BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
23 August 2021
ORLANDO, FL – On an idyllic summer night among the cornfields in northeast Iowa, Major League Baseball found its game.
In a season overshadowed by much hand wringing over an epidemic of no-hitters, pitchers doctoring baseballs with illegal foreign substances, of too many strikeouts and walks and not enough hits, of too frequent infield shifts, and problems with boring pace of play and length of games, the “Field of Dreams” game on Aug. 12 outside of tiny Dyersville, Iowa, showed that baseball still can be entertaining.
The wild, 9-8 slugfest between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees went back and forth until Chicago’s loquacious star, Tim Anderson, provided a Hollywood-style ending with a game-winning home run in the ninth inning. His was the eighth of the game to disappear into the cornfields beyond the outfield walls. The most-watched regular-season baseball telecast by any network since 2005 featured what the fans want (home runs) and what today’s baseball desperately yearns to provide (action).
It was a “knocked-the-ball-out-of-the-park” success worthy of the first Major League Baseball game ever played in Iowa. Everyone, from the fans, to the players, to the league, to the Fox Sports network people seemed thrilled with how it turned out. The word perfect was used frequently in post-game comments.
‘Don’t Mess with a Winning Streak’
In fact, the game was so successful that immediately afterward, baseball announced that a second “Field of Dreams” contest has been scheduled for next season: Aug. 11, between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds. There is talk of it becoming an annual event.
As Kevin Costner, who had the lead role in the Field of Dreams movie, said in a post-game news conference, “You don’t mess with a winning streak.”
Apparently, the baseball gods looked down favorably on this specially constructed field on a family farm about three miles outside of Dyersville, because the 2021 version lived up to the hype. The game gave us stunning scenery, late-inning drama, nostalgia, exciting baseball, and a Hollywood ending. It was as much an event as it was a game -- part film, part baseball, part reminiscence, and Fox’s broadcast hit the right notes on all three. Hollywood, baseball, and nostalgia always have gone well together.
Hollywood’s handprints were all over the telecast. From the dramatic entrance Costner made walking in from the cornfields, to the walk-off homer by Anderson, and everything in between – the players appearing out of the rows of cornstalks and wearing throwback uniforms, Costner’s emotional pre-game speech, and actor James Earl Jones’ pre-game voiceovers (even at age 90, Jones’ voice remains deep, soothing, and strong) – it had the feeling of a Tinseltown production.
Not that people seemed to mind. Certainly not the 7,88 fans in attendance that, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, paid anywhere from $1,220 to $3,972 for tickets. The size of the crowd, incidentally, was about twice the town’s population.
As the game’s color analyst and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz said, “I don’t think they could have scripted this game any better.”
The ‘Field of Dreams’ Story
By now, most everyone knows the movie’s heartwarming story. A farmer, Ray Kinsella (played by Costner), plows under his cornfields to build a baseball diamond on which the ghosts of eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, who were banned from major league baseball for life after being charged with throwing that year’s World Series, come to play, and magically appear out of the cornfields. During the course of the movie, Costner’s character reconnects with his late and estranged father. In a memorable final scene, father and son “have a catch” (or, “play catch,” depending on which part of the country you live in).
This endearing movie, which debuted 32 years ago, put Dyersville on the map. The farm and movie site have grown into one of Iowa’s most popular tourist destinations. And, on a picture-perfect Iowa night in mid-August 2021, this farming town of about 4,000 people became the center of baseball’s universe.
It was a special game in a special setting, on one of those country summer evenings that seem made for watching or listening to a ballgame, or sitting on a porch swing, or for catching fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some people call them), or lying on the grass and gazing up at the stars.
Yes, this was unabashedly a Made-for-TV event. The field, built to major league specifications and just a short walk from the movie site (there’s a path that takes you through cornfields, if you wish), was constructed to look like Cominskey Park in 1919, right down to the old-time, manually operated scoreboard. Special touches such as the chain-link fence and see-through windows on the outfield walls that showed the cornfields beyond added to the “out-in-the-country” atmosphere. All designed to pay tribute to the 1989 film.
This was baseball’s and Iowa’s special evening, and Fox Sports treated it as such, utilizing technology (39 cameras, multiple video drones, and Super Slo-Mo cameras) to show the contest from a different perspective, while managing to stay true to the game’s and the movie’s down-to-earth flavor.
This “Field of Dreams” game originally was to feature the White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals during the 2020 season. But, like so many other events from last year, it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Frankly, a game like this was needed, especially after the year that baseball and the country went through (and continues to) with the coronavirus.
As the late Walt Whitman wrote, baseball is “the American game. It will repair our losses, and be a blessing to us.”
‘A Breathtaking Setting’
It’s hard for major league players to become enthused about playing another game, especially one on the road (as it was for both teams) during the dog days of August. Jaded players see it as just another step in baseball’s marathon-like season. But, excited they were. Part of it had to do with the uniqueness of the game – something to break up the monotony of 162 contests—and part of it was the simple, pastoral setting. When you strip everything away, playing on this field was close to the unpretentious settings in which many of these players played as kids.
“I know there’s a bunch of guys wishing that we could stay here for a couple of nights,” Yankees’ outfielder Aaron Judge told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. “Just because it’s so peaceful — getting a chance to get out of the city, stay in the country….”
For the Yankees, even the morning’s 20-minute bus ride from the Dubuque, Iowa, airport to the ballpark was special. “Usually when you get to a new city, guys get on their phone, they’re texting, calling people, listening to music,” Judge told Kepner. “I think it’s one of the first times where people had their headphones out, and they were just glued to the windows checking out the scenery.
“It was as special and breathtaking a setting for a baseball game that I can remember being a part of, and the experience of walking out through the (corn), I mean, everything was great all day.”
