Creating a new Field of Dreams

Everyone in Greenville, S.C. tips their cap to Joe, a man in their eyes who is only guilty of "playing his heart out." Gerry Melendez for ESPN

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- "If you build it, he will come."

Joshua Barrow did not hear a voice telling him to do that. He did not plow under a corn crop or kidnap a famous writer. And he is too young to be played by Kevin Costner.

But the high school sophomore and Life Scout (Troop 521) is doing something that Ray Kinsella did in the 1982 novel "Shoeless Joe" and the 1989 movie it inspired, "Field of Dreams." He is helping to revive the ghost of perhaps the greatest player not in the baseball Hall of Fame. He is creating a field of dreams for Shoeless Joe Jackson.

The diamond already lies in the shadow of the old Brandon Mill in West Greenville, and it's where Jackson himself played for the textile mill before he broke in with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1908. Joshua's ambition is more based in reality than Ray's was. While the character played by Kevin Costner in the movie was trying to "ease his pain," the 15-year-old wants to earn his Eagle Scout badge by giving something back to his community.

"I had it in the back of my mind to re-do a baseball field," says Joshua, a third baseman and catcher for Greenville Tech Charter High School. "We practice at Shoeless Joe Jackson Field, so I knew it needed help. Everytime it rained, the field was flooded."

So back in July, Joshua started a GoFundMe page to raise the money needed to get the field in proper shape. He also sent out emails and letters to media outlets and various luminaries in order to drum up support. Most of the entreaties were ignored, but he did get one note of encouragement that read, "Know that I am rooting for you in all you do." It was signed, Barack Obama.

Joshua has a two-year plan that involves a new scoreboard and new bullpens, but his immediate goal was to get the field ready for the annual vintage baseball game between the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville and the Ty Cobb Museum, 65 miles away in Royston, Georgia. The game, scheduled for Oct. 21 this year, alternates between the two fields named for their immortals, but, as Joshua wrote in his appeal, "The Shoeless Joe field is kind of an embarrassment compared to the Ty Cobb field."

Job one was to install a French drain system in left field that would absorb the water and redirect it into an adjacent creek. (Ironically, left field is also where Ray Kinsella begins his work in order to entice Shoeless Joe to return.) On a Saturday in late August, Joshua directed a work team made up of friends and fellow boy scouts to dig up the ground in foul territory, install the French drain and re-cover it with dirt and sod.

Two weeks later, Hurricane Irma came roaring into Greenville, threatening all the work that had been done. "After the storm, my dad and I went out to check the field," says Joshua. "It was dry!" And so, on the bright, beautiful morning of Oct. 21, Shoeless Joe did come.

Or rather, a cardboard cutout of him arrived -- carried into center field two hours before game time by Robert Young, the owner of a comic book store in Greenville. "I love that Josh took it upon himself to do something we adults never bothered to do," says Young. "Gives you hope for the next generation."

Soon enough, volunteers from the museum -- a wonderful shrine across the street from Fluor Field, a Fenway Park replica in Greenville -- began to arrive and set up for the ninth annual game. A special table was set up to honor Tom Perry, an avid member of the Shoeless Joes who had recently passed away. Rex Darnell, dressed in a top hat and frock coat, introduced himself as "The Judge." Joshua and his parents set up a fundraising tent selling baked goods and souvenir T-shirts that pretty much state the case for why Joe Jackson belongs in Cooperstown:


When the Georgia Peaches arrived from Royston, the Shoeless Joes were already practicing on the field. The pitcher on the mound, a historian named Mike Nola, spotted one late-arriving straggler and yelled, "We've got a ballgame to play. Let's go, let's go."

With that, Allison Jackson broke into a trot. The 22-year-old great-great-grandniece of Shoeless Joe Jackson actually lives in the apartment complex that's now part of the old mill. She was to bat leadoff, but one look at her left-handed swing and right-handed throwing arm, and you could tell she wasn't at the top of the order just for ceremony -- she could play.

After the Pitch Hitters men's chorus sang the national anthem, The Judge took his seat behind the mound to officiate the game according to rules from the 1860s. That meant underhanded pitching; a large, soft black ball; no gloves, and an out call if the ball was caught on one bounce. When runners scored, they would ring the bell behind home plate. Seven innings, not nine.

Still, it resembled a real baseball game. The Shoeless Joes were more generationally diverse than the Georgia Peaches, with players from age 10 to 70, but they rang the ball just as often. Watching the game was Allison's father, a golf pro named -- you guessed it -- Joe Jackson. He actually has a ring made from the watch that Shoeless Joe won for winning the 1917 World Series exactly a century ago. "I've never seen the field look this good," said this Joe. "It really is a great day for him, for all of our family. Him not getting into the Hall of Fame -- it was almost a blessing in disguise. There are guys in Cooperstown people never heard of."

Trailing 6-4 in the bottom of the 5th, the Joes rallied to take a 7-6 lead. They added two more in the bottom of the the 6th, thanks to a bomb hit by Jason Flach, a baseball coach and former minor league pitcher. (He is also Allison Jackson's boyfriend, so if you're looking for another connection between this field of dreams and that one, here it is: Jason is from Iowa.)

The game ended in a 9-6 victory, and the two teams shook hands, then took a break before playing a just-for-fun second game. Allison, who went 2-for-3 and made some nice plays, strolled over to Joshua's tent. "I'm Allison," she said to Joshua. "My grandma tells me your pumpkin bread is delicious, so I'd like to buy one. But I also want to tell you how much I appreciate what you're doing for this field. Thank you."

Joshua still has a ways to go. Those bullpens and the scoreboard will cost time and money. But word is spreading, and so is the appreciation. And he can draw inspiration from what the voice told Ray Kinsella at Fenway Park.

"Go the distance."