Leo High School baseball players are headed to the Field of Dreams Sunday to play in a tournament. Credit: Atavia Reed/Block Club Chicago

AUBURN GRESHAM — Derrick Davis, a sophomore at Leo High School, was catching Zs when his mother shook him awake with unexpected news: Davis and his baseball teammates were headed to Dyersville, Iowa, to play at the Field of Dreams. 

At 6 a.m. Sunday, the teammates will pack onto a bus to play in state Sen. Willie Preston’s Field of Dreams 16th District All-Star Game, said principal Shaka Rawls. They’ll also meet professional players and coaches, Rawls said. 

Preston, who lives in Auburn Gresham, “developed a strong relationship” with the school in his first several months in office, Rawls said. The newly elected official has supported back-to-school drives, food giveaways and other events hosted at the South Side campus, Rawls said. 

When Preston offered the chance for a few students to travel to the Field of Dreams — which was built for the 1989 film starring Kevin Costner and has become a tourist destination — Rawls didn’t hesitate, he said. 

“To have the opportunity to play in the Field of Dreams is beyond some of our students’ wildest dreams,” Rawls said. “It’s amazing that such a small school has such big actions. To have so many community partners pour into the work that we do here at Leo makes us able to bring experiences like this to our front doorstep.”

The players got the invitation from Preston’s office Tuesday, said baseball coach Michael Anderson. He said he’s spent the last few days getting them warmed up for the Sunday game.

Baseball players at Leo High School attend practice ahead of Sunday’s game at Field of Dreams. Credit: Atavia Reed/Block Club Chicago

The South Side baseball team had an exceptional season last year and won the Class 2A Regional title, Anderson said. The win was nearly a decade in the making. 

Anderson, a Leo High School alum, returned to his alma mater in 2010 to help coach several sports teams, he said. Seven years ago, he helped the school revive its baseball program, Anderson said.

“Students came to Leo for football, basketball or academics, but it hadn’t been a baseball school since the ‘90s,” Anderson said. “When I came back, I knew it was one of the things I wanted to be a part of. The program needed to be rebuilt.” 

Anderson had assistance from Dan McGrath, the president of Leo High School, a veteran former journalist who spent the last 13 years of his career as the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. McGrath has interviewed former Major League Baseball giants like Pete Rose, Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and Darryl Strawberry, Anderson said.

The duo got to work to “do whatever we needed to do to get these guys prepared,” Anderson said.

Baseball players at Leo High School attend practice ahead of Sunday’s game at Field of Dreams. Credit: Atavia Reed/Block Club Chicago

Leo High School doesn’t have a baseball field, Anderson said. Players practice at nearby locations like Chicago State University, Dawes Elementary School, Rainbow Beach and the Salvation Army Kroc Center, Anderson said. 

Anderson creates DIY batting cages with nets in the school’s gymnasium so students can practice, he said

“We got where we are today by shaking hands and kissing babies, almost like a politician,” Anderson said. “We had to go out and convince people we were serious about baseball. We’ve had up years and really low years, but now that we’ve got legitimate baseball players in the school and part of the culture, Leo’s future looks bright.”

Baseball players at Leo High School attend practice ahead of Sunday’s game at Field of Dreams. Credit: Atavia Reed/Block Club Chicago

For Davis, traveling to the Field of Dreams is an “exciting” opportunity that brings him one step closer to his dream of making it to the major leagues, he said.

“I’m excited to get good experience playing on the field as a sophomore,” Davis said.

Ian Dunn, a junior, was “surprised” when his parents told him he was headed to Iowa on Sunday, he said. 

“It was a happy and exciting feeling for me,” Dunn said. “I’m looking forward to the view. I have to take a lot of pictures for my parents.”

Everardo Santana, a senior, will play his last games with Leo High School this year. The Field of Dreams holds a special place in his heart because he’s watched the movie “countless times,” with his parents, he said. Playing in the Iowa heat isn’t a moment he’ll soon forget, he said. 

“Like the name of the field, it’s a dream,” Santana said. “I’m looking forward to playing with my guys. It’s going to be a fun game.”

Coach Michael Anderson practices with Leo High School students ahead of Sunday’s game at Field of Dreams. Credit: Atavia Reed/Block Club Chicago

Most of the players haven’t seen the 1989 film, Anderson said. He plans to screen it on the early Sunday ride, he said. 

He’s anticipating the moment when the players see something on the screen materialize before their eyes, Anderson said. 

“They’ll understand that something they see on the screen is not imaginary,” Anderson said. “This field is something you can touch, feel, experience and play on, and a lot of the guys that play the game, they never thought they’d have an opportunity to go out and play on it.”

Meeting the players and coaches will also “expose the kids to life beyond the neighborhood,” McGrath said. 

“It’s important that kids know we’re invested and we want them to have the same opportunities we had,” McGrath said. “Leo helped us get a good start in life, and we want the young guys coming up to have similar opportunities. By showing them there are things out there that they may not have grown up with, it’s something they can aspire to.”

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis