Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 12, 2021

They Built It, So We Came

There are plenty of folks, both professional critics and individual moviegoers, who don’t much care for “Field of Dreams,” the 1989 film led by Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan and James Earl Jones.   At the time of its release, Variety gave the movie a mixed review because of its “shameless sentimentality,” and Peter Travers savaged it in Rolling Stone.  The review aggregating website Metacritic didn’t exist in 1989, but its later compilation of opinions gives “Field of Dreams” a score of 57, which might best be described with the single word “meh.” 

But as is often the case, the prevailing view of the public was markedly different.  The little movie, made on a budget of less than $15 million, was originally released by Universal in April 1989 to a grand total of just four screens.  In the years since, cast members have revealed that prior to that inauspicious start they feared their work was destined to go straight to video.  But four became forty, then four hundred as April turned to June, and then summer became fall.  Eventually “Field of Dreams” was being shown on 1,800 screens and ran in movie houses until December.  Three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, followed.

In the three decades since, the movie has become part of American culture.  Four years ago, “Field of Dreams” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  It’s reliably found high on any list, and there are multitudes of them, of best baseball movies or top sports films.  Yet there is no shortage of dissenting opinion online, with a lot of the negative views coming in recent years.  Part of that is no doubt calculated.  Contrariness generates clicks, an action unknown in 1989 but which is now accorded a value even greater than bitcoin.  But even if there were no internet, a movie like “Field of Dreams” is not well suited for an era in which cynicism rules.  The snide remark or caustic putdown that was once barely tolerated is now often celebrated, and the purpose of many current debates is not enlightenment but “owning” one’s opponent.  First-time viewers living in such an environment might well dismiss the film as a “gooey fable,” just as Peter Travers did in Rolling Stone all those years ago.

Yet on Thursday evening the White Sox and Yankees emerged from that famous Iowa cornfield onto the outfield of a big league diamond built by Major League Baseball for more than half what it cost to make the film, right next door to the original movie set, which still attracts more than 100,000 visitors in a non-pandemic year.  MLB’s Field of Dreams Game arrived a year late, thanks to COVID-19, but it did arrive at last, and even before Kevin Costner had finished greeting the players from both teams as they lined up on the basepaths for introductions, commissioner Rob Manfred had committed to returning to Iowa next season.  That may have been inevitable – it’s hard to imagine MLB spending $8 million to construct an 8,000-seat stadium for one night only – but the commitment validates the concept of taking the highest level of the Great Game to this unique spot in Dyersville Iowa, which unlike so much of what Manfred and MLB have done in recent years, was a home run from the start.

It was a brilliant move mainly because Manfred and the billionaire owners he works for badly need to attach themselves to the spirit of “Field of Dreams.”  This is a union that benefits the real-life professional sport far more than the decades-old fantasy film or the tourist attraction that is still going strong.  For the Great Game, as it is always called in this space, earned that honorific not through gimcrack ideas like starting extra innings with a runner on second, or by squeezing fans for every penny by rolling out $135 throwback jerseys a week before Thursday’s contest, or by viewing players – who are the reason we fans part with our hard-earned dollars to buy tickets or streaming subscriptions – as enemies to be owned in upcoming labor negotiations.  Rather baseball earned its place in America long, long ago by the twin virtues of simplicity and constancy.  Yes, the formal rules of the sport are complicated.  But few things in life are simpler than a father and daughter having a catch.  And yes, much about the sport has changed since Babe Ruth was America’s hero.  But the bases are still ninety feet apart and the short porch in Yankee Stadium’s right field still beckons every left-handed hitter.

The Great Game has never been perfect.  Decades of purposeful segregation will forever ensure the truth of that statement.  But neither are any of us.  Perhaps in the less socially important recesses of that imperfection lies the sport’s timeless attraction, for unlike so many of our games, success in baseball, as is often the case in life, is achieved not outright by batting 1.000, but though managing failure by batting .333.  Whatever the reason, the Great Game’s hold remains.  As does the film’s, which builds not to a climactic contest, as is usually the case in sports movies, but rather to a quiet lesson about redemption and healing. 

That hopeful notion may be out of fashion, but its spirit, like baseball’s, endures.  As Terrence Mann (Jones) says to Ray Kinsella (Costner), in “Field of Dreams,” “People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

So they did on Thursday, to a ballfield in a cornfield in Iowa.  Still, some readers will dismiss the words of that famous soliloquy as hopelessly sappy.  But that’s okay.  After all, there were characters in the movie who couldn’t see the ghosts.

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