“If You Build It, They Will Come”: Complicating Baseball’s Midwestern Myth

[Subtitled: “When your summer baseball road trip turns into the early draft of a dissertation chapter.” Go figure.]

Last August, I was sitting behind first base at Ashford University Field, watching the Clinton Lumberkings face off against the Lansing Lugnuts. I had started the day in in Dyersville, Iowa, home to the Field of Dreams movie site where in 1989 Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella made a generation of baseball fans believe that “If you build it, he will come.” Steeped in nostalgia, the site features the original film’s house, barn, and baseball field, and the cornfields—actual farmland—that surround the rural community reinforce the remote “otherworldliness” of the site. The plan was to finish my baseball day trip with an evening Minor League Baseball (used interchangeably with MiLB) game, squeezing one last ounce of small-town baseball nostalgia out of my summer before the semester began. I drove into Clinton, a town of 26,000 with lumber mill roots, and parked my car in a dilapidated lot behind a field that had also seen better days. Just as I found my seat, the entire park began to shake as a train blasted through on the adjacent tracks. During batting practice, members of both teams shouted across the field in a garble of Spanish and English. Hitting coaches resorted to hand signals when translation efforts and broken Spanglish failed. A Latino host family chided a player in Spanish as they brought him a bottle of Gatorade and a banana. My rural Midwestern imaginary was shattered.

My generation of baseball fans came of age in an era when baseball fields dotted city parks and suburbs and the baseball films that emerged in the 1980s and ‘90s preached the message that true baseball was about fathers and sons playing catch in the Heartland. Particularly after the 1994 player’s strike and stigma of the steroid era, professional baseball in urban spaces became increasingly suspect and untrustworthy. In the midst of this crisis of representation, player demographics began shifting with an influx of players from outside the United States, particularly from Latin America. Rather than step into that uncertainty and craft a new, more heterogeneous and culturally-relevant identity, Major League Baseball’s marketing and engagement with popular culture looked to a particular version of baseball’s past to maintain present relevance, a trend seen elsewhere in baseball’s history. Rather than move forward, baseball-as it has throughout American history-looked back.

Read on for the rest of “’If You Build It, They Will Come: Complicating Baseball’s Midwestern Myth.”

And just in case you weren’t already hooked, an excerpt from the ending:

In a moment of sad irony, professional baseball in 2016 is determined to reenact the game of the early 1900s, promoting a version of “respectable” white masculinity that an earlier era’s rampant gambling, alcoholism, and other maladies profoundly complicates.

This is the baseball I’ve grown up with. A baseball world in which St. Louis Cardinals fans sell makeshift Darren Wilson jerseys outside the stadium just months after Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day. A moment in which the post-racial collides with the post-modern.

But as a fan I also like baseball, in spite of its flaws. I watch the game, follow the season, and it seems as if I am dipped in magic waters that bring both pain and pleasure. In baseball, I see a sport with its barrier-breaking heroes and glaring omissions, a trumpeted historical legacy marked by deafening silences. A sport too rooted in its past to make sense of its present.

I see Puig, Harper, and Bautista, Ken Burns’ new Jackie Robinson documentary, and I am encouraged and excited. I’d like to think that people will still come. People will come to baseball, look into its contentious past, and see the imagined history in a new light. The professional baseball establishment will probably mind.

The field of baseball is a piece of our American past, reminding us of all that once was good but also terrible. Showing us the lasting ideological power of the game across American history and culture. Showing us the legacies of oppression and inequality that continue as present-day realities. Offering an alternative contemporary truth that would erase and rebuild the known and beloved baseball history. And move toward a baseball we might want to make great again.

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