BLOOMINGTON - Hidden among a vast terrain of cornfields and silos on Bloomington's southeast side is what Brian Thede calls his "Field of Dreams."
No, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson is not roaming left field and Archie Graham is surely not winking at the pitcher, but this field certainly has the unexplainable aura and mystique of a baseball diamond resting in a cornfield.
"We've got guys playing baseball in the middle of cornfields," Thede said. "Guys are having their dreams come true getting to play baseball."
Must be heaven, right?
"It's pretty close," he said. "It's not heaven, it's not Iowa but it's what we love to do."
For the past eight years, 50 men who once played America's pastime as younger men gather at the PONY Complex every Saturday to rekindle their childhood love. Even though the men are obviously past their prime, the scent of leather and the feel of a wooden bat is something that can never be taken away.
"There's something about the 90-foot basepaths, the mound, throwing overhand and picking up the hardball," said Thede, a 47-year-old Bloomington insurance agent. "For me, that's what got me. Once I got out of college and played a number of years of softball, it took me a while to figure out what I was missing."
In 2000, the Men's Senior Adult Baseball League formed an alliance with the PONY League to provide an opportunity for anyone over the age of 18 to play baseball. With the new alliance allowing older men to play wood-bat baseball, Thede immediately jumped at the chance to continue his career.
"That got our interest," he said. "We now had a spot for guys over 18 to play hardball."
Soon, others become enamored.
"I just couldn't pass it up," said Jeff Jackson, who began playing in 2001.
The league consists of four teams with 12-13 members on each team. Games consist of nine innings and each team is guaranteed nine regular-season games and two postseason games. Rosters are distributed evenly so there is a competitive balance within the league. Also, games are played once a week to ensure these grown men do not severely hurt themselves.
"It's nice that this is a weekly game," said Jackson, 36, a State Farm systems analyst. "You have the whole week to recover. I think a lot of us need it."
The popularity of the league has grown so much that men from all over central Illinois participate in the league. Thede said guys from Springfield, Lincoln, Clinton, Decatur, Pekin and Peoria have played in the league.
"They don't have anything like this in Peoria," said Bill Lindig, who makes the 90-mile round trip from Pekin each weekend.
The players call the league a "fantasy" at a cheaper price. All members must pay $120 to participate, but each is given a cap, jersey and socks and a guarantee of 11 games.
"It kind of is an 11-week fantasy camp," Thede said. "Instead of paying thousands of dollars to go to Arizona and Florida, guys here get 11 weeks of baseball for $120. They just don't get to play with former major leaguers."
But you can't put a price on doing what you love.
"I think it's neat. It's just good to be able to play something you did as a kid," said Lindig, 44, who works at Greater Peoria Regional Airport. "A lot of people, when they reach a certain age, they gravitate toward golf or bowling, which is fine. This keeps you in a young frame of mind."
That allows the kid in you to remain.
"This is a fantasy come true," Thede said.