There is no way to be objective and professional about this: I am very excited about Thursday's news that the Chicago White Sox will "host" the New York Yankees next August at the Field of Dreams near Dyersville, Iowa.
If you've been following along, you've probably noticed that I grew up in Iowa and I'm not too shy about bringing it up. I have used my hometown as a kind of character more than once. Frankly, after this year's one-off staging of a Royals-Tigers game in Omaha, Nebraska (I think it should become an annual event), I kind of figured it would be some time before Iowa would reemerge as a topic in my writings. After all, I am a national writer who focuses on the big leagues and there is no MLB franchise in Iowa*.
* There was kind of a big league team in the state briefly. In 1875, a team set up shop in Keokuk, a once-sizable town in the southeast corner of Iowa along the Mississippi River. The Keokuk Westerns went 1-12 in the National Association -- a circuit not everybody considers "major" -- before folding. The lone victory, according to Baseball-Reference.com, was a 15-2 thumping on May 6 at home against the St. Louis Red Stockings. It's a win so famous in the Hawkeye State that I might be the first person to ever mention it.
The Yankees-White Sox Iowa game is part of MLB's recent attempt to stage games in historic but nontraditional baseball locales. In doing so, the league is kind of rekindling the old barnstorming days, when players would travel the country putting on exhibitions in places where big league tentacles did not reach. It's a tremendous initiative. Just as June's game in Omaha was the first MLB contest in the state of Nebraska, the White Sox-Yankees tilt will be the first in Iowa.
When I sat down to write about this, I had not planned to do it in listicle form. But I find that I have so many embarrassingly euphoric, yet completely disconnected, thoughts about it, it's the only format that makes sense. So here goes.
1. The first pitch
Ray Kinsella to John Kinsella. Obviously. OK, we're talking the movie version of the tale here, because the shooting of "Field of Dreams" in Iowa is what brought us here. Ray, the protagonist of the movie, was played by Kevin Costner. This much you know.
In the final scene of the movie, the much-referred-to but never-seen character of Ray's father -- John -- appears. He's been dead a long time but, hey, it's magical realism, where Shoeless Joe Jackson can come back to life and even hit right-handed. The actor playing the part of John Kinsella is Dwier Brown.
As it happens, during my recent trip to Cooperstown, New York, I saw Dwier Brown. He had set up a table at the corner of Main and Pioneer. I meant to say hello, but every time I got near, Brown was occupied with autograph- and selfie-seekers. As it turns out, Brown has developed a bit of a side career based on that role from a now-30-year-old film, making appearances at ballparks and even penning a novel called "If You Build It," which plays off the father-son themes from the movie.
With that sighting fresh on my mind, I immediately wondered if Brown would have heard the news, because it seemed like he ought to play a role in next year's game. He was way ahead of me:
Doolittle: So, what was the first thing you thought of when you heard the news?
Dwier Brown: I had been told that MLB was going to announce it soon and it seems like just the perfect event for baseball right now. I have been asked to visit 40 minor league games this summer with my book, and fans everywhere have showered me with love for that film.
BD: What do you think it is about that movie that still resonates with people so much? I know you touched on a lot of themes from the film in your novel, so what about it still resonates with you?
DB: Well, in the first place, the film is nostalgic, recalling a time when baseball was played by so many people just for the love of the game. And it's so touching. Whether you deeply loved your dad, or just wanted to, who wouldn't want to have another chance to get it right? Just a wordless conversation of tossing a ball back and forth, that simultaneously means nothing, but at the same time means everything.
BD: Absolutely -- the image of a father and son playing catch is transcendent, and I've used it to wind up baseball stories more than once. That of course is the final, enduring image of the film -- your character, John Kinsella, having a redemptive catch with his son, Ray. Which brings me to the obvious: It's a no-brainer for you to receive the first pitch from Kevin Costner, right? How do we make this happen?
DB: Well, from your mouth to God's ear! (Actually the Big Man is on board -- we just need to convince MLB!)
