It was 1989 at Bradley University. George H.W. Bush was sworn in as president in January, Janet Jackson and Phil Collins headlined the music charts and Geisert Hall was just 19 years old.
Mike Stillman, an underclassmen political science major, and Denise Mairecki, a public relations/communications major, walked over to the Blockbuster store in Campustown, where the current CVS Pharmacy stands just a baseball’s throw away from Bradley’s campus.
Mike, a native of Oak Lawn, Illinois and die-hard Chicago White Sox fan, rented the brand-new movie “Field of Dreams” to watch with Denise in his first-floor dorm room in Wyckoff Hall.
Little did they know that 32 years later, their venture into Campustown would eventually result in a baseball game that will forever be etched into Major League Baseball lore.
Years later, Mike and Denise married and had a son, John, who is now a junior on Bradley’s men’s golf team.
Baseball and golf were intertwined in John Stillman’s life from a young age. The younger Stillman and his father would play catch often and attended over 100 White Sox games. Even though John’s youth baseball career fizzled out before his freshman year of high school in favor of his golf skills, he was still drawn toward anything related to baseball.
“It was not that illustrious,” Stillman laughed, reminiscing on his baseball career. “I played travel ball those years. My mom told me to quit baseball after my 10U season and then after we went to Cooperstown, my dad told me to quit baseball.”
Stillman, who describes himself as stubborn, refused his parents’ requests for the time being but the trip to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and another trip to Minneapolis in 2010 to see the White Sox play the Twins combined to spark a dream.
“We were meeting my mom and sister in Galena, [Illinois] and stopped at the Field of Dreams because we had seen the movie together,” Stillman said. “As a father and son who love baseball, you absolutely have to do it.”
On the 50-minute drive from Dyersville, Iowa, where the “Field of Dreams” movie site lies, to Galena, Mike Stillman called a friend who mentioned that the famed grounds were for sale. While talking during their family dinner that night, Denise proposed the idea: “What if we build a Cooperstown in the Midwest?”
Denise Stillman was a business-minded person. She received her MBA from Northwestern University and worked as a hospital administrator and entrepreneur, founding the developing company Go The Distance LLC. Her initial plan at dinner never left her mind, and after meeting with the Lansing family who owned the farm featured in “Field of Dreams,” Denise’s offer to acquire the property with Go The Distance was accepted.
“She was looking to do a project where she could utilize her full background and this is what she did,” Mike said. “I was involved in Go The Distance for some time, but Denise was the key person and really put the whole vision and the whole plan together. She carried that on until, unfortunately, she passed away.”
After years of revitalizing the “Field of Dreams” site with her own dream to build a baseball mecca paying homage to the movie, Denise passed away in 2018 from a rare form of liver cancer. John and his sister, Claire, were devastated.
“We were both very, very close to my mom,” John said. “We had a wonderful relationship with her and 2018 was a very tough year. I’m lucky to have a great relationship with both my parents and it made everything in my childhood with all of this going on so much easier. She was a very positive and optimistic person.”
Denise’s passing marked the latest in a myriad of obstacles that the Stillmans encountered while working toward transforming the quaint, corn-surrounded baseball field in Iowa into a multi-purpose baseball complex.
Between the time that the Stillmans and their company acquired the “Field of Dreams” site and 2018, Denise and Mike had divorced, Dyersville residents resisted the commercial development and the field from the movie was vandalized by a truck that drove onto the hallowed grounds.
“There was a lot of resistance for the whole project and it got to a point [where] it won people over,” John said. “They were against it, but now they’re here and it was just like, ‘Holy crap, there’s an MLB game being played here.’”
“Here” was not the actual field from the 1989 film, but instead an 8,000-seat stadium more suited for the nationwide glamour that was looming. In fact, the field was set up to have nearly the exact dimensions as Comiskey Park, the former home of the White Sox.
Despite the loss of Denise, the planning, construction and logistics of the game culminated perfectly thanks to John’s late mother laying all the necessary groundwork and John’s stepdad taking oversight of the project.
“We just had to go out and execute the plan,” John said. “We had been in talks with the MLB for a while and they said they were ready to sign the papers.”
When he found out that his beloved White Sox would take on the New York Yankees in the Field of Dreams game, John felt like it was the final piece of the puzzle.
