DYERSVILLE, Iowa -- On the field in the farm where an iconic baseball movie was once shot and where fans young and old now flock, a little boy stood at home plate, bat in hand, and was given an instruction one doesn't hear often.
"Hey Brendan," his coach yelled from the mound, "don't hit the Commissioner!"
This sunswept Thursday afternoon, this idyllic and simple setting forever known as the "Field of Dreams," made it possible that one of baseball's smallest fans was very much in striking distance of its most powerful. And that was the overarching point of these proceedings. There were some heavy hitters on hand to announce "We Are Baseball" -- a multiyear North American tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame -- including Commissioner Rob Manfred, Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz and Iowa governor Terry Branstad. But there were also assorted area Little Leaguers gathered here.
And at times, it was difficult to distinguish which ones were the kids and which ones were the adults.
"I have to tell you, I've been excited about this visit all week," said Manfred, who became the first Commissioner to visit the famous farm. "I watched the movie's 25th anniversary special on MLB Network, and then I watched the movie for probably the 25th time."
For many, the movie represents the soul of the sport. Fathers and sons. Games of catch. Innocence. Magic. Wonder.
So for first-time visitors like Manfred and Smoltz, the field represents not just a movie set where Kevin Costner once went to work but a larger sense of baseball as religion, with this cornfield serving as a shrine.
"The movie," Smoltz said, "depicted so much of what our sport is about."
When you make the turn off Lansing Road and approach the Dubuque County attraction, you'll find a souvenir stand, sure. This is America, after all. But that small shack, set aside from the field and the adjacent white house, is the only truly tangible sign that this is a tourist trap. There is no pretense here, just a field of dirt and grass that invites its visitors to enjoy, as James Earl Jones' character famously states in the film, "all that was once good and could be again."
On this day, none other than Vin Scully voiced Jones' famous monologue, his prerecorded pipes carrying added depth and dimension in the Iowa air. His words were set to a highlight reel that served to celebrate the sport and promote "We Are Baseball," which will open 90 miles away in Davenport on July 3 and eventually visit every Major League city.
Tour stops are scheduled for July 3-10 at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport; July 15-31 at Miller Park in Milwaukee; Aug. 5-21 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City; Aug. 26-Sept. 11 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis; Sept. 16-29 at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.; and Oct. 7-23 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
"The idea," Manfred said, "of taking another baseball shrine, Cooperstown, and making it mobile so that people around the country have a more realistic opportunity to share in the experience is a great idea."
And Manfred felt much the same about the idea of announcing the tour here. That's why he took great interest, upon arrival, in his tour of the house, taking in the view of the field from the same bay window from which the young girl in the movie first spotted a fictional "Shoeless" Joe Jackson appearing from out of the corn stalks.
But beyond the tour, Manfred, who launched the "Play Ball" initiative as one of his first orders of business as active Commish, took particular interest in the Little Leaguers assembled. Before and after taking part in a Town Hall Q&A moderated by MLB Network's Greg Amsinger, the Commissioner spent some time with those kids, fielding their questions (they booed him when he told them he grew up a Yankee fan) and signing autographs for every kid who asked.
"Baseball's always been generational," Manfred said. "I think the most important and most fundamental obligation for those of us who are fortunate enough to work in the game is to make sure the game is passed on to the next generation the same way it was passed on to us. It's a different world out there. There are a lot more entertainment and sports alternatives. And I think the Play Ball initiative is our recognition that we have to work hard to make sure baseball stays as popular as it is today."
It's certainly popular here. Before the Q&A, Smoltz, having ditched the modern glove he brought to Iowa for a tiny, old-timey glove handed to him by an attendee, threw a ceremonial first pitch that was caught by 14-year-old Mitchell Brant, who was wearing his Dyersville Flyers uniform.
"Baseball is pretty much my life," young Brant said, still beaming about the now-autographed ball in his possession. "Some people go to the ends of the earth to catch a pitch thrown by a Hall of Famer. I'm pretty lucky."
The Hall of Fame Tour serves a similar purpose, bringing the goosebumps associated with a visit to Cooperstown to audiences that might not otherwise get to experience them. It was telling that, when Amsinger asked any of those in the assembled audience who hadn't been to that baseball mecca in central New York to raise their hand, the majority did so.
"Cooperstown's not easy to get to, even for people who live in New York," Manfred joked.
Growing up in small-town Rome, N.Y., Manfred had the privilege of making many day trips to Cooperstown as a kid. But he had never been to Iowa, let alone the Field of Dreams.
"This is one of the few baseball locations that I've always wanted to visit that I haven't had the opportunity to visit," he said. "This reminds me of home. Somebody was saying it's too bad you're here when the corn isn't up yet. I said, 'Trust me, I've seen plenty of corn. I know what it looks like.' This is really a beautiful part of the country."
It's a place Governor Branstad is obviously proud of, and his memory of the time he played on the field as part of an exhibition featuring former big leaguers and actors from the movie speaks to the childlike wonder the site evokes.
"I got hit by a pitch, and I ended up getting all around the bases and scored on a drag bunt by Jimmy Piersall," Branstad said. "I was going on a trade mission to Russia, and I had my picture taken. I have the picture, and you can still see the laces of the ball on my elbow two days later in Moscow."
Once you set foot on the field, one can't help but feel the urge to play ball, which is why Manfred didn't mind it much when some of the kids bailed on the Q&A to go have a catch in the outfield grass.
"It is a higher calling," Manfred said with a smile. "A higher calling."
Manfred himself heeded the call. He and other members of his traveling party had their departure pushed back a bit so that they could play catch and swing the bat under the Iowa sun.
The chartered flight back to New York could wait. They were in baseball heaven.