After that exchange, I decided to ask Costner about it, but, as it turns out, it's not that easy to simply call up a movie star, or even his publicist. So instead I reached out to the MLB office, where I actually know people. The response: "We are looking forward to playing at the 'Field of Dreams' site and celebrating the movie's message of how baseball brings people together. We will be planning all aspects of the event in the months ahead."
Plan this aspect: Kevin Costner having a catch with Dwier Brown. Come on, Costner. You've got to make this happen.
2. The Real Iowa
Obviously, not everybody loved the movie or, if they do, it's become kind of a hipster thing to deny it. It's awfully sentimental in many respects, has a few logical and factual errors, and the nondiegetic music can be a little heavy-handed in terms of telling us what emotions we ought to be feeling. All of these flaws, for me, can be forgiven.
What I don't like is the way small-town Iowans are portrayed as a bunch of medieval, book-burning rubes. In fact, the reason the story is set in Iowa in the first place is because the author of the book that the movie is based on -- W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe" -- attended the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop and loved the place.
Let's hope that the coverage of the event next August doesn't fall back on those old, tired tropes of what small-town, rural America is like, or used to be.
3. The Yankees?
You put the Yankees in a game at the Field of Dreams and, sure, you then get to make a promo that has Aaron Judge running toward a cornfield. And, admittedly, it was pretty freaking cool. Other than that, I'm not thrilled that New York was picked for this game.
The White Sox? Of course. It's a natural fit, given that the book and the movie depict a return from the afterlife by the Black Sox. And the book is, after all, called "Shoeless Joe." That part of Iowa is Cubs country for the most part, but I don't think that there is the same kind of anti-ChiSox animosity that you might find in certain northerly regions of Chicago. There might be a fair amount of ire directed at the Yankees, but all in all, the fact that there is a game there in the first place and the unassailability of Judge will swamp all of that.
I've seen some suggestions that the Reds would have been the better choice to play the White Sox, given the symmetry with the 1919 World Series. Best I can tell, that wouldn't slot into the interleague scheduling rotation for 2020. Anyway, the better choice would the Indians.
Two reasons for this: Bob Feller and Joe Jackson. Jackson began his career with the Cleveland Naps before moving on to Chicago, so there is that tie-in. And Feller was born and raised in Van Meter, Iowa, and is probably the best big league player from the state. (Yes, I'd rate him ahead of Cap Anson despite a sizable bWAR deficit.) It's not a big deal. The Yankees being involved will boost the television ratings. But from the perspective of an Iowan, given the rare chance to celebrate the big league heritage in the state, the Indians would have been a better choice.
4. Corn ball
Want to know what it's like to play baseball next to a cornfield? Well, it's kind of cool, and the image of fully grown, ready-to-harvest towering stalks of corn remains vividly fixed in my memory. Looking to the west during the crepuscular hours of a summer evening, with the pink-gray sky hovering over those endless fields -- it's positively literary.
Typically, Iowa cornfields are surrounded by short, wire fences, and as a kid, the idea was to set up the field in such a way that if you cleared the fence with a blow, it was a home run. The problem, of course, is that once a ball rolled back into those countless towers of corn, you would have a hell of a time finding it. More than once, I had to wait until fall to recover a lost ball, after harvest, with hopes that it hadn't been chewed up by a combine.
This, folks, is what it's like to grow up as a baseball fanatic in the rural Midwest. As a place to grow up, you can't beat it. That's another aspect of the venue that I hope comes across next August. When I see pictures of that farm where the field was built, with its quaint farmhouse, the outer buildings and the vistas of cornfields extending in every direction, it puts me right back where I began. I wish everybody could experience the kind of peace that comes with living in such surroundings.
5. James Earl Jones
First of all, there is zero chance that James Earl Jones will be in Iowa next August. By then, he'll be about six months shy of his 90th birthday. When he reprised an old role for the recent "The Lion King," he didn't participate in promotion of the film. As Costner's character says to Terence Mann (Jones' character) in the film, "The man's done enough."
