about the fourth inning of the Yankees –Twins game. There would be no light sleeping for me on this night. With the television still on, I was long gone, fast asleep with no chance of a comeback – at least so I thought.

… the ball came from down low, so low the pitcher’s knuckles seemed to scrape the mound as he let fly with his dangerous spitter.

The clock said 2 a.m. as I dragged myself out of bed to go to the bathroom. I turned off the television then stumbled through the dark to try and find the toilet. All the years of getting out of bed in the middle of the night to bring a crying baby to my wife for a feeding had left a permanent mark on my biological clock. Now it was a true rarity if I made it through the night without waking up at least once - sometimes twice.

No matter, it was always better to void my bladder than to try and go back to sleep fully loaded. Sure enough, within five minutes I was out cold once more.

… scuffed on the cover and blackened from mud, the ball sailed high and inside.

“Not again!”

I dragged myself out of bed for the second time. The clock now said 4:15, but that was Iowa time, to my body it was really an hour later.

“Geez, I gotta get a prostate test when I get back to Michigan.” I said to myself, not remembering the enormous amount of pop I drank in the car during my road trip.

My head was throbbing and I had a nasty kink in my neck. Hotel pillows never seem to agree with me, and this hotel wasn’t about to break that streak. I swam around under the sheets for the next 15-minutes trying to get comfortable, or at least find a position that might undo my kinked neck. This time, with my bladder completely empty, I knew I was due for a good, solid, three-hour chunk of uninterrupted sleep.

… it was cloudy and hot that August afternoon. The batter didn’t see the darkened, mud-covered ball coming inside on him. He never moved an inch to get out of the way when the ball exploded into the side of his skull.

Startled awake, I sat up.

“Damn!” I thought I turned off the stupid TV.”

The clock read 6:15 – the TV was off. For the third time I tried to get back to sleep.

… the ball shot back to the mound. The pitcher picked it up and threw to first thinking the ball had hit the bat judging by the loud crack it made. But there was no baserunner - he never left the batter’s box. Instead, he lay there motionless – fresh blood pouring from his ears, nose and mouth, turning the brown dirt of New York’s Polo Grounds into a bright shade of red.

“What the …? Man, I must be dreaming.”

The clock said 6:30. It was still dark outside. From the corner of the room came a soft-spoken voice.

“Go see Ray.”

For some reason I wasn’t startled. I’d had dreams like this before. I relished them - so real they stick with you a while. In the darkness, I could see the outline of an elderly man sitting in the corner.

“Go to the field.” The elderly man whispered. “Go see Ray, tell him Carl sent you.”

“This is crazy, what the hell is this, Field of Dreams part II?” I said.

“Go see Ray.” The man said again. “Tell him I’m sorry.”

… players rushed from the dugout to help the batter to his feet. A few steps later, he collapsed again - this time for good. Fourteen hours after being struck in the head by a high, inside spitball, the batter died in a New York City hospital with his pregnant wife and teammates crying at his bedside.

"Go where?” I asked.

“Tell Ray I’m sorry.” The voice said again. “Tell him I wish it were me.”

The morning light poured in through my hotel room window and finally jostled me awake for good.

“Man, what a strange dream.” I thought to myself as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and went to look out the window.

It was snowing.

"You gotta be kidding me!" I said out loud. "October 10th and it's snowing?"

I had planned on playing golf during the day since the football game wasn’t until 8 o’clock that night. In fact I was excited to add Iowa to my growing list of states where I’d played golf. But those plans now had been swept away by record low temperatures and a very unseasonable snow shower.

With roughly 10-hours to kill, I headed off to breakfast with a state map in hand to try and figure out how I was going to spend most of my day.

“Maybe I should go see Ray.” I laughed to myself as I sat down to eat. “Whoever the hell that is.”

Since my dream seemed so similar to the movie “Field of Dreams” I decided to see how far it was to the site where they actually made the film 20-years ago.

The waiter told me the movie was filmed in a town called Dyersville, and, as luck would have it, Dyersville was only a couple of clicks north of Cedar Rapids – about an hour’s drive away.

It was settled. My plan for the day was to head to Dyersville on a snowy October morning and see the site where Shoeless Joe walked out of the cornfield to play ball with his dead buddies. But before I left, I headed back to my room to check the rest of the day’s weather, grab my camera and do a little research on the site.

The weather report said the snow was expected to end before noon, so that was no problem. I also found out the site was free and open to the public through November – so that was even better.

