DYERSVILLE, Iowa — The genius of “Field of Dreams,” and maybe the reason the film endures, is it knows it should not make sense. Voices in the cornstalks tell a farmer to build a baseball field for ghosts. Some people can’t see it. They are rational, so they don’t get it. It’s their loss.
Major League Baseball will stage a real game here on Thursday, with the Yankees playing the Chicago White Sox, on a new field two Joey Gallo moonshots away from the original. Players will weave through the cornfield at the movie site and walk a path to their diamond. There are 8,000 seats, but none beyond the chain-link outfield walls. That’s all corn.
“I’m excited about running through the cornfields,” said Liam Hendriks, the All-Star closer for the White Sox. “Who wouldn’t be?”
A lot of people, actually, would sniff at the whole idea. When the film premiered in 1989, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers called it a “gooey fable” with an “inexcusably sappy” soliloquy by James Earl Jones near the end. The internet offers a wave of think pieces trashing the movie, most written in the last few years. With cynicism in style, that’s no surprise.
But baseball has never been pure, and that’s a major plot point in the movie. Who first shows up to play on Kevin Costner’s gleaming ball field? Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven White Sox teammates who were banned for life for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.
Losing on purpose is a ballplayer’s worst possible sin. Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, offers redemption. It’s not just the overtone that’s religious, it’s right there in the dialogue; multiple characters wonder aloud if this is heaven. “Field of Dreams” is a different kind of movie, and that is why it stands apart.
“In ‘Rocky’ and ‘Hoosiers’ and ‘The Natural,’ those all have the big game at the end; we’re leading up to the big game, that’s what sports movies are about,” said Richard Roeper, The Chicago Sun-Times critic who succeeded Gene Siskel on “At the Movies” with Roger Ebert. “We don’t really get that in ‘Field of Dreams.’ This is more about the timeless nature of baseball.”
The setting on Thursday has been carefully engineered to enhance that feeling, though a few modern necessities detract from the romance just a bit. A Nike swoosh intrudes on the front of the teams’ retro-style uniforms, and the event is presented by an insurance company. There are batting cages and air-conditioned clubhouses — temporary but spacious — for the players, who won’t venture far: Both teams will fly in Thursday morning and leave Thursday night.
“It’s a pretty long list of milestones that we need to hit to stay on track to peak on Aug. 12,” said Annemarie Roe, the president of BaAM, an event management company that designed the new facility. “The perfect field, the corn at the perfect height, the time of the game with the sun in the right direction setting down, the lighting working exactly as planned — and then bringing 8,000 people plus staff onto a site that doesn’t typically have anything but a tractor rolling through.”
Of course, the inconvenience of the location is part of the charm. Driving through miles of highway bordered by cornfields, a visitor is reminded of a similar trek to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. — much hillier and windier, yes, but the sensibility is the same.
It seemed only fitting that Josh Rawitch, who starts next month as the new president of the Hall of Fame, drove here on Wednesday with his family as part of their journey from Scottsdale, Ariz., to upstate New York.
“We planned our whole trip across the country and tied it to this game so that we could be a part of it,” said Rawitch, a former executive with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“My daughter hasn’t seen the movie, and as we were driving, I was explaining it to her and I literally got choked up telling her about playing catch with your dad at the end. And I kind of laughed — like, I can’t believe I’m getting choked up talking about this — but something about this pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams, it connects you with previous generations. That’s what the movie intended to do. It wasn’t just Ray Kinsella and his dad, it was generations of baseball. That’s what Cooperstown does, too.”
Dwier Brown, the actor who played Ray Kinsella’s father, lost his own father a month before filming began in 1988, giving extra emotional heft to the role. When the movie was finished, Brown found himself and his co-stars weeping as they watched the screening for the cast.
Yet for all of its emotional punch, the film — based on the novel “Shoeless Joe,” by W.P. Kinsella — was no sure hit. Initially, Brown said, there were fears it would go directly to video.
“Universal released it, I think, on four screens across the country — four screens, which tells you how much they cared about it,” Brown said. “It just spread, and suddenly it was in 20 theaters, and then it ended up in 1,800 theaters. For a $14.5 million budgeted movie, that was pretty spectacular.
“But anybody who tells you they knew it was going to have this kind of effect, I think, is lying to you. We did it because the script was so beautiful and pure in a way that you knew that it’s not going to be a success. I mean, there’s no sex, there’s no violence, there’s no bad language, none of the things that make a movie popular were in this script. So I don’t think any of us really had any idea.”
The studio should have known better. Nostalgia is a powerful force, in life and especially in baseball. The sport is forever fretting about its appeal to younger fans, yet somehow it keeps finding them, generation after generation. No other movie has ever captured that so poignantly.
“It holds onto the dreams of old-fashioned baseball,” the former Yankees outfielder Paul O’Neill, who wrote a memoir about his relationship with his father, said of the film. “Just the stories and the old-time players, it brings back memories of what the game used to be like. The analytics and all the numbers and all the things we talk about now, it was much simpler. It was just little kids watching baseball games.”
The film has its flaws, to be sure, and not just Ray Liotta’s portrayal of Jackson as a right-handed batter. Even in a fantasy, only white ghosts come to play on Kinsella’s field, an omission that stands out starkly now but should have been obvious then. The film’s director, Phil Alden Robinson, acknowledged this week on Sweeny Murti’s podcast that he would always regret his failure to include players from the Negro leagues among the ghosts.
At least Jones, who is Black, got to join the players as they faded into the cornfield, and his speech is the soul of the film. As corny (ahem) as the words may sound, Jones’s bold, authoritative delivery has made them into an anthem for a sport that rightly reveres its roots:
“This field, this game, it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
Maybe you don’t believe that, and that’s understandable. Not everyone can see.
But lots of people can. We always have and we always will.