But here's hoping they can at least record a fresh voiceover or something to be played that night, because his "people will come" monologue is such an iconic part of "Field of Dreams" and is easily the most oft-cited passage. And, as he suggests, baseball still marks the time. Also, if he could do that voiceover as Darth Vader, that would be ideal.
By the way, you might have noticed that Jones' character in the movie has a backstory that is clearly inspired by the life of J.D. Salinger. If you've read the book you already know this, but in the novel, the writer character actually is J.D. Salinger, or at least a fictional version of him. W.P. Kinsella was a big fan.
In fact, the character name "Ray Kinsella" was lifted from a Salinger short story, called "A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All." The story doesn't mention baseball but does refer to jai alai, so at least there was a ball in it.
5. Comiskey redux
There was a cool tidbit from MLB's news release on the game that will appeal to ballpark aficionados. The design of the temporary ballpark that will be installed in the cornfield adjacent to the actual Field of Dreams will be inspired by the old Comiskey Park. Primarily that will entail, as best I can tell, copying the shape of the outfield, but it's a nice touch, nonetheless.
Also, the right-field wall will be transparent, allowing everyone to see the corn growing beyond it. Alas, given the extreme weather events of recent years, we do have to keep our fingers crossed that there won't be any kind of drought next summer that will prevent the corn from growing tall. It's not the kind of thing you can take for granted.
6. More of these games, please
Again, I think this notion of playing meaningful games in unusual venues is fantastic. The event in Omaha could have hardly gone better. TD Ameritrade Park was jam-packed, the energy was electric and the teams enjoyed it. It's a concept that allows baseball to showcase itself in a way that really underscores the deep connections the game has to our culture and shared history.
Where can baseball go next? I'm sure there are a lot of possibilities. But one thing I'd love to see happen, and it would have to be next season, is for MLB to stage a game in Kansas City to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues.
This event, as I envision it, would have the Royals play an opponent at the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy, located in the historic 18th and Vine district in K.C. That's where the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is headquartered as well, and is near where the actual founding of the Negro Leagues took place at what is to become the Buck O'Neil Research and Education Center.
Obviously, the academy is not set up to host a big league game. But if they can have a game in a cornfield, anything is possible, right? However, if that can't be accomplished, you could still play at Kauffman Stadium. Either way, it's an anniversary that needs to be recognized.
7. The transcendence of having a catch and the power of nostalgia
I have used the imagery of people playing catch as a send-off to feature stories twice. Once was early in my career, in a piece about the owner of the first big league team in Kansas City. The other was just last year, when outside of the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, about an hour after the 2018 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I saw a man and his son having a catch. It gets me every time.
There is something transcendent about the act. The image makes for a powerful metaphor, especially when it comes to exploring the connections between us. What makes for a more effective objective correlative, one that embodies the connections between us, than the simple act of one person throwing a ball to another? I would argue that for all the sentimental aspects of the movie version of "Field of Dreams," that final image of Brown and Costner playing catch is what hooked us forever -- the redemptive image of a father and son having a catch. Costner has called "Field of Dreams" the modern-day version of "It's a Wonderful Life," but I disagree. The latter is a testament to what we can be to each other. The former is a testament to what we actually mean to each other, even if we have a hard time expressing it.
Geez, that's laying it on thick, but that's the thing with this story. It does that to us. That's why the filming site was preserved in the first place. (There are money-related aspects about the story of the farm at which the movie was made; we can save that for another day.) It's timeless.
And for MLB, there is value in nostalgia. Obviously, the game and the league must always strive to evolve and extend itself to new generations. It's hard to be nostalgic for something you never experienced. Still, more so for baseball than the other major sports, nostalgia is a powerful component -- and a major sales draw. Look at the baseball memorabilia industry or the crowds in Cooperstown or the enduring popularity of long-gone stars like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle.
Nostalgia is big business, and no sport is better positioned to traffic in it than baseball.
1. There just seems to be more negativity when it comes to the New York Mets than most other teams, and not just from the media. Most of the blame for that goes to the Mets, but there ought to be limits. New York has saved its season by winning 13 of 14. And while the strength of opposition during this stretch has been weak, that hardly diminishes the accomplishment. This is the big leagues, and the June version of the Mets could not have won 13 of 14 playing in the Big 12.