I knew the story of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson quite well. Cut down in his prime not by tragedy, or injury, but by then baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Jackson, and seven other members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, were banned from baseball for life by Landis for supposedly fixing their World Series clash with the Cincinnati Reds that year. Shoeless Joe would never play in the majors again. Worse yet, despite having a glove that was dubbed “where triples go to die, and the third highest career batting average ever (.356), Jackson remains an outcast from the Baseball Hall of fame.

These facts I knew - what surprised me was to learn that Jackson and I had the same birthday, July 16th - albeit, 77-years apart.

Halfway to Dyersville I started thinking about the movie and how much fun it must have been to make such a cool flick about such a great game. James Earl Jones was great, Kevin Costner too, and Ray Liotta as “Shoeless” Joe was ….

“Wait a minute … what the hell?” Suddenly it began to dawn on me.

“Ray Liotta?… Shoeless Joe? … the same birthday? …go to the field? – GO SEE RAY!”

“Nah, that’s just nuts.” I said to myself thinking of my dream. “Nothing but coincidence - besides, who was the old guy in the corner?”

Before long I was pulling into Dyersville, a small farm town that seemed like every other farm town I’d driven through on the way there. When Hollywood picked up and left the town 20-years ago, they certainly didn’t leave any Hollywood behind.

The site was three miles out of town, and amazingly, it looked exactly the same as it did in the movie. There was no Hollywood magic here. The field and the house weren’t put in by special effects, the cornfields weren’t props - everything was exactly the same.

The place was open, but I had it all to myself. As I strolled out onto the field, I realized that not only did the field look the same as it did in the movie, the dimensions of the diamond actually were correct as well.

The pitching mound was truly 60-feet from home plate, the bases were 90-feet apart, and it was roughly 300 feet down the line to the cornfields in left and right - 400 or so to dead center. Instead of golf clubs, I wish I had brought with me a bat, ball and glove – even though it was only a shade above freezing.

Despite the raw temperatures and the biting wind, like all ball diamonds, it had a calming effect on me. The rustling corn stalks in the outfield, though, seemed a bit scary.

“Go see Ray.” I chuckled nervously to myself. “Well, I’m here Ray, now what?”

… she couldn’t take the grief any longer. She pulled the plug on the poison, drank it down, and then slowly drifted off to death while her daughter slept in the next room.

“What was that?”

Without knowing why, I walked toward the corn in centerfield. I had heard something - probably the wind - but if Ray was there and I was supposed to find him, the cornfield seemed as logical a place as any to start looking.

It had been a long time since I’d been in a cornfield - about as long as I could remember. But there I was, walking into the same place “Shoeless” Joe had walked out of 20-years earlier with the cameras rolling.

About 20-feet in was all I could muster. I didn’t want to chance “crossing over” into some other dimension. My wife and kids expected me to return from Iowa, not disappear in a cornfield with a bunch of dead ballplayers.

The wind was howling, but inside the cover of the cornrows it was calm – and warmer.

“Ray, are you here?” I whispered half serious. “Carl says he’s sorry.”

… the girl’s fever wouldn’t break. The measles were taking their toll. Within days she would join her mother and father in death.

Behind me the wind picked up and sent a chilly blast of stale air rustling through the corn. I turned around only to be smacked in the face by the sharp, serrated edge of a cornstalk leaf. It hit me so hard it knocked my glasses off my face.

Immediately, my eyes began to water in the cold wind as I struggled to find my lost spectacles. Through my watery-eyed, blurred vision I tried to spot them on the ground, but couldn’t.

“Crap, where did my glasses go?”

Careful not to step anywhere lest I crush my only eyewear, I bent down and gently swept the ground with my hands. They were nowhere to be found.

Thinking they may have fallen into the open neck of my coat, I slowly stood up and began to pat myself down when another gust of cold, stale air rushed down between the cornrows like a freight train. The wind gust hit me full on and nearly knocked me off my feet.

Staggering to maintain my balance, I saw something move just above my head. I squinted hard enough to make out what looked like a young man wearing a ball cap emblazoned with the letter C. The figure drifted in and out of focus as my eyes watered even more from the cold wind.

Normally I would have been scared out of my wits, but for some reason I wasn’t frightened

“Ray? … Is that you?” I asked.

The wind died down and my eyes stopped watering long enough for me to get a clearer look. Nothing was there – just me, and a bunch of dead corn.

I continued to search my body for my glasses and was relieved to find them awkwardly snagged on my coat pocket. At the very least I knew I could now safely drive my car back to Cedar Rapids.

