MLB Could Take A Page From the NHL

Reading reactions and seeing the television ratings, there’s no question that Major League Baseball’s plan to channel the legacy and emotion of the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” paid off.

Much like Ray Kinsella plowing through his corn to build a baseball park, MLB did the same adjacent to the farm and field where the movie was shot. They built it, and people came, and so did the television ratings. Close to 6 million people tuned in to watch the White Sox and Yankees play on a diamond erected amongst vast cornfields in Dyersville, Iowa with 8,000 on-hand for the historic game. It is the highest-rated regular season game in 16 years as fans on-hand and viewers were treated to a fun 9th inning with a dramatic finish…

The “Field of Dreams” game and how people reacted to it depends on their relationship with the movie. One of the biggest takeaways is that baseball gets passed down through the generations, and like “Cat’s in the Cradle”, any man who has had an estranged relationship with his father was holding back tears at the end when Ray gets to have a catch with the ghost of his father’s younger self at the end. Even those who don’t have turbulent relationships with their dads get emotional at the end. It hits a little harder the older people get, leaving them with a feeling that they need to make the most of the time they have with their father, because one day, they will not be there.

Taking a step back in time is another way to view “Field of Dreams”. The movie is how I learned about “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. Also, getting to see the old uniforms of teams like the Reds, Yankees, New York Giants and Philadelphia A’s in the film was neat. There was a point a decade ago where I was hooked on the Ken Burns Baseball documentary when it hit Netflix.

James Earl Jones as Terence Mann giving the “people will come” speech is something I have had branded in the sports lobe of my brain since I was a kid…

As for the game, the simplicity of playing baseball in a setting that was standard over a century ago is something you do not get in today’s game. The field in Iowa has no entertainment district surrounding it. There are no backdrops of skylines like PNC Park in Pittsburgh has. No cove like in San Francisco and while Wrigley Field and Fenway Park has withstood the test of time and the desire for state-of-the-art venues, they have been modernized for the 21st century over the last decade.

The “Field of Dreams” game provides a unique event that MLB, now knowing how successful it was, should hold annually.

If baseball wants a blueprint of how to do (and not do) this, they could look at the National Hockey League’s annual outdoor game: The Winter Classic.

During the 2007-08 season, the NHL decided to hold the first regular season outdoor game in the U.S., with Buffalo Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at then-Ralph Wilson Stadium, the home of the Buffalo Bills on New Year’s Day 2008.

The NHL was at the mercy of mother nature, hoping for an ideal weather day. Luckily, it was the kind of day you expect during a Buffalo winter, as snow fell, creating a “snow globe” atmosphere as the teams wore throwback jerseys, with the Penguins in their original powder blues and the Sabres wearing their original white look, which would eventually make a comeback about a decade later.

What also helped the league was the game itself. It was a 1-1 game that went to overtime, later leading to a shootout.

As the snow picked up, Sidney Crosby, just 20 years of age at the time of the game, got the winner for the Penguins…

And with that finish, an annual tradition was born.

With the exception of the 2013 game being cancelled due to a lockout and COVID-19 stopping the 2021 edition, the NHL Winter Classic continues. The 2014 matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor is the one that rivals the greatness of the original 2008 game. Others have had to endure the weather (too much sun, rain) and not every game gets great ratings, but it is the NHL’s unique event that carries on, and has inspired other outdoor games like the Stadium Series, a revival of the Heritage Classic in Canada, which first came about in 2003 and a game to celebrate the league’s 100th year in Toronto.

The NHL, knowing it could not have a stadium packed with fans due to the pandemic, held two games in Lake Tahoe earlier this year, with a rink being built along with lake with the view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background.

It should be noted excessive sunshine paused the first game in Lake Tahoe after the first period, moving the rest of the game to that night, but it was a good concept the league could return to again in the future, knowing what it does now.

Major League Baseball, should it decide to make the “Field of Dreams” game in Iowa an annual event during the regular season, they can learn from the NHL’s successes and shortcomings with the Winter Classic and outdoor series.

Here are a few things.

  • Chicago Blackhawks syndrome: Major League Baseball can put together a lot of great matchups for the “Field of Dreams” game, but should avoid having the same team pop up every few years. The NHL has received criticism for having a team like the Chicago Blackhawks playing in most Winter Classic Games. The Blackhawks have played in six outdoor games since 2009 (4 Winter Classics, 2 Stadium Series).
  • One Game Per Season: The NHL plays two outdoor games per season on average. But, in 2014, the league decided to played six outdoor games, four of which were a part of the new Stadium Series. Two games were played at Yankee Stadium and hockey was played at Dodger Stadium, which showed the technological advancements since the 2008 Classic to keep the ice in good playing condition could allow a game to be played outdoors in a place like southern California. A Heritage Classic game was played in Vancouver. In the end, it was just too much hockey. Simply put, Major League Baseball only needs one game in Iowa.
  • The Unique Setting: The NHL has played at historic places like Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Michigan Stadium and Notre Dame Stadium and as mentioned earlier, went with a smaller stage in Lake Tahoe. While hockey must choose a different venue every year, Major League Baseball has constructed a simple, 8,000-seat ballpark within an Iowa cornfield, connected to a classic baseball movie, removing the task of finding a place to play this game.
  • The Uniforms: The NHL outdoor games also have new or throwback jerseys that get the fans excited and means apparel will fly off the shelves. The 1919 Chicago Black Sox uniforms looked sharp, especially since that team’s most notable player was highlighted in the film and the Yankees have a such a classic look, it may have been hard to know they were wearing a throwback from that period. Imagine some of the throwbacks baseball could have Nike make going forward should the “Field of Dreams” game become an annual event. Imagine the Dodgers and Giants wearing uniforms that harken back to their days in Brooklyn and New York.
  • Recapturing the Magic of the Original: The 2008 NHL Winter Classic holds a special place in the history of the league. An argument can be made that 2014 game in Ann Arbor matched or even out-did the original, but its hard to out-due the game that started it all. Major League Baseball created an amazing introduction during the “Field of Dreams” game as Kevin Costner appeared from the corn in the outfield, and was followed by the White Sox and Yankees appearing from the cornfield like ghosts of the players in the film, followed by a brief speech from Costner, who asked the crowd if it was heaven, and in response, they yelled “No! It’s Iowa”. Can MLB do a pregame like that every year in Iowa without it becoming stale?

The simplicity and the connection to a film that moves so many people provides Major League Baseball with an opportunity to do something special every summer, and that is play a regular season game in a flyover state that thanks to “Field of Dreams” director Phil Alden Robinson, Costner and the musical score from James Horner that leaves men sobbing, can become a part of the game. One that is dragged for being outdated and only tending to the older crowd.

Maybe Thursday’s game had younger fans seeking out the film on a streaming platform, especially since the VHS copy their dad has is irrelevant in 2021.

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