National Sports

MLB built it and the fans came. But the sport’s issues extend beyond a cornfield in Iowa.

DYERSVILLE, Iowa - A steady breeze seemed to rustle the tassels of the corn stalks beyond the outfield fence as the New York Yankees faced Chicago White Sox in the first major league game ever played in this state Thursday night.

The wind seemed to catch there in the field, never crossing over the fences Major League Baseball constructed in left and right, never disturbing the barn facade built to serve as a batter’s eye in center field. Whatever distractions that wind might have carried into the 8,000-seat temporary stadium at the site of the movie “Field of Dreams” seemed to dissipate in those fields, as if the corn itself was holding off the realities MLB wishes it could hold off forever. Thursday, after all, was supposed to be about the relentless magic of a timeless game.

Baseball players are prone to cynicism, but many of them carried their phones onto the field when they first arrived, scanning for photographs, pausing here and there for every angle. White Sox reliever Liam Hendriks took pictures of himself on the famous swing outside the white Kinsella farmhouse, on the bleachers outside the movie set, in the corn and more.

Chicago pitcher Lucas Giolito said he was “blown away” by the setting. Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu, who grew up in Wisconsin and Michigan, said the drive to the field reminded him of the ones he used to take to tournaments when he was young.

“Whatever it takes to be here, to play in a game like this, I think it’s worth it,” said LeMahieu, whose sentiments seemed to be shared by many in the game. A few hours later, just before LeMahieu and his teammates emerged from the corn field for pregame introductions, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the game will be held in Dyersville again next August.

But beyond the corn and the sentiment, the evening stood also as an exhibition of contradiction, a reminder of the vast plains between the place MLB wants its sport to hold in the minds of its followers and the reality of its stewardship.

For example, as the league attempts to grow its fan base, fans who see themselves in “Field of Dreams” are not the only ones the sport needs to reach. White Sox shortstop and Alabama native Tim Anderson, for example, said he has never seen the movie, which centers on White baseball legends at a time when Black players were not allowed to play alongside them.

Anderson, one of the game’s brightest young stars and a board member of the Players Alliance, a nonprofit organization of more than 150 current and former Black big leaguers focused on social justice issues, is one of many Black players who have spoken about the challenges Black players face as they try to find belonging in MLB. He said his wife watched the movie this week and filled him in.

“Hopefully, we’ll leave a good impression,” said Anderson, who acknowledged wandering through the corn field, even without knowing all the context. José Abreu, who grew up in Cuba, spent most of batting practice pumping his fist and celebrating with Dominican Eloy Jiménez and Cuban Yoán Moncada, every time one of them hit one into the corn. The game may not have had the same significance for everyone who played in it. But it seemed to mean something to everyone.

“It was actually a time when not a lot of guys were on their phones,” Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge said of the bus ride from the tiny airport in nearby Dubuque, which carried both teams past waving fans camped out in their yards to catch a glimpse.

“This was one of the first times when people had their headphones out with their eyes glued to the windows, checking out the scenery,” Judge added. “A lot of guys from different countries who haven’t seen countries like this, they haven’t seen the open fields and stuff like this.”

Four hours before the game, a line of cars a half-mile long snaked through the corn fields to the entrance to the facility, a sign of the excitement that had built. .

The Dyersville Chamber of Commerce reported a huge jump in tourism surrounding the game and set up events in town to give locals, those visiting - and those who couldn’t afford the tickets that started at $375 to the lucky few who won a lottery to buy them - a way to celebrate.

But celebrating Major League Baseball on a normal Iowa summer night isn’t always easy. Iowans hoping to watch one of their favorite teams - the Cubs for many, the Cardinals for others, the White Sox for the family a few fields away from the game site with a “Hit it Here Eloy” sign leaning against a John Deere tractor - cannot do so through MLB’s online streaming service, The Brewers, Royals and Twins are all blacked out, too - or 20 percent of the league’s teams.

As is true in many markets, MLB blacks out local games as part of an arrangement with regional sports networks, many of which are getting harder and harder to access as cable packages shift and many consumers cut the cord.

But even for those with cable in Iowa, regional sports networks of any of those six teams - let alone the one that a given family may want to see - are not necessarily a part of the package. One Iowan bought a billboard in the area and addressed its message to Manfred, begging him to “End the MLB Blackouts.” Only because Thursday night’s game was broadcast on Fox did Iowans have access to it.

“There’s nothing more important to us as a business priority than delivering games to fans, that’s what we’re about. The blackout situation is a complicated one. It involves regional broadcast distributors, our individual clubs, and us,” Manfred said Thursday. “We are spending a tremendous amount of time in an effort to get to a better place in terms of where our games are distributed. It is the top priority for us right now.”

Like questions about blackouts, the cornfield buffer couldn’t keep all the awkwardness out. Aaron Boone was asked for his perspective on Shoeless Joe Jackson, a central character in “Field of Dreams,” who was banned from baseball for his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

Boone dodged deftly, something MLB will not be able to do forever, having recently made a push to introduce betting into stadiums and the general baseball consciousness. Just this week in Chicago, a proposal to add betting space at Wrigley Field, one of the game’s most sacred landmarks, was a source of controversy.

And the corn couldn’t keep out the impact of coronavirus, either. Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo, formerly a beloved Cub, seemed likely to be one of the main attractions Thursday night, but missed the game after testing positive. Iowans love the Cubs, whose Class AAA affiliate is located a couple hours east of Dyersville in Des Moines.

The state has long been home to minor league baseball, but when MLB took over administration of the minor leagues before this season, it cut 42 affiliates, including those in Clinton and Burlington, also in Eastern Iowa. Neither city will see too much of a boost from the game itself. Burlington’s first season in the summer prospect league is already over, its home schedule shortened from 70 games to 30 by the departure of affiliated baseball, its revenue sliced accordingly.

But Thursday, the rolling corn fields kept those troubles far enough away to let sentiment to settle in, to let fans wander an MLB-logo-shaped corn maze drenched in sun and whimsy. No ghosts emerged when the sun set, either. For a night, there was just baseball heaven, hidden away in Iowa, just out of reality’s reach.

Chelsea Janes is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post. She was The Post’s beat writer for the Washington Nationals from 2014 to 2018 and was a sports intern for The Post in 2013. She also previously covered the 2020 presidential campaign.