I’d had about enough of my adventure in the corn so I put on my glasses and turned to leave, but as I spun around I noticed there were cleat marks in the soil behind me – very distinctive cleat marks. Cleat marks only made from baseball spikes.

“That’s crazy.” I thought to myself. “Who would actually wear their baseball spikes out here?”

Oddly, the cleat marks went in only one direction - toward the ball field. But the marks stopped at the last row of corn, three or four feet shy of the outfield grass - they never crossed over into the field of play.

I turned behind me to see how far back I could trace the cleat marks, but they were gone. I looked down at my feet where the last set of cleat marks had stopped ... they were gone too!

Now I was frightened.

“Ray? Is that you?”

It was dead calm.

“Okay, that’s it. I’m outta here.”

I wheeled around one last time to head for my car and leave the Field of Dreams for good, but I couldn’t move - something made me stay.

There were no more voices. I saw no more visions. But I stayed nonetheless.

I stayed and I sat in brittle rows of centerfield corn on a cold October day in Dyersville, Iowa. I stayed and I watched as light snow began to fall upon both the corn and me as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do.

Then, just as simple as that, it all came together. For one brief moment the dials in my brain all fell in line and it became crystal clear.

“Ray? … Carl? … Tell him I’m sorry? … Ray isn’t Ray Liotta!" I exclaimed. "It’s Ray Chapman!… and Carl is ... Carl Mays!”

Ray Chapman was the Cleveland Indians shortstop that was killed when he got hit in the temple by a pitched ball in 1920 ... a ball pitched by Carl Mays!

The C on the hat - the cleat marks stopping before they got to the field – “Go see Ray.” Ray was here - here in the cornfield. Ray was the one who was supposed to keep playing on the Field of Dreams - not “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.

Jackson got to play a whole other season before he was banned from the game, and even then he supposedly played minor league ball undercover. But Chapman was cut down in his prime - killed by a wild pitch at the age of 29 - he never got the chance to play again.

Ray Chapman and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson were teammates on the Indians for three years before Jackson was traded to the White Sox. The film got the wrong player - they should have picked Ray!

“RAY.” I called out.

“RAY CHAPMAN ... go play ball Ray - Carl says he’s sorry.”

Again, it was dead calm.

The brief snow shower had passed, but I was getting pretty cold, and this time I really did get up and decide to leave. I walked out from the cornrows and headed toward the infield, never looking back even though I could hear cornstalks rustling in the wind behind me.

“Go and play Ray.” I whispered under my breath.

“Go and play.”

... I rolled over. The clock said 7:15.

Note: Ray Chapman remains the only professional baseball player ever killed on the field. The spitball thrown by New York Yankee pitcher Carl Mays put a three-and-a-half inch depression into Chapman’s skull. Chapman’s wife Kathleen, who was pregnant with their unborn daughter at the time of his death, committed suicide by drinking poison six-years later. Their daughter also would tragically die from the measles a year after her mother's death.

Mays, who was never well liked in the majors before he killed Chapman with his fateful pitch, was hated by many afterwords – especially by Ty Cobb, who handed Mays this note after Chapman’s death ...“If it was within my power‚ I would have inscribed on Ray Chapman’s tombstone these words: ‘Here lies a victim of arrogance‚ viciousness, and greed.' "

Had Chapman lived, many felt he would have been a sure bet for the Hall of Fame. Ironically, his replacement, Joe Sewell, lived to be 90 and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

As for Mays, he went on to pitch many more successful seasons after Chapman’s death. He died in 1971 at the age of 79 never fully able to live down that horrific August day in 1920 calling it “the most regrettable incident of my baseball career …I would give anything if I could undo what happened.”

Despite having more than 200 career victories and a lifetime earned run average of 2.92, Mays has been left out of the Hall of Fame, most feel because of the pitch that killed Ray Chapman.

Following Chapman's death, league rules mandated that baseballs could no longer be used in game play if they became scuffed or muddied, but wearing batting helmets (which would have saved Chapman’s life) didn’t become mandatory until 1971 - the same year Mays died.

1 comment:

  1. This was fantastic. I love a good ghost story!

    One comment on the cornfields. As a Hoosier native, I understand the beauty of the fields. As a kid I used to play in them. My favorite time of year for them is the height of summer, when the stalks are tall and green. My Dad swears that when he was a kid on the farm, he could hear the corn growing at night. I believe him.