“For me, it was like ‘They better be, [“Field of Dreams”] is about the White Sox,” Stillman recalled, smiling.
On Aug. 12, 2021, the Stillman family’s biggest day arrived.
As thousands of fans, national media and some of baseball’s biggest names in recent memory descended on Dyersville, John and Mike spent the morning golfing. After the younger Stillman prevailed on the course, the two began the drive to the site which they had poured their love and attention into for the last decade.
The drive itself, according to John’s father, was enough to give them goosebumps.
“If you look at the end of the movie, you see all of the [car] lights coming into the Field of Dreams,” Mike said. “So that’s the actual road [everyone] took coming in. We’re winding through that road and you finally turn the corner and you see all this land that was always just farmland has just become a Major League Baseball event.”
Emotions began to set in on the walk to the newly constructed stadium, which took patrons through a path constructed through the iconic cornstalks that acted as the outfield fence in the original “Field of Dreams.” As John recalled, both himself and Mike cried after the first time they watched the movie together in 2009.
Twelve years later, their tears held substantially more meaning.
“I remember walking into the corn maze and they had the movie soundtrack playing,” John said. ”At that moment when you walk through the corn, it kind of just hit me and I just lost it. I started bawling just because of the movie and how this event happened all because of my mom.”
With John sitting in the third row, Mike a few rows behind him and Denise looking down from above, the Stillmans were treated to a game worthy of another movie in itself.
Dyersville, Iowa was a taste of heaven that night with perfect temperatures, wind blowing out to right center field and baseball film’s most iconic landmark visible a few hundred yards in the distance.
After controlling much of the game, the White Sox fell behind 8-7 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Desperately not wanting to see his hometown team lose on such a significant night for his family, John was a pile of nerves. But even after the years of work to fulfill their dream, the Stillmans’ effect on the game had not concluded.
“I said to everyone, ‘If we get one man on [base] and Tim Anderson is up, it’s game over,’” John explained. “I swear on my life, I said it to everyone in the section.”
“I said something similar to the guys I was with,” Mike added. “I said after [Seby Zavala] walked: ‘This is going to be a walk-off.’”
On the first pitch of his at-bat, the White Sox shortstop Anderson launched a ball, aided by the breeze whistling through the cornfields, deep into the Iowa night and over the right field fence. Fireworks ensued over the sellout crowd, which produced likely the loudest roar that Eastern Iowa has ever heard.
For the Stillmans, it felt like a Hollywood ending of their own movie; their tears turning into unbridled elation.
“Right away when Tim Anderson hit that ball, everyone knew it was gone,” John said. “It was just perfect. I mean, there’s not one thing about that night that I think that could have gotten better.”
“MLB just knocked it out of the park,” Mike remarked. “[It was] first class. I’ve been lucky to be at a lot of sporting events, including the World Series, and I would say that in terms of an event, this was only equal to The Masters. I mean, it was that well done.”
Denise was honored in a ceremony between innings for the monumental work she had done in bringing an MLB game to the Field of Dreams. John and Mike rubbed shoulders with the likes of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, former MLB sluggers David Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski and “Field of Dreams” star Dwyer Brown. With memories of Denise aflutter, it was nearly impossible for the Stillman men to focus solely on the baseball game.
“It was a wave of emotions and thoughts,” Mike said. “You’re thinking of the first day we were out there, I have pictures of that day. I think there were a lot of smiles and [happiness], but there were a lot of tears too.”
John recalled a saying from former North Carolina State basketball coach, Jim Valvano, who passed away in 1993 from cancer, where Valvano said that one knows that they’ve had a good day if they’ve laughed, cried and smiled.
“There’s not been one time where I’ve been more conflicted like, ‘Should I be sad that my mom’s not here? Should I be sad about her? Or should I just be happy?,’” John said.
By Valvano’s standards, Stillman had one of the best days of his life — a day which was the best gift that Mike and Denise Stillman could have ever given their kids.
“Unfortunately, [my mom] never saw the results but I think she would have been smiling like she always was,” John said. “The whole reason why my parents did this was for [me] and my sister. They did it for us so that we could have something in the future and I think she would have been happy that she finally got it done for my sister and I.”
But if not for that ordinary walk to the Blockbuster store in Campustown in 1989, John Stillman’s happiest day and one of Major League Baseball’s most fabled games may have never taken place.