This season marks the 50th anniversary of 1969's Amazin' Mets, who stormed from 10 games back on Aug. 13 to win the National League East by eight games. Those Mets, of course, went on to win the franchise's first World Series. If this year's Amazin's keep it up, then you might see a few references to that magical season. But I think there is a better comparison from the franchise's history.
The 1973 Mets were an older version than the 1969 bunch, which was fueled by young-stud pitchers such as Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Jerry Koosman. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the '69 Mets had the NL's youngest group of position players and the third-youngest pitching staff.
By 1973, the shine had come off. Despite the apparent ascendancy of the '69 roster, the Mets finished 83-79 in each of the next three seasons. The '73 Mets had the fourth-oldest set of position players in the NL, including a 42-year-old Willie Mays in his final season. The pitchers were right at league average in terms of age. It felt as if a lot of potential had been squandered.
Like this year's Mets, the '73 club got off to a decent start before going into the tank. New York went from 12-8 and a first-place tie at the end of April to a low-water mark of 13 games under .500. That's where things stood at the end of play on Aug. 17, when New York lost 2-1 to Pedro Borbon and the Reds despite a Mays home run. The season, clearly, was lost.
But in a division race best characterized as mediocre -- just like this season's NL wild-card chase -- one hot streak changed the outlook. The Mets finished the season on a 30-14 run and, despite going 82-79, almost exactly as they finished the three previous campaigns, they ended up in the playoffs. The strength of that team: the starting rotation, led by Seaver, Koosman and Jon Matlack.
New York eventually lost to the Oakland Athletics in the World Series, but doesn't the shape of the narrative carry the potential of perfect symmetry? One question: Who plays the part of Willie Mays on the 2019 Mets?
2. When Jonathan Lucroy was designated for assignment by the Angels last week, it coincided with the hamstring injury suffered by Cubs backstop Willson Contreras. You didn't have to be Nostradamus to figure Chicago would have interest in the veteran Lucroy. Indeed, on Thursday, Lucroy was a member of the Cubs.
In the interim, I saw a couple of stray pieces of analysis that noted Lucroy's slippage in performance this season, including in terms of pitch-framing. I've seen other same observations applied to other backstops not performing as well by that measure, such as Jeff Mathis, Jorge Alfaro and Yan Gomes. I've seen the flip side in observations about framing "breakouts" from catchers such as Austin Hedges and J.T. Realmuto.
My take: We don't have a very good conception of what year-to-year changes in framing metrics mean, and to cite them in relation to some sort of shift in underlying skill feels a bit reckless.
We've long known that BABIP (batting average on balls in play), for batters and pitchers alike, is a flaky metric from year to year. So when someone performs unusually high or low in that category, they tend to get flagged as a regression candidate. Among those who have qualified in each of the past two seasons, the year-over-year correlation in BABIP among hitters from the past two campaigns is .52. (1 is perfect correlation; 0 means no correlation at all). Using one leading set of framing metrics, I calculated the year-over-year correlation in that category as .54. Meaningful but full of noise.
In other words, there is a lot of uncertainty in that metric from season to season. Given a large enough sample size, framing metrics are useful. But be careful about making judgments about actual, on-field skill sets using these still-new measures. There is a lot about them we don't yet know.
3. It was just over a year ago that the Brewers' Christian Yelich made the leap from very good to great. He got hot about the middle of last July and just kept getting hotter for the rest of the season, ending up as the NL's MVP. He's stayed hot through the first few months of 2019 and could be headed for a second consecutive MVP trophy.
What this means is that the "Last 365 days" split for Yelich has gotten increasingly awe inspiring. Here's where the numbers stand at the moment: .336/.433/.712 over 150 games, with 57 homers, 134 RBIs and 31 stolen bases. That's a 1.145 OPS. From this date last year to the end of last season, Yelich put up a 1.170 OPS.
Yelich is nursing an achy back, so let's hope he gets back soon and at full strength. We have almost never seen a player stay this hot for this long.