Kids and kids-at-heart achieve baseball bliss at Van Boekel Field of Dreams

By Ian Hunter

A baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield. It seems too good to be true for any devout baseball fan.

It’s no dream, because there’s a true gem on a baseball diamond in Bright, Ontario.

The Van Boekel family are the proud owners of their own “Field of Dreams”. Mike Van Boekel took a leap of faith in 2011 and converted an acre of his cornfield into a baseball diamond, complete with an outfield fence, backstop, bleachers and a “Field of Dreams” sign.

It's just like the true-life field in Dyersville, Iowa, only the field dimensions are a little smaller. MLB’s “Field of Dreams” game was postponed until 2021, but the Van Boekels were busy as ever this summer, hosting baseball camps for local kids in July and August.

They just wrapped up their second year of youth baseball camps, convened by Mike's son, Greg Van Boekel, and Greg's friend and teammate, Payton MacDonald. Over the last few years, the diamond received several large-scale upgrades, thanks in part to a $50,000 prize awarded to the town of Hickson through a Pioneer Seeds contest.

“Our seed dealer told us to do it for the ball field, and get $50,000 and really make the ball field grow,” Van Boekel said. “We didn’t think that was a good risk on $50,000 once we started pricing stuff out. So we thought: what if we came up with five different ideas, and our ball field would be one of them?”

They divided the winnings among the Field of Dreams, the Hickson firefighters, the Hickson Lions Club, Hickson Central Public School, and the Oxford County branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The Van Boekels used part of their portion to install a clay infield on the diamond. The project took place over a few weeks in May 2019. The red clay infield it not only catches the attention of passersby, but it also provides a safer and truer playing surface for the field.

In 2018, the Toronto Blue Jays came calling and were interested in hosting an event on the field. The program is called “Girls At Bat”, and the Field of Dreams became the stage for their All-Star Game, attended by 40 girls from the Jays Care Foundation’s program.

During the summer, it isn’t uncommon for Van Boekel to have strangers knock at his door or for him to gaze out the window and notice people taking photos or playing catch on the baseball diamond.

In fact, there’s a box next to the backstop that says: ‘Wanna have a catch?’ The box is filled with bats, gloves and baseballs for anyone who wants to toss the ball around like Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams”.

The baseball diamond has become a landmark, with people travelling from as far away as Vaughn to see the field for themselves. One recent attendee for the baseball camp came from Peterborough and stayed at a local campground just so they could spend the week at the Field of Dreams.

The camp attendees get to feel like true big leaguers because games come complete with a national anthem, walk-up music, and they announce every player into the game.

“They love it. Most of them just want to make sure that we’re doing it next year,” Van Boekel said. “They really seem to like it. The parents like it, especially this year, since all the camps are closed everywhere. They learn some fundamentals, but more importantly, they’re just having fun.”

The kids get to feel like adults for a few hours every day, and the parents in the stands get to channel their inner child, too. The field is a popular destination for birthday parties, wedding photos, and one couple has already inquired about having their wedding on the Field of Dreams next year.

The Van Boekels also hosted a 50th anniversary wedding vow renewal ceremony for a terminal patient whose last wish was to have his celebration on the Field of Dreams. After having his dream come true, the gentleman passed away two weeks after the ceremony.

The baseball diamond has seen tremendous upgrades over the last few years, but there are still a few items on Van Boekel’s wish list; a beer tent, and professional lighting for the field.

One day, he hopes Toronto Blue Jays players or alumni might grace the field, and he envisions Sportsnet broadcaster Buck Martinez calling the action from the bleachers. For now, the Van Boekels feel a great sense of pride in what they’ve built; a diamond for the next generation of players to enjoy.

“I always coached, and we just thought it would be a neat place for our kids to play,” Van Boekel said. “Then we thought the teams could play, and it’s developed way beyond whatever I thought I was going for. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away now.

“Some day we’ll get older, hopefully one of the kids farms and they’ll take it over. It’s almost become part of the community.”

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