The dreams are alive

Ira Lacher reflects on attending the first Major League Baseball game played at the “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville. -promoted by Laura Belin

It is fashionable to bash baseball these days. One reason is more baseballs are being bashed to the exclusion of almost everything else — bunts, hit-and-runs, stolen bases, and other examples of “small ball” that cling to the hearts of purists like the stirrups extending from the bottoms of baseball uniforms’ trimmed trousers, de rigueur during my growing-up years but which have been supplanted by pants worn below the tops of high-top shoes.

For perhaps the first time since records were kept, more strikeouts will be recorded than hits, the result of hitting coaches instructing batters to swing upwards to take advantage of the momentum generated by contact with 98-mile-an-hour fastballs, thrown by an endless succession of seemingly bionic-armed pitchers.

“I can’t watch these games anymore,’’ former major-league pitcher “Goose” Gossage told USA Today in 2019. “It’s not baseball. It’s unwatchable. A lot of the strategy of the game, the beauty of the game, it’s all gone. It’s like a video game now. It’s home run derby with their [expletive] launch angle every night.’’

But last Thursday, outside Dyersville, Iowa, baseball showed why almost nothing — not avarice, not metrics, not even a deadly virus — will kill a sport that was once known as “America’s pastime” and whose death a chorus of Nostradamuses has been predicting for several generations.

The 8,000 or so spectators who scored tickets at $395 face value and upwards to witness the Field of Dreams game — all right, damn it, the Field of Dreams Game Presented by Geico — staged a long fly ball away from where the movie Field of Dreams was filmed, and the scores who were privileged, as I was, to report it will never forget the experience.

It wasn’t that the diamond (bordered by eye-high cornstalks) was expressly created for the game, or that parking access and egress went flawlessly, or that Field of Dreams star Kevin Costner was the master of ceremonies, or that the Chicago White Sox defeated the New York Yankees 9-8 on a come-from-behind walk-off home run by Tim Anderson. It was all of that. To argue with Snoopy, the game far exceeded its considerable anticipation.

Did the event gush sentimental hype, otherwise known as “schmaltz”? Of course, since the movie, and Shoeless Joe, the novel it was based on, was deep-fried in the chicken fat that originally defined the Yiddish word. The amount of schmaltz used in traditional recipes must be carefully administered: too little and the meat has no flavor; too much and it tastes overly greasy. Thursday’s event had just enough to bring forth a savory dish that whet the appetite for more. Which Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred assured would happen, but perhaps not every season.

Good move on his part. Because repeated too often, a spectacle such as the Field of Dreams Game can turn into a gimmick. Manfred said this will not happen. “When you start with good people,” the commissioner responded to my question about that risk, “you make good judgments about what you could do. It doesn’t feel gimmicky to me.”

Had all 8,000-plus attendees, plus countless support staff, plus the players and coaches of both teams seen the movie? Probably not. Could many of the Hispanic players who grew up outside the United States buy into the film, with its near-monopolistic Anglo cast? The only non-Caucasian character in the entire movie is the fictitious 1960s counter-culture author Terence Mann, portrayed by James Earl Jones, an African American. (Screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson has said he changed the character from the source novel’s J. D. Salinger because he didn’t want to risk a lawsuit from Salinger’s estate — and he wanted to see the slight-statured Costner kidnap the considerably larger Jones.)

But even that demographic wall seemed no deterrent. “I watched the movie before,” White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez, a native of the Dominican Republic, said after the game, “and never realized I could play in this ballpark. Just to be here was a good experience.” Miguel Cairo, a native Venezuelan, managing the White Sox in the absence of Tony La Russa, who was attending a funeral, called the experience an “awesome day. I am grateful to be in this place.”

The Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton, an outfielder of Puerto Rican and African American descent, whose two-run homer in the ninth put the Yankees ahead, said walking into the field, witnessing the the movie set, and viewing the corn rising over the outfield fences from the dugout “was definitely among the best experiences I’ve had in baseball. It was definitely cool to play in this stadium and have that experience.”

Back in April, when I visited the Field of Dreams movie site on a quiet, cloudy windswept morning to research an article I wrote for The Iowan magazine, I spoke with the field’s operations manager, Roman Weinberg, a Dubuque native who had visited the field as a youth. “There’s a very spiritual element to the site,” he told me, as we walked across the diamond, gazing at the light towers of the Major League field still being constructed. And that spiritualism remained. Long after Thursday’s game was over, scores of folks, who may or may not have had tickets to the ballgame, remained on the movie field, some running the bases, others playing catch, and even more just taking in the atmosphere, and the spirits.

Were they remembering times with their absent fathers, as the movie evoked? Were they thinking about the book and movie themes of second chances? Maybe. What they were not thinking about was exit velocity, or infield overshifts, or a parade of strikeouts. They were thinking about the privilege of being in a magical place, for a magical event, for a pastime in which, as Washington Post legendary baseball writer once said, time begins on the season’s opening day.

Only Boswell was wrong. The joy of baseball is that time stops. There is no clock. There is only the here and now, and the forever.

Top photo was taken by Ira Lacher in Dyersville on August 12 and is published with permission.

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