I think I was sent here to learn (and share) something about America. I’ll mostly be doing that through the prism of the subject I’m supposed to know a bit about, housing. But what do they know of housing who only housing know? It’s been said that to understand America, you need to understand baseball. If that’s true, then last night was a crash-course.
Thirty-two years after the film was released, Major League Baseball staged a “real” game, between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox, on the edge of the corn-field in Dyersville, Iowa (pop. 4,058) where “Field of Dreams” was made. Opinions differ about the film itself (I’ve always liked it, some people hate it), but it’s hard to deny its cultural resonance with some key American motifs.
The title, of course, chimes with one of the nation’s biggest ideological constructs, for which baseball is a perfect analogy. It’s often described as “a game of failure”. Hitters are considered great if they connect with the ball more than three times in ten during their career. The best teams don’t usually win more than 60% of their games. But the eternal hope of striving for success captures the fabled American Dream, as does the film’s most famous line: “Build it, and they will come”.
America loves to tell sentimental, optimistic stories about itself and again, baseball is the perfect vehicle. To quote the film “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again”.
These multiple mythologies were lavishly exploited to promote last night’s game, but as with America as a whole, it wasn’t entirely false. The pitch, like the film-set, was built on an actual farm, with actual corn fields. Apparently the farmer who owns them has always kept the film-set version that the Kevin Costner character built in his backyard so the ghosts of great baseball players – and his father – could play again. People have travelled to see it and play on it and the farmer’s never charged them a penny.
The TV cameras panned lovingly around last night’s stadium and its surroundings, evoking America’s small town, rustic heartland. Another quote from the film was repeated ad nauseum: “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa”. When home-runs were scored in the game, the commentators enthused “it’s in the corn!” and the farm buildings and the farmer’s white clapboard home were clearly visible (see upper right of image below), to provide viewers with an image of wholesome America. In case they didn’t get the point, apparently hot-dogs, coated in apple pie crust, were on sale at the game, the ultimate American food combo.
But perhaps the most powerful theme of the film is its capture of a romanticised father-son relationship. This, of course, is not something unique to America, though does underline its patriarchal essence. But I cry when father and son play catch in the film and I never played baseball, or much else, with my dad. Perhaps that lament is more widely held?
Despite the schmaltz, one of the things I appreciate about America is its willingness to play. It’s hard to say this without sounding patronising, but there’s a childishness in mainstream American society that I like, even if it sometimes feels choregraphed. Two-thirds into a game of baseball, the crowd is encouraged to “stretch” and sing and sway along to a childish song – “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” – and they do! And it’s lovely.
Ultimately though, last night’s extraordinary spectacle created a blurring of reality and fantasy that was distracting and disorientating, perfect for our times and this place.