Ryan Ludwick sends one to the bleachers at Wrigley Field.  Note the ball against the blue sky in the upper left.

Ryan Ludwick sends one to the bleachers at Wrigley Field. Note the ball against the blue sky in the upper left.

I’ve never been enamored with Kevin Costner as an actor, but there were elements in the movie “Field of Dreams” that struck a definite chord with me. Once I was able to work past the miserable acting (Burt Lancaster is the notable exception … he was superb in this movie) and focus on the story, there were a couple of themes that resonated. One of them was beautifully captured by the Moonlight Graham character (Lancaster), who elegantly disposed of the “tomorrow is another day” fable. In a darkened office, he remembered his only game as a player in the major leagues. Speaking to Ray Kinsella (Costner), he said this –

“You know we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening. Back then I thought, well, there’ll be other days. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”

Sometimes tomorrow does indeed offer us a second chance, but just as often, it seems, it does not. I’ve found this phenomenon to be most common in human relationships. I could cite many examples, but I think I’ll save that topic and those illustrations for another post.

The other message in “Field of Dreams” that spoke directly to me was actually at the heart of the movie. It represents something unique, personal and irrecoverable in my experience. It is, quite simply, baseball … and it’s more than the beauty and symmetry of the game. My earliest memory of it all is from 1964, and the all-pervasive excitement in my tiny Missouri town as the St. Louis Cardinals closed in on the National League pennant. I remember hearing the radio voice of Harry Caray through the screen windows of every house I walked past as the Cards finished the season with a series against the New York Mets. When St. Louis progressed on to win the World Series that year against the detested Yankees, I was a fan for life.

Over the years too much has changed in the game to suit my tastes. I loathe the designated hitter and for that reason I have no real interest in the American League. I regret – very deeply – the movement of World Series games to prime time. There was something near perfection about a tie game late on an October afternoon, with the shadows long on the field, ninth inning heroics and the immediate sensation of euphoria or despair. The strikes, the interminable playoffs and the sacrifice of so much tradition on the altar of profit have further damaged the game in my estimation. But the confluence of memories … the game, carefree youth and vanished innocence … is a sublime combination that my generation is fortunate to have as its own. The character of Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) came close to capturing the spirit of it all at the close of Field of Dreams …

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

I’ve read Thomas Wolfe’s books and know as well as anyone that “You Can’t Go Home Again.” But sometimes the journey is worth a try. With all that in mind, I visited my Field of Dreams over this Memorial Day weekend. I spent two idyllic, glorious afternoons at the most historic ballpark in the league that still holds legitimacy with me … Wrigley Field in Chicago. Wrigley had already been in use for half a century by the mid and late 60’s, as ballparks in other cities were demolished and replaced with more “modern” facilities. Now, 40 years later, those newer parks have been converted to rubble and replaced yet again … and Wrigley – with its history, character and elegant simplicity – still stands, a monument to tradition and excellence.

The first sight of Wrigley’s immaculate turf, ivy covered walls and legendary bleachers was an electric moment, and it was humbling to think of the players who’d chased line drives into its corners, kicked up the dust in its infield and stood tall in its batter’s boxes. Rogers Hornsby, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and a long line of heroes in visiting uniforms. And there were ghosts of Cardinals past … Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Ted Simmons, Ozzie Smith and many more. The weekend in Chicago did confirm with finality that we can’t recapture the past – and it’s here that I certainly part ways with Field of Dreams. But you can, on rare occasions, come close. Such was the case for me on Memorial Day weekend of 2010.

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Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Most of my visits to Africa coincide with the timing and location of the great wildebeest migration. The wildebeest is not a particularly photogenic animal, but the migration as a physical event is one of the most awe-inspiring sights mother nature has to offer. The sheer numbers of wildebeest are astounding. I’ve heard estimates as high as 4 million but none lower than 1.5 million. It seems to me that someone should send a couple of graduate students into the game reserves with clipboards and calculators and actually count them just to get a firm and accurate number (just kidding).

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

The wildebeest do not travel alone. They are accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras, and there are usually a few adventurous gazelles on the circuit as well. Much of the appeal – certainly from the photographer’s perspective — is the dynamic level of energy and activity that are the natural by-products of the movement of such an incredible mass of living creatures. They form enormous, bawling queues on the riverbanks and in the open fields as they prepare to run the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara, Talek and Grumeti Rivers. They coalesce into a dark, staring phalanx at the sight of a cheetah … and they lock focus onto lions of any size, ready to bolt in an instant if the big cat even looks their way.

Forming a wall against the danger.

Forming a wall against the danger.

I’ve been witness to the migration in the central Serengeti, at Ndutu (southern Serengeti) and in the Maasai Mara. Each location is spectacular in its way. The great herds can usually be found in the middle of the Serengeti in the May and early June time frame as the rainy season comes to a close. The grass is green and tall in places, but it fades quickly as June wears into July. Then the monstrous aggregation of animals works its way north, arriving in the Maasai Mara in late July or early August.

On the move to greener grasses.

On the move to greener grasses.

The Maasai Mara in the months of August and September is certainly the most vibrant place on earth. The rolling hills are speckled with wildebeest and zebra, and the lions are on patrol and open for business. The Mara, during this season, certainly hosts the largest and most visible concentration of wild lions in the world. As the short rains begin in late October and early November, the migration swings south again and lands at Ndutu by February. The cycle begins anew here … nearly all the wildebeest in the region are born at Ndutu in late January and throughout February. It all makes perfect sense. The grass is green, thick and nutritious … the mothers eat well and manufacture plenty of milk for their little ones. But Ndutu also illustrates how cruel nature can be. One lazy charge from a half-interested predator is sufficient to scatter a herd and separate mother from newborn. A young wildebeest’s life is measured in hours if it loses track of Mom … and the shores of Lake Ndutu are dotted with the carcasses of little ones who strayed too far from their mother’s protection. The sight of a baby wildebeest looking for a parent is heartrending. This past February my guide and I found a solitary young one on the beach at Lake Masek looking for its mother, but attempting to bond with anything … zebras, gazelles or even the trunk of a large tree. We sat and watched the confused animal for several minutes and it eventually ran to the shade of our land rover, clearly hoping that we’d become its adoptive parents. I was tempted to exit the vehicle and give it some much needed comfort and affection. But that interference, although well intentioned, would ultimately only prolong its misery. Toward sunset we turned back toward camp and the newborn followed our rover … we eventually lost sight of it in the dust and darkness.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

The wildebeest may number in the millions. But on an individual level, the 24/7 goal is to stay alive. And this applies to newborns as well as migratory veterans.

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