The introduction was perfectly scripted, the ending perfectly unscripted.
The middle? Just plain perfect.
From Kevin Costner’s opening question — “Is this heaven?” — to Tim Anderson’s closing home run, a blast into the cornfield that gave the White Sox a 9-8 win over the Yankees, Thursday night’s Field of Dreams game was baseball at its finest. Fueled by gauzy memories yet filled with modern-day heroics, what happened in Dyersville, Iowa, should become a staple on the MLB calendar, even if nothing might ever top the original.
With the Winter Classic and other outdoor pond hockey games already staged in the NHL, the ball is in the NFL’s and NBA’s courts now. What can they do to match this?
The NFL has done a decent job with its longstanding Thanksgiving Day tradition of presenting a smorgasbord of games to match our groaning dinner tables, and even the annual Hall of Fame preseason game offers a nice nod to the game’s history. But if there’s a Friday Night Lights game in the offing, or even a planned Mud Bowl or Ice Bowl, I wouldn’t object. And though no one expects the NBA or WNBA to shoot at peach baskets again, a game at New York’s Rucker Park or another playground setting could speak to basketball’s heart.
Let the success of the Field of Dreams game spark their imaginations.
Who knew it could be so good? The intersection of Hollywood and sports has yielded mixed results over the years, but baseball has been the most reliable customer, it’s long history and layered themes providing plenty of potent material. Breaking out of the screen and into real life can be risky though, with devoted fans of a film that still resonates 30 years later ready to pounce should their admiration be turned into cheesy schmaltz. And yes, Thursday’s festivities were certainly extra, but the verdict here says it worked.
It worked because of the ongoing resonance of a baseball movie that isn’t really about baseball at all, but about relationships. Between a father and son, between dreams realized and unrealized, between the past and the present and what gets us from one to the other. As Costner reminded viewers during the broadcast, when he sat with both the pregame and in-game TV crews, “Field of Dreams” has no car crashes or exploding buildings, no steamy sex scenes or love triangles.
The climax is a son asking his dad if he wants “to have a catch.”
And when he does, the simple routine that has played out in so many backyards between so many fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters packs a powerful emotional punch. That human moment is amplified by what had come before it, by the setting in that Iowa cornfield, by the emergence of the Black Sox and their grateful chance to play baseball again, by the unfulfilled baseball dream of Moonlight Graham, by the deeply buried frustration of author Terence Mann.
For all of it to come together amid the cornstalks, for the layers of “if you build it, he will come” to apply not simply to Shoeless Joe Jackson, as it first appears, but to the ghost of John Kinsella, the movie more than earned its goosebumps.
So did Thursday’s game, when real-life baseball giants emerged from the cornstalks to take the field, when the towering form of Aaron Judge hit two home runs of his own and the jubilant one of Anderson capped the eight dingers in the game with the dramatic homer to end it, when throwback uniforms and present-day players combined to lift a sport that has been fighting to stay relevant for years.
We all know the problems of present-day baseball, with its analytics-fueled games won and lost by home run or strikeout, with its Rob Manfred-inspired quirks such as seven-inning doubleheaders and extra-inning base runners, with cheating by Spider Tack replacing cheating by garbage can lid, with reports it would even consider a broadcasting partnership with a toxic place such as Barstool.
No wonder baseball is in search of buzz, and even if that buzz thrums loudest with the demographic that still watches the game anyway, this is one sport that should never stop trading in its nostalgia. I was moved to remember a wonderful scene from the television series “Mad Men,” the Season 1 finale called “The Wheel.” Ad man Don Draper, struggling with his own fractured family dynamics, is trying to sell Kodak’s new slide projector wheel, and does so by channeling his own past.
“Nostalgia — it’s delicate, but potent,” says actor Jon Hamm, as Draper. “In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let’s us travel the way a child travels — around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
The pain of an old wound powered “Field of Dreams” too, with Costner’s Ray Kinsella remembering his father only as a bitter, worn-out old man. When he meets his father’s younger self, when he offers to have that catch (no issue here with that phrasing being used over the more common ‘play catch,’ especially since it makes the entire scene more memorable), the pain of that old wound is healed.
Baseball has done plenty to harm itself. But this? This was a beautiful Band-Aid. More please.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.