Full disclosure: I'll tell you, up front, that if you don't like the 1989 classic, Field of Dreams, we can not be friends. You don't even have to like baseball, really, but you have to like Field of Dreams.
I know, I know, I know all the criticisms. The most accurate being that it's a collection of beautiful scenes but the overall storyline doesn't make sense. I mean, I get it Kevin. The story about an Iowa farmer, who may or may not be losing his mind, building a baseball field in his cornfield so the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson can come back from the dead to play baseball, only to find many more dead baseball ghosts including but not limited to his dead father, and other ghosts from around elsewhere around the country who are drawn to this magical bridge between what may or may not be heaven and earth, needs to entirely make sense to be enjoyable, Kevin. And I understand the critiques about cloaking baseball's racist past behind a misty-eyed nostalgia for an unequal time and the questionable use of the magical negro trope in James Earl Jones' character.
Are all the criticisms fair? Sure, fine, whatever Kevin.
Actually, now that I've typed that, I should probably state more strongly that we just won't get along, period. Not as acquaintances, not as someone I have familiarity with that exists in my same general region, and if you do not like Field of Dreams I'll likely disavow any connection, even beyond the famous six degrees of separation.
Do you hear me, Kevin? If you don't like Field of Dreams, we're done. Done, I tell you!
Field of Dreams
To those who do love the movie, I won't go into extensive detail on what it means to me. It's unnecessary. I don't need to. It's for the same reasons you love it, I'm sure.
It's fathers and sons. It's family. It's baseball and all the poetry and soul that comes with it. It's summer. Cornfields. Farmers. Old trucks. Apple Pie. White picket fences. It's Americana. It's history. It's tradition. It's faith.
Nah. As I sit here doing all I can to resist the urge to use corny[^3] baseball metaphors like, "it was a home run(!)" to describe the Field of Dreams game last night, I know I don't need to because if you love it and if you love baseball, you know and I know you know, y'know?
I admit, when I first heard about this game years ago, I was hesitant and more than a little disappointed they weren't playing on the actual field used in the movie. I assumed they were going to screw it up somehow. Can you blame me?
My worries multiplied when they said, rather than an exhibition, they were going to play an actual game that mattered and that they needed to play on a regulation sized baseball field. I assumed they were blowing smoke and we're going to attempt to harvest every last penny they could out of those Iowa cornfields. Even if the excuse was that they were "trying to preserve" the original house/field/set used in the film, I expected and prepared myself for the catastrophic blow to my childhood. I waited in anxious anticipation to see into just how many little pieces they could shatter my already fractured memories of growing up in small town midwestern America.
But it never came...
They did not screw it up. I'm amazed, truly amazed, they did not screw it up but they most definitely did not screw it up. I can't believe I'm saying this but I think Major League Baseball may have nailed it?
The Smartest Decisions They Made
Embrace the Corn(iness)
In the leadup to last night's setup, the cornfield was the piece that probably had me the most worried. I half expected them to plop a new MLB stadium in the middle of it with all the production staff and production crew and parking lots and imagined a boardroom of corporate VPs thinking that just because they brought the circus to the middle of nowhere in Dyersville, Iowa, and blessed them with their presence that would be enough. I was worried because the seemingly endless ocean of Iowa cornfields as far as the eye could see was so vital to the movie and that life-filled nothingness such a focal point as the place where heaven and earth spiritually intersect that it's hard to imagine the movie works without it, and the same could be said for last night's event.
Fortunately, someone in the production/design team was wise enough to understand this, and whoever that person was deserves a big bonus.
Everything with the corn worked. From the fans entering through it to get to the field to embracing the horizon beyond the transparent wall and keeping it wide-open and vast and maintaining that corn wall aesthetic as best they could while still being an actual MLB regulation field to having the players enter together from the outfield, it worked. Was it corny? Yes. Absolutely. It was the definition of corniness. But I loved it. Loved it. It wouldn't have been as successful if they didn't make the effort they did to preserve the corn(iness).
Other than the corn(iness), this was my close second concern and, from the start, it was clear they understood how much it would have ruined the production. Aside from the electronic scoreboard in left field (which they could have and should have done away with but they largely left it off the broadcast), there was noticeably little advertising. Shockingly little advertising, actually, for such a noteworthy production.
And it was great. To have one night of top-level sports and all the production value and marketing dollars that goes with it not be bombarded with a constant barrage of advertising everywhere you looked, made the experience as a viewer at home more memorable. That's not to say that baseball has to or should always be advertisement free to be "pure." Sometimes I love looking at old photos and seeing the old advertisements, of which many are a beautiful artistic creations all their own, but I think a relative lack of it made this game feel a little more special and I think it would be wise and I would encourage all leagues to take this cue. Give the kids one night. One night during your season that simply showcases the sport in as close its purest form as it can get. One night where the competition is for love of the game rather than the biggest sponsorship deal.
If they're going to keep doing this, it should stay that way. And whoever made that decision deserves a big bonus, too.
Limiting the stadium to 8,000 seats, barely the size of a popular Minor League team draw on a sold out holiday, was prudent. It easily could have let it get away from them, but they held their ambitions in check. More than that, they used the hastily setup and kindasorta ricketty old bleachers that made it feel truly small and complete.
