Phil Alden Robinson, the director of 1989’s “Field of Dreams,” attributes the decline in the number of baseball movies to Hollywood’s need to court foreign audiences and financing — despite increasing numbers of international players in the majors. He also acknowledges a cultural shift. Two decades ago, baseball and its sepia-toned past could stand in for any number of sentimental ideas about the country. No longer. Robinson says football might better fit the American psyche, “a reflection of more violent times.” He believes he could probably scrape together the money to make “Field of Dreams” today, but, he told me, “it would have been a lot less money.”
There’s also a subtle aesthetic difficulty when it comes to baseball movies: Even as modern broadcasts capture more detail, what you see on the screen no longer resembles the nostalgic, pastoral vision of the game. The imaginations of writers and filmmakers have been displaced by mere information.
Baseball, more than any other American sport, has an extensive visual archive, and the change in imagery — the sharpening of focus, the addition of color — always created a sense of progress across eras. Babe Ruth winks in grainy, flickering black and white. In the 1951 home run known as “the shot heard round the world,” you can see Bobby Thomson’s swing, but the camera that tracks the ball out of the park is so jumpy, unsteady and late to the trajectory that it looks as if it were shot on an iPhone by someone six beers in. Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax come through in blurry, bright color, but you can rarely see their faces as they wind up and throw. By the 1975 World Series, when Boston’s Carlton Fisk seems to will the ball to stay fair with his flapping arms until it’s a home run, you can see the “27” on Fisk’s back and the square outline of his jaw, but the field still looks as if it were lit by mosquito zappers. Baseball nostalgia is tied to the way the game looked at any given moment in the past; the progress of the game is told, more than anything else, by the changes in its imagery.
Last week, I watched a replay of David Ortiz’s game-winning home run in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 A.L.C.S. It happened nearly 13 years ago, but it could have been last October, the way the scene was presented: the HD video, the score at the top of the screen, Joe Buck calling balls and strikes. We may be past the point when the only way to distinguish among coming eras will be by the change in uniforms. In terms of action and detail, the post-HD eras are likely to all look the same — our eyeballs can’t take in much more than what’s being beamed out to today’s 4K and 1080p televisions. Baseball’s visual clock, which once kept time for a changing country, now seems frozen.
It’s difficult to imagine a major Hollywood studio producing another great baseball movie. The rich, if somewhat oversaturated, cinematic treatments look weird compared with HD feeds. And the story lines that ran through all those old movies — the scrappy underdogs who band together to take down the Yankees, the disillusioned veteran who rediscovers his love for the game — have aged even worse. For years, the heroes in baseball movies were just variations on Jimmy Stewart — thin, patient, but seething with buried emotion that would come spilling out when he embraced the game again.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Kevin Costner became an updated version of Stewart’s impassioned stoic. When Robinson and the studio were debating whom to cast as their lead in “Field of Dreams,” he said, Costner was their first choice, but they didn’t approach him because he had just starred in “Bull Durham,” and they couldn’t imagine that he would want to do back-to-back baseball movies. But a studio executive slipped him a copy of the script, and Costner immediately said he was interested. “Kevin had that kind of Middle American appeal,” Robinson told me.
Baseball’s cinematic vision of Middle America no longer means what it once did. The failing family enterprise and the old, forbearing white — or Negro Leagues — ballplayer now remind us of an extinct vision of the country and the growing distance between Middle America and the coasts. The attempts to update the archival, sun-kissed, Midwestern vision — whether on last year’s “Pitch,” the Fox TV show about a woman pitching in the majors, or “Million Dollar Arm,” the 2014 Disney movie in which Jon Hamm goes to India to convert cricket bowlers into pitchers — are canceled or bomb at the box office.
“ ‘Field of Dreams’ was an attempt to do something that transcended time,” Robinson told me. “It speaks to this undeniable feeling that we know we can’t go back and right old wrongs, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could?”
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