James T. KeaneAugust 12, 2021
Screenshot of the movie 1989 ”Field of Dreams.”

It’s time to bust out that old glove—the one you rubbed with neatsfoot oil and wrapped a rubber band around as a kid—and make sure there’s a hanky or two nearby: “Field of Dreams” is back!

Not the 1989 movie, mind you, but a major league baseball game played on the Iowa field depicted in the movie. Only it’s not really on that field (which still exists), but on an 8,000-seat stadium constructed next to the original. And the athletes won’t be old-timers returned from the grave for a few more trots around the diamond but actual big-league players from the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees. Both teams will wear uniforms inspired by the vintage duds of a century ago, and the accoutrements—from scoreboard to scorecard—are designed to conjure up memories both of the movie and of the baseball stadiums of a century ago.

Major League Baseball stands to make a fortune off of tonight’s one-time-only spectacle, and not just from the viewing rights. The league held a raffle earlier this summer for the right to buy tickets (not for tickets, mind you, but for the right to buy them), and in the hours before game time, tickets were selling on websites like Stubhub for between $500 and $10,000.

It’s time to bust out that old glove—the one you rubbed with neatsfoot oil and wrapped a rubber band around as a kid—and make sure there’s a hanky or two nearby: “Field of Dreams” is back!

Why so much fuss over what seems to be just another game in just another park? One word: nostalgia. We have it in droves, and we want more of it.

Between the Covid-19 pandemic and scandals galore—including many in the world of sports—Americans are hankering for an experience of a simpler time. Not 1989, that is, but of the world of the athletes depicted in the film and of the literally-corny world inhabited by the film’s characters. The little things being offered—an in-person game, a grassy field, corn stalks, hot dogs and peanuts—seem just a little bigger these days.

“Field of Dreams” told the story of a middle-aged farmer who begins to receive mysterious messages about a baseball field he is to build on his corn farm in Iowa. Facing bankruptcy and ridicule for his quixotic task, protagonist Ray Kinsella does just that—and soon enough his father’s baseball hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, returns from the grave to play on the field. He’s joined by his fellow teammates from the disgraced “Black Sox,” the 1919 Chicago White Sox squad that accepted bribes to throw the World Series. The cast of characters soon includes Ray’s own father, as well as other teams and various other folks Ray is inspired to track down and invite to his field.

Why so much fuss over what seems to be just another game in just another park? One word: nostalgia. We have it in droves, and we want more of it.

Ultimately, Ray saves his farm by making the field a tourist attraction; many Americans, he is told, are disillusioned by the modern world and want instead to return to a simpler, more quaint time, when fathers and sons watched baseball together and the rhythms of the seasons marked the passage of time.

The movie was a hit, earning more than $50 million at the box office and cementing Kevin Costner’s status as an A-list actor, just two years removed from his big break in “The Untouchables.” It has been praised over the past three decades for its feel-good, true-blue American nostalgia and for its tug-on-the-heartstrings theme of the reconciliation of a father and son located within that most American of settings, a baseball field. (Meanwhile my own father professed that he “couldn’t make heads or tails of the movie,” a complaint made by more than a few writers who found the plot and characters superficial.)

“Field of Dreams” actually had its origin in a 1982 novel, Shoeless Joe, by the Canadian author W. P. Kinsella; he gained some minor notoriety because the reclusive writer the protagonist kidnaps in the novel (played in the movie by James Earl Jones as Terence Mann) is J.D. Salinger. Never one for publicity, the real-life Salinger complained to Kinsella’s lawyers that the unauthorized depiction did little to ease his pain.

Those who consider the film a bit of classic Americana would be surprised to know that the novel on which it is based is openly critical of American Christianity.

Those who consider the film a bit of classic Americana would be surprised to know that the novel on which it is based is openly critical of American Christianity. A significant theme of the novel is the aridity and sterility of Christian worship as compared to baseball, with explicit comparisons to the way baseball stadiums are the new Christian cathedrals. The novel also portrays the community in which Ray Kinsella and his family live as one made up of money-grubbing hypocrites and bigoted fundamentalist Christians. The theme is not always particularly subtle: The protagonist’s four unpleasant brothers in law, including one who wants to foreclose on the farm, are named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The movie somehow became an example of All-American family values nonetheless.

If you’re not a fan of nostalgia, tonight’s game will also bring you plenty to be cynical about. The players aren’t actually staying in Dyersville, Iowa, commuting instead from Chicago. Major League Baseball is aggressively hawking expensive souvenirs and merchandise for the game, much of it emblazoned with the slogan “When Dreams Come True!” The game will be played under lights to accommodate a prime-time television audience. And then...well, then, there’s the “apple pie hot dog.” Created by celebrity chef Guy Fieri (who else?), it is a riff on the old notion of nothing being as American as hot dogs, baseball and apple pie. All three are combined—Mom apparently being unwilling to participate—in a concoction that surely tastes as revolting as it looks.

And yet I’m excited. I realize that kids don’t care as much about baseball anymore, and I realize that almost every stadium at the major league level is a crass enterprise in the grifting of the American lower and middle classes, and I know in my heart that Kevin Costner’s truly great baseball movie was actually “Bull Durham.” I suspect that Joe Buck is probably the play-by-play guy tonight and will ruin everything. I am aware that fully 80 percent of the players in tonight’s game were born after the movie was released.

Nevertheless, play ball! Why not: It has been a tough year or two for us all, and maybe this guilty pleasure is one worthy of absolution.

The game, I mean—not the apple pie hot dog.

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