Sure, it's every rock star's dream to perform at a massive festival that makes for great publicity photos from on stage but every spectator, including the rock star's themselves, prefer to listen in more intimate settings. Last night's stadium provided just enough of small town feel and, paired with the midwestern farm aesthetic in the middle of Dyersville, it almost felt like you were lucky enough to catch a music legend at the peak of their powers playing a small theatre.
Graphics and Aesthetic
The first step to getting a production like this right is making the physical environment work. You can't really change a physical environment much and weather, etc., could have derailed it all. But after all is done with the environment and the space, for a production to work the visual presentation and everything around it needs to play accompaniment.
The location becomes the star, and it was FOXSports job to balance and compliment the environment. As I alluded above and below in the notes, while I understand the hesitance to revisit a time in the past that has become contentious in the present, they did a great job pulling from the right elements to enhance the experience. From the use of the barnwoods and the old scoreboard, the graphics displays and the logos, to even the style of dress presented, it was enough to transport and be wistful while remaining modern and respectful.
Separate Note: The White Sox should have never abandoned that logo. I understand, at the time, it was likely too closely linked to the Black Sox scandal they were trying to leave behind, but I'll be damned if it's not the best logo that team has ever used. They should incorporate it more going forward.
The Game Itself
I almost forgot, we should probably talk about the game?
After a week of severe weather that swept through the Midwest, fans lucky enough to get tickets were lucky to have a perfect summer evening for baseball. It was humid, which causes a baseball to jump and with nothing after the Rocky Mountains to block a breeze from sweeping across the American plains, the ball was flying out of the park.
After lucking out with the weather, perhaps Major League Baseball lucked out with the scheduling. Going into last night, the White Sox were in first place and playing their best baseball since 2005. The Yankees were in playoff contention and had made a splash at the trade deadline.
Whomever above gave their blessing with all that luck, the game itself just so happened to turn into one of the best regular season baseball games I can remember.
Jose Abreu of the White Sox led off scoring with a solo homerun into the corn. The Yankees took a 3-1 lead in the top of the third. The White Sox scored six unanswered, including an Eloy Jiménez 3 run shot into the field, to take a 7-3 lead into the bottom of the fourth. The Yankees added another from a Brett Gardner solo homerun to make it 7-4 in favor of the White Sox. Scoring was quiet until two outs in the top of the ninth, when Aaron Judge sent a two run homerun to the corn off of Liam Hendriks. Hendriks then walked Joey Gallo, and Giancarlo Stanton made him pay by launching yet another into the corn to give the Yankees an 8-7 lead going into the bottom of the ninth.
After all the hype, could this Hollywood game setting have ended there? No, of course not.
The Yankees brought in Zack Britton to close it out. Britton got Danny Mendick of the White Sox to ground out, but he walked White Sox catcher, Seby Zavala, putting the tying run on first base and the potential winner at the plate.
Shortstop and fan favorite, Tim Anderson, drafted by the White Sox in the first round of the 2013 MLB draft, went up first pitch swinging and blasted a walk-off, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning for the 9-8 White Sox win in the Field of Dreams.
How to Make it Even Better?
It's possible MLB found something that could be a real winner for them and turn it into their new Summer Classic, a la the NHL's Winter Classic and it's hard to argue how to make better out of something that was so clearly successful. It's rare to see all the elements come together and last night's production was as close to perfect as I've seen in a long, long time.
They really did nail it.
As for the future, they could move this setup around into other rural areas or they could do more movie-themed location games or they could choose to make the Dyersville Field of Dreams Game an annual tradition. If they do want to continue this and make it an annual tradition, there's one thing I would highly, highly, highly suggest to Major League Baseball and I'll refer back to the first thing they did right.
Donate money, substantial money, annually to all of the farms and farmers in the surrounding area so the area around that field stays pure. Every year I tune in I want to see cornfields that stretch to the horizon. Every year, I want the line of cars coming down that two-lane road with nothing but corn around them. It has to keep that middle of nowhere vibe.
If you're going to return annually, it's vital to this particular game not to let developers and other corporate entities buy up the surrounding land/region and turn those fields into yet another ugly corporate wasteland. Do what you need to do to protect your Field of Dreams and I think you have an annual winner. If you allow or don't do enough to protect it from the infestation of fast food and strip malls and hotels around the site, I promise, you will ruin it.
It has to stay cornfields. It has to remain a sort of religious, pilgrimage site for fathers and sons and families and baseball. It has to stay God's country.
Major League Baseball and the production team at FOXSports deserves the congratulations on (finally) getting something right.
It really was a great night for baseball.
Notes & References
I mean, really, Kevin? ↩︎
I would be remiss to ignore that, while most everything worked for me, I do understand some trepidation with and/or a more than a little uncomfortability for some to cheer on or even be just okay with an entire modern production focused on the je ne sais quoi nostalgia of our illustrious days of yore when black people were not allowed to play in Major League Baseball and harkening back to a "better" time when women were not allowed to vote. I do understand and can appreciate the argument. At the same time, this movie, along with the history of baseball itself, was also a big part of people's lives and has become part of the American film canon, for better or worse. As I've grown older and wiser, I acknowledge that there were some questionable decisions made by the filmmakers, to be sure. Still, I've always felt the overarching story of magical realist fantasy is a greater reflection on fathers, sons, and faith than it is about being sentimental toward the greater societal issues.
[^3]Do you see what I did there? ↩︎
Do you also see what I did there? My tie-ins are impressive, I know. ↩︎