Local doctor takes iconic field with baseball greats
By Leila Beem Núñez, Editor
When Dr. Jay Trussler got a phone call from an old friend asking if he wanted to make a trip to Iowa to play softball alongside the likes of Reggie Jackson and Ozzie Smith, Trussler, who played four years of collegiate baseball at UT Martin, could hardly stand to say no.
But he had to talk to his wife first.
“It was Labor Day weekend, the same weekend for the past 15 years that I’ve been helping my wife, Leslie, put on the STAR Triathlon here in Manchester. But she said, ‘Yes, you have to do it.’ She gave me a pass on the Labor Day weekend,” Trussler laughed.
With that, it was decided: Trussler would take a road trip to Dyersville, Iowa, to take part in the annual Team of Dreams event in September, a softball weekend highlighted by Major League Baseball greats and celebrities.
The event is held on the iconic baseball field of the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” in which the main character Ray Kinsella is portrayed by Kevin Costner. After being urged to by a mysterious voice cryptically saying, ‘If you build it, he will come,” Kinsella tears up a part of his cornfield to build a baseball field, and through a series of fantastical events, speaks with ghosts of baseball’s past and ultimately heals the pain of an estranged relationship with his father, in part through a shared love of baseball.
Playing on the Field of Dreams was a dream in itself, Trussler said: he was one of only 16 people who get to play on the weekend’s Fantasy Team, comprised heavily of Hall of Famers. And it would take one weekend to reignite his passion for the game he loved so long.
In the fog
After a two-day road trip with a stop in St. Louis, Mo., Trussler was ready to get on the field. Arriving in Dyersville, a town of just over 4,000, on Saturday, he and the rest of the participants took a look at their surroundings: the original farm house featured in the movie, the cornstalks from which former baseball greats like Shoeless Joe Jackson emerge in iconic scenes and the miles and miles of farmland all around.
“We just got out on the field and threw the baseball to each other, and just hung out for a while during the day,” Trussler said.
That night, after picking up their honorary uniforms, Trussler and other participants went back out to the field to take part in a softball game against the ghosts of baseball past featured in the movie.
“Out of the ghosts that were in the movie, four of them were actually in the movie. Some of them were the grandkids [of the actors],” said of the opposing team.
For Trussler, it was surreal to be in the setting of one of his favorite films. During the first softball game that night, he got a taste of the movie itself.
“Midway through the game as it was getting cooler, [the announcer] said, ‘Everybody turn around and look at the fog.’ And I’m in the outfield, and I’m turning around looking for the fog out past the corn; I didn’t realize I was standing in it,” Trussler chuckled. “It was really neat.”
Breakfast with legends
Besides getting to play in another game reserved for those who paid to participate, the proceeds of which go to the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity organization for veterans, Trussler said something else made the weekend special: breakfast.
At the historic Hotel Julien where Trussler was staying in Dubuque, Iowa, VIP passes got participants the chance to have breakfast with Hall of Fame baseball players and take part in a question-and-answer session with the athletes afterwards.
Trussler had a pass, and on the roster for the morning were Reggie Jackson, Wade Boggs, Ozzie Smith, Tim Raines, Frank Hurt and Rod Carew, to name a few.
“After we got to play against the ghosts, I thought I could stop right there and it was all worth it already – the road trip, getting out into a uniform to play on the Field of Dreams – it was amazing. I said, ‘I’m done, I’m happy.’ And then I got to meet Reggie Jackson,” Trussler said.
The athletes shared tales of the game, like that of then-New York Yankee Reggie Jackson’s three home runs hit off three consecutive pitches from three different pitchers during Game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. But they also shared stories of their personal lives. Trussler remembered former infielder and coach Carew’s story of triumph over numerous health issues, from brain surgery to a recent heart transplant – made possible by the heart of the late Baltimore Ravens football player Konrad Reuland, who had been a lifelong fan of Carew and had shared with him the jersey number 29.
“[The experience] was also just getting to hang out with these people and realizing they’re just people. They’re amazing people, but everybody’s amazing in their own way,” Trussler said. “And that movie was amazing. It was about believing in your dreams and following through, and hearing people who did that and getting to be a small part of that was just surreal.”
The next day, it was time to play ball. This softball game was the main event, the open-to-the-public game between the Fantasy Team and the Celebrity Team, which this year included besides some former baseball greats actor Charlie Sheen.
“It’s the big deal in Dyersville,” Trussler said. “We’ve got Bonnaroo, they’ve got that weekend when everyone comes out.”
And everyone did come out, Trussler said. Five thousand in the stands, to be exact. The atmosphere was festive, with the crowd singing “Sweet Caroline,” led by Boggs.
“I’ve played in state championships, won two state championships in summer league ball, played in the [college] World Series, played college baseball, beat Vanderbilt. I’ve played against Ole Miss and the UT Vols,” Trussler said of his baseball experience. “But I’ve never, never played in front of 5,000.”
People from far and wide came to watch the game and mingle with participating celebrities on hand to sign autographs, like Olympic gold-medalist and former USA women’s team goalie Hope Solo. And this year, as part of the 30th anniversary of another baseball film classic, “Major League,” actors Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger.
“Even [Hall of Famer] Wade Boggs was star-struck with Charlie Sheen,” Trussler said.
Soon, it was time to start, and the day’s players all made their way around the edge of the field, through a trail cut in the corn to take the field from the back, as names were announced one by one.
Trussler recalled the start of the game. Hope Solo hit a line drive up the middle for a single. Up came Wade Boggs to hit the to Trussler’s friend, Scott, who threw it to legendary shortstop Ozzie Smith, who threw it to Hall of Fame outfielder Tim Raines at first to get the double play.
“I said to my buddy, do you realize you turned a double play with Ozzie Smith and Tim Raines to get out a gold medalist and Wade Boggs, with Charlie Sheen pitching? I said, you can die happy now,” Trussler joked.
Later in the game, it was Trussler’s chance to make a mark, pitching one inning to relieve former pitcher Jack Morris, and giving up no runs or hits. Trussler described the feeling of being a part of the game.
“When you get up to bat and you look and it’s Charlie Sheen pitching to you, it’s weird,” Trussler said. “I’m in the batter’s box getting ready and I step in and look and see Charlie Sheen. I remember thinking, this is unbelievable. I had no words.”
A fire reignited
Back in Manchester, the words are still hard to find. Trussler had stopped watching baseball regularly after his time playing in college. Though fun, the sport he’d grown up playing wore him down through the years as a pre-med student, when his team would play 56 games in 70 days, he said.
“I did not watch a single game on TV until this past year when the Cubs won the World Series, never watched one. I knew it was history, and it brought back some of that love for the game,” Trussler said. “I’d been to half a dozen baseball games over the past ten years, but I couldn’t tell you a starting lineup. My love for the game had definitely faded, but that weekend can make you love it again and remember why you love it.”
Spending time with baseball greats he’d grown up watching and hearing about, like Ozzie Smith and his famous backflips, was an invaluable experience.
“Seeing these icons, seeing these gods of baseball, and then seeing them as humans just like the rest of us,” Trussler said. “It was really cool to interact with them and realize that they have the same problems. They have the same hurts and pains and loves. It just makes you feel like we’re all on the same team in this world.”