The plot likely is familiar to those who haven’t seen the film: An Iowa farmer with daddy issues, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), begins to take orders from the voices he hears in his cornfield (as one does), and within the film’s first 15 minutes he has plowed away his livelihood-maintaining crops to create a professional-grade baseball field — complete with towering light stanchions — that is soon being used as a practice field used by the suddenly reincarnated 1919 Chicago White Sox.
This proves financially ruinous — ripping out your corn so scandal-plagued ghosts can play baseball will do that — yet that doesn’t stop Ray from traveling to Boston to seek out a reclusive author (James Earl Jones) and then to Minnesota to find a ballplayer (Burt Lancaster, in his final film role) who turns out to be long dead. They all return to the titular field, which is about to be foreclosed upon by Ray’s mildly evil brother-in-law, but the magic of baseball saves the day and repairs Ray’s relationship with his father, who also is long dead.
Or something like that. It’s all utter emerald-chessboard hokum, but the film’s total and complete commitment to its nonsense makes it kind of endearing in a way. Less endearing are the nits to be picked, namely the historically inaccurate portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson (a left-handed-hitting outfielder from South Carolina) by Ray Liotta (a right-handed-hitting actor from Newark). And apparently, the Black ballplayers of that era were sent to a different cornfield, because there are none in the film.
The film was released in 1989, during the imperial era of Hollywood baseball movies: “Bull Durham” (also starring Costner), “Eight Men Out” (also involving the Black Sox), “Major League” and “Field of Dreams” came out within 11 months of one another, and all except “Eight Men Out” were profitable at the box office. Baseball didn’t need saving then: TV ratings for that year’s World Series dipped to a record-low average of 16.4, yes, but mainly because the series between the Giants and Athletics went on a 12-day hiatus because of the Loma Prieta earthquake. They would rebound the next year.
Major League Baseball would kill for a 16.4 rating these days; that’s more than double the 8.1 garnered by the 2019 World Series, the last one to cap a season uninterrupted by a pandemic (last year’s World Series averaged a 5.2 rating, but we’ll throw that one out). And so we have Thursday night’s “Field of Dreams” game between the Yankees and White Sox, which will be played not on the Iowa field where the movie was filmed — it still exists as a tourist attraction — but on one nearby that was built to MLB specifications.
The game originally was scheduled for last year but was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the shortened 2020 season was only one of many minor tragedies to befall the sport. The league finally cracked down on pitchers using sticky material to doctor the ball, which led to historic ineptitude at the plate and, after the umpires started checking, to the televised sight of pitchers taking down their pants in mock indignity. TV ratings for the All-Star Game improved but almost imperceptibly so, and they were the second-lowest of all-time. Most minor league players continue to live at or below the poverty line despite an MLB attempt to restructure the lower leagues. Baseball’s viewership demographics keep trending older and older. The White Sox hired dinosaur Tony La Russa to be their manager again, and he complains about everything.
Baseball, in other words, doesn’t seem to be having much fun these days, and the “Field of Dreams” game is meant to combat this. But here’s the thing: Playing baseball amid a cornfield certainly is fun, but the movie that prompted this fun is anything but.
“Field of Dreams,” the movie, is oppressively serious. Costner’s character goes about his vision quest with the humorless air that all true believers have. Terrence Mann, the author played by Jones, is an unpleasant grouch for much of the film (in the novel upon which the film is based, Ray sets out to find “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger, who threatened legal action if his likeness was used in the movie). Kinsella’s wife, played by Amy Madigan, has kind of a manic pleasantness about her, but she also tries to sell the family farm to her brother (Timothy Busfield, twirling his beard) while her husband is on the road. A scene about banning books at the local school serves merely as a way to move the plot forward. The Kinsellas’s daughter almost dies choking on a hot dog. Liotta barely smiles.
Nonetheless, audiences and critics mostly loved it, the movie did pretty good business at the box office and it garnered three Oscar nominations, including one for best picture (it lost to “Driving Miss Daisy”). And apparently, “Field of Dreams” still resonates enough to garner an official nod from MLB in its time of trouble, even though it’s both seriously ridiculous and ridiculously serious.