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In a thrilling Field of Dreams Game, MLB finds a simple formula for success

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So the 2021 iterations of the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees walk out of a cornfield in Iowa staged to evoke a 1989 movie wearing throwback uniforms circa 1919. And in baseball, we’re going to remember it as progress.

The Field of Dreams Game, in the works for years and delayed for one by the COVID-19 pandemic, finally went off Thursday night on the site where they filmed the famed baseball flick involving the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the protagonist’s baseball-loving father.

Kevin Costner, the movie’s star, was there and seemingly a bit awed as he emerged first from the stalks, then turned and watched the players’ made-for-TV entrance. It was intoxicating and sugary and, yes, a bit corny. But it achieved the desired effect: It had people — a lot of them — watching and talking about a regular season game on a Thursday night in August.

For a sport so often caricatured over its obsession with the past, baseball has spent the better part of a decade fretting over the future at the expense of the present.

Under the leadership of commissioner Rob Manfred, MLB has suffered frequent, debilitating bouts of self-flagellation. From the outset, this game felt like a moment of relief from that malady — an almost foreign-feeling exercise in glorification.

White Sox, Yankees play instant classic in national spotlight

Regardless of what happens between the lines, there are immense benefits to shining a light on a single baseball game, on national over-the-air television, with no major sports competition beyond preseason football. This was a recently unheard of weeknight regular season game on Fox — the actual MLB product, marketed to a huge audience, with only aesthetic differences.

As it happened, the players turned this game into an absolute classic. First, there was joyous dinger-mashing from red hot, recently returned White Sox slugger Eloy Jimenez. Then the Yankees mounted a gargantuan ninth-inning comeback on homers by Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

And finally, the one-man marketing campaign also known as White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson delivered a twist ending — a walk-off homer. By the time he had rounded the bases, the payoff for MLB had become, well, roughly as hard to quantify as the exit velocities in a pop-up park without Statcast capability.

Anderson exemplifies so much of why this game stands as an important milestone in MLB’s approach as by far the most significant steward and promoter of the sport it increasingly attempts to own. He told the Wall Street Journal this week that he hasn’t seen “Field of Dreams” and doesn’t plan to, and then lamented the cultural cool factor that baseball lacks compared to basketball and football.

“They don’t want you to show any emotions, so of course nobody is going to watch that,” he said. “At that point, you’ve just got guys throwing and catching and hitting. Who would want to watch that?”

Here’s the thing: Anderson is completely correct. He also doesn’t lack that cool factor at all. Neither does Fernando Tatis Jr. or Juan Soto or Shohei Ohtani. It’s just often hidden on regional TV while baseball’s only moments in the national consciousness are devoted to outdated hand-wringing, ill-advised tweaks to the sport, or worse.

A dynamic Black star who wouldn’t have been allowed to wear the uniforms that inspired the beautiful White Sox throwbacks, Anderson doesn’t need to connect to the movie that inspired this event. He just needed the stage.

DYERSVILLE, IL - AUGUST 12:  Tim Anderson #7 of the Chicago White Sox reacts to hitting a walk off two-run home run to beat the New York Yankees at the MLB Field at Field of Dreams on Thursday, August 12, 2021 in Dyersville, Iowa. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
White Sox star Tim Anderson grins as he rounds the bases after walloping a walk-off homer to beat the Yankees in the Field of Dreams Game. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

MLB must build on Field of Dreams Game formula

Skepticism about how this would play out was warranted. Even in its apparent attempts at outreach, MLB often comes across as craven or simply out of touch.

It puts exclusive games on YouTube, undoubtedly for money. It teases and then announces exclusive partnerships with cryptocurrency companies that affect approximately zero people’s sports fandom decisions. Hell, it plopped this meticulously planned game in Iowa, a state where it has not figured out how to navigate TV contracts in such a way that keeps residents from being blacked out of seven different teams’ games on MLB.TV on any given night.

“Exclusive” has been bludgeoning would-be baseball fans over the head for years. Inclusive is the way to actually build up the cultural capital of the sport. More people, across more walks of life, watching the same game at the same time. Together.

Bringing the mystical aura of “Field of Dreams” to life did that, in its own way. It spoke to a vast audience and floated baseball to the top of the sports world’s consciousness for an evening, which is unabashedly good.

It also isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK — no single game or aesthetic could be. This is where striving for inclusivity takes real work.

Arguments about whether “Field of Dreams” was the best vessel for an eyeball-drawing baseball event on national TV are both beside the point and the whole problem encapsulated: This shouldn’t feel like such a rare occasion. It should be one of many swings baseball takes at creating moments that intentionally spotlight games and players and the sport.

Baseball fandom isn’t a monoculture, and MLB’s efforts to showcase the game should be as varied as the people who love it. If the league can raise a picturesque stadium from nothing and beam a sleek, sepia-tinged broadcast to the masses from the cornfields of Iowa, it could surely pour a similar amount of investment and consideration into mounting productions in the baseball-obsessed Dominican Republic, or to bolster and honor the legacy of the Negro Leagues.

Once again, take it from Anderson, a player who sees baseball for the show it can be. The route to a more fervent fan base doesn’t necessarily run through Iowa. But it does have to cross paths with memorable games under bright lights. Consider this a starting point.

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