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Tom Mietzel talks about why the Field of Dreams MLB game was so important to his wife who passed away.

Des Moines Register

DYERSVILLE, Ia. — As Tom Mietzel walks across the gravel behind home plate of the “Field of Dreams” movie site and looks off into left field, he can’t help but think of his late wife, Denise Stillman.

Less than half a mile away from where he’s standing is a specially constructed, 8,000-seat ballpark. The site is off-limits to fans, and even to Mietzel, who runs the company that is in charge of the property.

If the CEO of Go The Distance wants to venture over, he must receive special permission from Major League Baseball, which is limiting foot traffic until next year’s game there. So, this spot behind home plate is about as close as he usually gets.

But even from this distance, and with rows of corn and other fans standing in front of him playing on the famous field, Mietzel can see plenty of the new park. 

“She would have loved it,” Mietzel said of Stillman.

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And she certainly would have. The former owner of the Field of Dreams movie site spent years pushing for an MLB game to come to Iowa. Her dream will become a reality … at some point. The Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals were supposed to be playing at the new park on Thursday. But the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back MLB’s plans for a game in Dyersville until sometime in 2021.

Whenever that day comes, it will be because of Stillman’s dream, which was carried on by her friends, family and coworkers after she died of liver cancer in 2018.

“I take pride in the fact that we’re the ones that are able to see this through for her,” said Roman Weinberg, the director of operations for Go The Distance. “I know she’d be happy about it.”

The dream

A posterboard Mietzel keeps on a cabinet in his office is a daily reminder of Stillman and her dream. It illustrates Stillman’s passion for what she called All-Star Ballpark Heaven, a softball and baseball complex at the Field of Dreams site that could host youth tournaments. The plans, put together last year, after her death, include youth parks.

Another one of Stillman’s hopes is realized just beyond the site of the movie diamond’s left field: The ballfield where the MLB game was to be played. 

“She knew if she could get MLB to come in and play a game, it would do a number of things,” Mietzel said.

Stillman, who started Go The Distance, hoped an MLB game could add some credibility for her project and add some much-needed light on the site. Mietzel said Stillman even called MLB to pitch a plan. Stillman wasn’t the only one interested in a game being played in the Iowa town.

In fact, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who was getting games organized to play at various unique sites like Fort Bragg, North Carolina, had Marla Miller, MLB’s senior vice president of special events, get in touch with Stillman about possibly playing there. Manfred, who visited the site in 2016 for a 25th anniversary celebration, was adamant about bringing baseball to Dyersville. 

“He always had it in his mind that we would be able to go back there,” Miller said. 

Getting it done wasn’t easy, though. The plan was put on the backburner when Stillman became embroiled in a lawsuit with a group of neighboring property owners, who argued that the movie site had been improperly rezoned by Dyersville from agricultural to commercial ground in a deal to make way for her plans. And by the time the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the process in 2016, the damage had been done. Meitzel said some of the project’s investors were no longer all-in.

Then, in April of 2017, Stillman was diagnosed with hepatic endothelial hemangioendothelioma, a rare vascular liver tumor. She was given less than a year to live. With the time Stillman had left, she kept plugging away at the project.

In 2018, she called Miller to update MLB on their legal victory and to let them know she was still interested. Stillman didn’t tell Miller she was near death.

Instead, she forged away on the project until she died on Nov. 7, 2018. 

“It was one of the last things she was working on,” Mietzel said. “Some of the last emails she did was to MLB. So, it was on her mind right until the end.”

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The dream come true

Mietzel made sure Stillman’s wish of an MLB game would become a reality. When he took over Go The Distance, he made it his top goal. 

“I promised her when she was dying that I would take over for her,” Mietzel said. 

He’s followed through.

In 2018, talks with MLB heated up. That winter, Mietzel showed a group of representatives from MLB around the site. They tested the soil to make sure they could dig deep enough into the ground to create a field that would meet MLB’s regulations.

Mietzel helped negotiate a deal — part of which took place at the table inside the farmhouse — which called for the game to be played on a field separate from the iconic movie diamond. Miller said MLB had discussed possibly playing on the movie site. But there would be too many adjustments and Stillman had made it clear before her death that she wasn’t on board with that approach. 

“She got very, very concerned we would lose the magic of the original field, and she was right, so that’s why we started looking at adjacent land to the field,” Miller said. 

In February of 2019, Mietzel signed the deal with MLB. That August, MLB announced that the White Sox and New York Yankees would be playing at the temporary stadium. MLB would pay for all of the construction and even create a pathway through a cornfield taking fans to the ballpark and overlooking the famous movie location. Miller said that had it not been for Stillman’s dream and her company’s commitment to making it a reality, the game would have been unlikely to come together. 

“It’s really been her family that has tried to keep alive that dream since her passing,” Miller said. 

But the dream is on hold, again. When the pandemic hit, MLB took the Yankees out of the game and replaced them with the Cardinals.

Then earlier this month, MLB announced it was pushing the game to 2021.

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The plan is to keep the White Sox part of the game, with an opponent and a date to be announced. It doesn’t bother Mietzel, who knows the game will happen eventually. He even hopes it becomes an annual event on MLB’s calander. 

“I’ve waited this long,” Mietzel said. “I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. They said they’re coming back. So, why worry?” 

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Besides, the way Mietzel looks at it, Stillman’s dream is finally coming true. Not only is the MLB game making its way to Iowa, but so is her dream of the multiuse complex, on which Mietzel hopes to start construction next year. It’s a bittersweet accomplishment because Stillman can’t be there to see it built. 

“Part of the Field of Dreams lure is it is spiritual, in the fact that you can almost sense the souls of loved ones and people that used to be here that have played such an impact on our lives. And I sense that everyday when I get here, ” Weinberg said. “I can sense her here. And it’s reassuring and keeps us moving forward.” 

Tommy Birch, the Register’s sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He was the 2018 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at tbirch@dmreg.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.

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