' ' Cinema Romantico: Maybe It's Time to Raze the Field of Dreams

Friday, August 19, 2022

Maybe It's Time to Raze the Field of Dreams

If you are not from Chicago or don’t follow the NFL, you might not know that the city’s professional football franchise is threatening to move from its longtime quarters at Soldier Field on the shore of Lake Michigan to Arlington Heights, a suburb of the Windy City 25 miles northwest of downtown. If this is not a new threat, it is perhaps the first time it sounds legitimate, not least because the organization has agreed to purchase the 326 acres housing the Arlington International Racecourse, seemingly with the intention of ditching Soldier Field to construct a brand new stadium. (Whether they would become the Arlington Heights Bears, I don’t know, but it still wouldn’t sound as stupid as the Irwindale Raiders.) Though spending $197 million suggests this isn’t just a shakedown of the city of Chicago for new or improved digs, that hasn’t stopped Mayor Lori Lightfoot from proposing Soldier Field renovations, including a possible dome atop the nearly 100-year old stadium. That this is stupid isn’t because of how dumb a dome would look – driving past Soldier Field recently I was reminded of how the 2002 interior renovations resulting in the infamous spaceship-looking structure has boxed out the Romanesque columns to the point that they look like cheap knockoff knick-knacks in some overcrowded gift shop – but because the Mayor said without saying that the public would foot much of the taxpaying bill. I’m very much pro-tax, but public funds should be used wisely and this isn’t wise. The return investment scam on publicly funded sports stadiums has been exposed incessantly and irrefutably and still they try to pull it. Arlington Heights itself might be sniffing out this scam too. It’s why I think the Chicago Bears should build a stadium themselves in an aqua dome at the bottom of Lake Michigan and leave the rest of us alone.

My favorite part of Phil Alden Robinson’s “Field of Dreams” (1989) has always been the beginning when farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) first hears the voice in his Iowa cornfield. The establishing shots of the landscape are inherently breathtaking even as the eerie soundtrack notes unsettle you just a bit, drawing out the sense that something is out there in that cornfield in Ray, brought home in how the camera rushes up to Ray from behind, putting you in the cosmic clogs of this ghostly presence as it whispers over Ray’s shoulder, “If you build it, he will come.” This is the genesis of the entire movie, a man guided by voices to construct a baseball diamond in his cornfield so that the disgraced, deceased Shoeless Joe Jackson might return to play there, “chisel(ing) away a piece of livelihood to use as dream currency.” That’s a line from W.P. Kinsella’s book on which the movie is based. The book also spent considerable time simply on the field’s creation, including whole paragraphs on the grass, and though that might have required Terrence Malick more than Phil Alden Robinson, I still wish that was more present in the movie, this sense of a man caring for and lingering over something nominally absurd that mattered to him. Still, a lot of that is there in these early scenes in Costner’s almost giggly performance, swept along by something he does and does not understand. If Ray is a suspect farmer, he’s an even worse finance manager, his whole business plan tantamount to a pie in the sky.


The Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville, Iowa has become famous in the decades since the movie’s release, augmented by the Major League Baseball game that has taken place there the last two years. Less famous is the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club, a single court replica of Wimbledon’s All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, built by Mark and Denise Kuhn on their family farm near Charles City, Iowa, just about two hours northwest of Dyersville, east of Mason City, set down along the Cedar River. In speaking with Stanley Kay of Sports Illustrated last year, Mark Kuhn cited the court as boyhood inspiration from listening to The Championships on shortwave radio with his grandfather in the early 60s, compelled to finally erect the court just after the turn of the century when a farmer friend died and put the fleeting nature of time in perspective. “Never did he expect it to become a destination,” Kay writes. “He just wanted to build it.” Rembert Browne traveled there for Grantland back in 2013 and wrote a moving essay about the experience, noting there was no charge to play. “Just sign the guestbook,” Kuhn told him.


As a native Iowan, when I visited the Field of Dreams site sometime in the early 90s, it wasn’t quite as intimate as the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club sounds but intimate nonetheless. And though I would have not intellectually grasped this back then, well, I was a child of the 80s, of the Bud Bowl and product placement, and innately I knew when somebody was trying too hard to sell me something. Aside from some standard-issue souvenirs, the Field of Dreams wasn’t trying to sell you anything. There were people dressed up as old-time baseball players, inviting kids to step up to the plate and then run the bases (as the former worst Iowa little leaguer of all time, I declined to participate) but that was in keeping with the place’s prevailing air of a county carnival rather than a theme park spectacle or sprawling megaplex. The two families that each owned a portion of the field – the Lansings and the Ameskamps – dueled over the amount of commercialization, but all in all it was next-to-none, content to let the experience of being there be the point. 

Eventually, though, the Ameskamps sold their share of the place to the Lansings, and eventually the Lansings sold it all to a terrifying entity called Go the Distance Baseball LLC, transmogrifying the phrase encouraging Ray’s going for broke with limited liability. Go the Distance, which was originally headed up by a suburban Chicago couple, intended to turn the field into a World’s Largest Truck Stop-ish destination called All-Star Ballpark Heaven. It wasn’t so simple. The initially estimated cost ballooned, zoning became a problem and the community objected, fighting the development in court. The community ultimately lost, however, and last year the first MLB game was held at a new stadium constructed not far from the old one. Now Go the Distance Baseball LLC is planning to finally construct its northeast Iowa haven, though not without public funding as the Des Moines Register recently chronicled. Indeed, many of the predicted economic advantages for this will-be complex call to mind the false promises of taxpayer-funded professional in big cities, suggesting the Field of freaking Dreams is on its way to becoming just one more Truist Park. If that ain’t that some shit.


Internet entrepreneurs, it turns out, are big into employing “Field of Dreams” as an example of How Not To Succeed in Business. (Seriously, Google Field of Dreams approach.) Never mind the humor of the humorless MBA class, it’s hard to argue they’re wrong. You can’t just build a lemonade stand at the end of a cul-de-sac in an affluent community and hope people will come. That, however, puts into humorous perspective how “Field of Dreams” and the Field of Dreams were destined to become incompatible the grander the vision grew. And watching the telecast of this year’s Field of Dreams game, which was presented by Geico, with T-Mobile sponsored drone shots, and a Corona billboard behind home plate made me think how if the field in the film was nothing if not a salvation for the duplicitous Black Sox, in real life the money-changers had essentially been allowed into the temple. The Timothy Busfield character of “Field of Dreams” probably would have conceived a similar scenario post-end credits. “Ray, you can’t just pass around a donation plate!” 

It’s true I might be showing too much reverence toward nothing but a filming location. W.P. Kinsella didn’t seem to mind the Ameskamps and Lansings selling souvenirs and tickets, telling The New York Times in 1999 that “this is America.” Phil Alden Robinson told USA Today in 2014 of the field, “I have no feeling about it that (the field) needs to be preserved as a shrine at all. Movies are ephemeral.” And maybe the movie’s idea of there being something bigger in this world than a profit & loss statement is fleeting too. Maybe it’s just time to bulldoze the Field of Dreams into oblivion.

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