Ole Miss Baseball at Swayze Field (Photo from Oliver Diaz)
There is no better place in America to be for opening day in college baseball than in Mississippi.
“If you build it, they will come.” Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner’s character in the movie “Field of Dreams” hears these words whispered in his cornfields. The “it” of course, is a baseball diamond in the middle of his Iowa farmland. He builds it and long dead baseball players show up to play the game. Among those players is Kinsella’s father who plays one last game of catch with his son.
“It” could also refer to the winning baseball program that Coach Mike Bianco has built at the University of Mississippi. The Ole Miss Rebels are the defending college baseball World Series champions. And, on opening day weekend “they” come to see the Rebels play baseball.
There is only one throne in college baseball and Mississippi teams have been sitting on that throne for the past two years. Arguably, there is no better place in America to be for opening day in college baseball than in Mississippi.
Oxford is a small town, and I can easily walk from my home to Swayze Field on the Ole Miss campus. As I walk to the game, I can’t help but think of opening days of my past. About how baseball comes every year, just like the seasons. About how baseball is constant and how we find comfort in the familiar rules.
I recall riding my bike to the little league ballpark in my neighborhood where kids would meet to play on weekends and after school. We didn’t need cleats and uniforms. We played in sneakers and t-shirts. The only things we needed were a bat, a ball, and a glove.
I think back to my days as a parent when my daughter tried to play baseball but ended up hiding behind the signs in the outfield. She decided that she was a volleyball player and not a baseball player.
I think back to seasons where I was able to volunteer as a coach for my son’s little league teams. I think of the many afternoons that we spent playing catch. I think about how quickly those days went by.
I think of my father who is currently in the hospital. He didn’t have the luxury of free time to volunteer as a coach, but he always supported me and showed up at my games.
I think of how my dad sponsored little league teams long after he had any kids of his own playing. I remember the argument my dad had with little league officials who didn’t think it was appropriate to have a liquor store as a little league sponsor. My dad ended the argument by saying “just call the team Papa D’s.” He sponsored the teams without advertising his business.
As I walked along the sidewalks on the Ole Miss campus, I couldn’t help but notice that I shared the sidewalk with small white robots scurrying about. The robots roll across campus delivering food to students who order it on their phones. Novel at first, one quickly gets used to seeing these friendly machines roaming to and fro. I think of how drastically the world is changing, but I think about how baseball remains the same.
As I approached the stadium there was a chill in the air. Actually, it was cold. Too cold for baseball, especially Mississippi baseball. At 4 pm it was a late start on a Friday afternoon. I knew that when the sun went down it would be really cold. I tried to dress for the weather, but I still felt the sting in the air.
Upon entering the stadium, the familiar sights and sounds flooded my senses and immediately vanquished the concerns about the weather. The perfectly manicured field, the smell of fresh cut grass, kids running around laughing, the excitement of the crowd.
In my mind I hear the booming voice of James Earl Jones who played the writer Terrance Mann in Field of Dreams. “This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
And there they were, “the boys of summer.” Dressed in immaculate uniforms, running, throwing, and catching. Young men being boys, boys becoming men. The scoreboard constantly showing images of glory from last year’s championship. It was as if we as a crowd were all consciously willing away winter and conjuring spring.
I gave my son a ticket so that he could meet me at the game. Father and son sharing another baseball game in another season. He wanted to be there, but he had to work. He didn’t get off until 5. He said that he would be there around the third inning.
I stood in line for a hotdog. It was as if I didn’t have a choice in the matter. It felt like the right thing to do.
I found my seat and settled in. Eventually, the announcer asked everyone to stand for the playing of the national anthem. Shortly thereafter the umpire yelled “Play ball!”
I remember the quote from the great Willie Stargell. “They don’t say, ‘work ball,’ they say, ‘play ball.’”
The University of Delaware Blue Hens were in Oxford for a three-game series. The game got underway, and it quickly became apparent that Delaware was outmatched by the defending champions.
By the time my son arrived the Rebels were already ahead by six runs. We sat together, father and son, basking in the atmosphere and sharing the experience of opening day baseball. I couldn’t help but recall all of those afternoons spent playing catch. “We just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives, while they’re happening,” says Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams.
The sun began to set, and I remembered what W. P. Kinsella wrote, “A ballpark at night is more like a church than a church.”
Ole Miss continued scoring and won the first game of the series by a score of 11-2.
The next day I returned for the second game of the series. The game began at noon and the weather was perfect. It was as if we were successful in manifesting away winter and conjuring a perfect spring day for baseball. The sky was blue, the breeze was light, and the sun was bright. The smell of burgers and sausages grilling in the outfield wafted through the air. My face would be sunburned by the end of the game.
Again, the Rebels jumped out to a quick four run lead. Delaware could find no offense as Ole Miss continued to score. Mercifully, the game was called in the eighth inning when the Rebels took a ten run lead.
On Sunday, the teams returned to the field for the third and final game of the series. The game began with a special moment as Ron Bianco, the father of Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, threw out the first pitch. It turns out that Ron Bianco played college baseball at the University of Delaware in the early 1960’s.
Wearing an Ole Miss powder blue jersey and a Delaware baseball cap, Ron Bianco threw a strike over home plate to his son Mike, the Ole Miss coach. A stadium full of fans were treated to a game of catch between a father and son.
I couldn’t help but think of the final scene in the movie “Field of Dreams.” Ray Kinsella is finally able to put to rest a long-ago feud with his father and to make peace with himself by asking his father “Hey dad, wanna have a catch?” His dad responds, “I’d love that.”
I think of my father in the hospital. I think of the games of catch with my son. Just like Ray Kinsella and his father, Ron and Mike Bianco are living a real life “Field of Dreams.” I think of how baseball transcends generations and binds us together.
At the end of the film, Ray Kinsella’s father asks about the baseball diamond that Ray has built in the middle of the cornfield, “Is this heaven?”
Ray responds by asking, “Is there a heaven?” His father responds, “Oh yeah, it’s the place where dreams come true.”
Sitting next to my son on a beautiful spring afternoon, looking out over a perfectly manicured field, watching young men play as boys, the smell of fresh cut grass, the laughter of children, the excitement of the crowd, I don’t necessarily think of heaven. But I do think that this is a place where dreams come true.
Ole Miss won the final game of the series by a score of 14-4. The dreams of the Rebels and Rebel fans of another dream season are still alive. And the dreams of fathers and sons and another game of catch come flooding back to another generation of baseball fans.