Yankee manager Aaron Boone is a third-generation major leaguer. There isn’t much in baseball that he has not seen. Even he was moved by the evening. “When we walked out through the cornfields and saw the stadium, just the perfection of the night, with Kevin Costner standing out there in short center field, that’s a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Costner’s Epic Entrance
All sports attempt to create memorable introductions to their hallmark events – like the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup finals, the World Series, the NBA Championship, or the Indianapolis 500 race -- usually by assaulting our senses with excessive displays of light and sound. Most fail.
But, Costner’s entrance succeeded, partly because it took the opposite approach: a solitary man walking across a baseball diamond, a ball in hand, with only the sounds of soft violin music playing in the background.
As the 66-year-old actor appeared from the cornfields beyond the outfield walls, he walked slowly toward the infield, occasionally looking around and taking in the scene. There was no acknowledgement of the fans, like shouting “Hello, Dyersville”, or waves to the stands; just silence. He stopped in short centerfield and moments later, as if on cue, looked back toward the cornfields to see the Yankee and White Sox players emerge in their throwback uniforms. Pure Hollywood, and exquisite timing by a great actor. All that was missing was some man-made fog through which the players would enter.
The choreographed entrance was a tribute to one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, when the ghosts of players walked through the cornfield and onto the field constructed by Costner’s character.
After the two teams lined up on both sides of second base, Costner finally spoke to the fans. “Thirty years ago, on the other side of that corn, we filmed a move that stood the test of time. Tonight, thanks to the enduring impact that little movie had, it’s allowed us to come here, again, on a field that Major League Baseball made.”
Sometimes, Simple is Best
Part of what made this game so special was what it was not. There was no digital signage, no “make some noise” implorations, no cranked-up music as batters walked up to the plate or when relief pitchers entered the game, no irritating video distractions or commercials on a gigantic scoreboard with which teams try to entertain fans these days.
It was just a simple game in a simple environment in front of a small, but sold-out, crowd. It was refreshing, and baseball should give that some serious thought. We tend to forget that sometimes, simple really is better.
Nostalgia was a big part of the evening’s theme -- the faux old-time ballpark, the players’ throwback uniforms, a ballpark next to the movie site, even the retro attire of game announcers Joe Buck and Smoltz (Buck in a bow tie and rolled-up sleeves; Smoltz wearing a sweater vest and newsboy cap) -- because nostalgia is a big part of baseball, as it was the film. Baseball, after all, grew out of fields not unlike the one on which this game was played.
No other sport is as steeped in the past as baseball. It evokes memories of fathers and sons (having a catch), of one’s youth and summers, the smell of a new leather glove, and neighborhood pick-up games played until it was too dark to see.
Much of how we view Major League Baseball and players’ performances is in the context of how they compare with players and games of the past. As one writer put it, without that past, baseball is just a long Seinfeld sports show – about nothing.
Here are the words from Jones’ character in the movie: “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 and rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game; it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good.”
This “Field of Dreams” game reminded us that baseball still is good.
Future of the Game
As we mentioned, a real-life “Field of Dreams” sequel already is on the schedule.
“It’s the type of presentation that MLB should do all the time,” former Oakland A’s executive vice president Andy Dolich told Jabari Young of cnbc.com. “It shows the storytelling capabilities of baseball. Anytime you can present an event and get people’s focus from all levels, which that did, you should look to annualize it, but not overdo it.”
A few days after the announcement of a second “Field of Dreams” game in 2022, NBC revealed that it plans to make the popular film into a TV series for Peacock, the network’s TV streaming service.
Which should not have been surprising. After all, that is what Hollywood and television do. Once they find something that works, they immediately go into overkill. Seriously, did we need 10 sequels of the movie Friday the 13th? Did we really have to have 25 “James Bond” movies, or Jurassic Park III or American Psycho 2 or American Pie 2 or a Friends reunion, or all of those Fast & Furious movies?
Sequels often are no matches for their original. Put a “2” in a title, and it tends to lose something. Exhibit A: Who can forget – perhaps it’d be more accurate to say, who wants to remember – Basic Instinct 2, quite possibly one of the worst movie sequels ever?
The danger of “Field of Dreams” Game 2 is suffering the same ignoble fate as other sequels; of there being so many games that their appeal becomes stale, and “Field of Dreams” turns into “Field of Annoyance.”
The question for Major League Baseball is, how can it make this a new tradition, without it becoming stale or cheesy? Does it keep Dyersville as the permanent site for an annual game, or does it “take the show on the road?” Or, does the league embrace both and play games at multiple sites?
The “Field of Dreams” game played gloriously in Dyersville, Iowa. But, will it play at, say, Bosse Field in Evansville, IN, where some of the scenes for A League of Their Own were filmed; or Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, NY; or the Salt Lake City, Utah, diamond where the movie, The Sandlot was filmed?
Major League Baseball should learn a lesson from the National Hockey League. The NHL’s first Winter Classic, a regular-season outdoor game, in 2008 was a huge success. Every team wanted to play in one, and the NHL has had one ever year since.
But, over the years it also has added outdoor games under two additional brands: Heritage Classic and Stadium Series, leading to several outdoor contests each season. Between the three brands, the games are beginning to lose their appeal and distinctiveness.
We can only hope that the “Field of Dreams 2022” game comes close matching the original. While the first game certainly set a high bar, this is something that ought to excite baseball fans. It should be a must-watch baseball event, similar to Opening Day, the Hall of Fame induction, or the World Series opener.
But, one request, please: can we retire two lines from Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come”, and “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.” They’re getting tired and worn out from overuse – even in Iowa.
Hopefully, the game doesn’t suffer the same fate. May the “Dream” continue.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.