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MLB Likes What It Sees When It Looks Backward

DYERSVILLE, IOWA - AUGUST 12: Members of the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees take the field prior to a game at the Field of Dreams on August 12, 2021 in Dyersville, Iowa. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It looked cool, and that's the important thing, right? Because this was a product, for television. Sure, MLB pitched the Field of Dreams Game as a celebration of the sport's past, and a formal embrace of the movie and the highly specific slice of Americana it represents, and a historic first game played in Iowa, and it was all of those things to one extent or other, but mostly it was a show. So it more than passed the test for being watchable. The corn looked cool, the home runs into the corn looked cool, the wooden scoreboard was great, the sunset was beautiful, Tom Verducci's Untouchables-ass outfit was ... something, the old-timey uniforms were snazzy though marred with giant Nike swooshes, the massive insurance ads behind home plate were awful—MLB will never, ever let you forget that for all the romanticism, they're in this to make money—but on the whole, it was a sumptuous little piece of televised baseball.

A little too much Kevin Costner for my taste, but the players emerging from the corn was neat:

The game itself didn't disappoint, and if it felt like an exhibition at times or a sideshow in service of its backdrop, it exhibited exactly the players and personalities worth showing off. Each team put four balls into the corn, including home runs from Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez (Hi mom!), and a walk-off from Tim Anderson after the Yankees scored four in the top of the ninth to ever-so-briefly take the lead.

See? Cool. MLB was obviously pleased with the event (and mostly pleased with itself, which arguably was the point of the game in the first place) and will do it again next year and perhaps in perpetuity, or at least as long they can sell it to networks and as long as the players aren't bothered too much. They mostly seemed happy with it, though the Yankees' clubhouse—a big air-conditioned tent behind the field—lost power before the game.

In short, the event felt like a success, whatever that means, but only oriented in the direction MLB intended: looking backward. The game's past is its most valuable asset, which is something of a poison pill. Field of Dreams is a celebration of a time and a place that's not today and not tomorrow. While the movie isn't really for me, I do not think it's the worst thing in the world for the sport to embrace its place in pop culture—though there is surely something uncomfortable about any sort of nostalgia for baseball's pre-integration days. An Iowa cornfield game is presented as a living relic, not a way to grow the sport. Not every event can or should be future-oriented, but for all of baseball's ongoing existential issues, appealing to the sort of person who loves Field of Dreams is not currently one of them. MLB entrenching itself among the older, whiter fans who already make up the core of its fanbase, risking it becoming even more of a niche sport than it already is, is certainly a strategy. (The only thing that felt close to contemporary or forward-looking was the valorization of a bunch of people who either made money or had their lives ruined by betting.)

So maybe once the novelty of corn wears off MLB could consider hosting stickball games in New York or Baltimore or sandlot games in Atlanta or San Pedro de Macorís. There are a lot of versions of the sport, none of them purer than any other and all of them worth being celebrated. Get creative! And don't be hidebound by flawed reflections of an imperfect past. The future of baseball depends on it.

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