Reconsidering Field of Dreams

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My Dad’s favorite baseball movie is Field of Dreams. Of course, he never calls it that. He calls it, “You know that one, that movie … the one with the corn … you know the one I’m talking about, come on with the corn … with the guy from, you know, the guy from the baseball thing … come on, you know, the other guy was in it, the guy in From Here to Eternity … the one, oh, come on, stop it, you know the one I mean.”

I have inherited this inability to recall simple titles and names from my father, and I have not quite forgiven him for this.

Point is: He loves Field of Dreams. My parents came to America about two years before I was born. Best I can tell, the things they knew about America included: Elvis; Ray Charles; the Rockettes; Broadway; Connie Francis; Paul Newman movies. The stuff they did not know about America included: Everything else. They tell this wonderful little story about going to dinner in a nightclub one evening in New York and suddenly, unexpectedly, Neil Sedaka began to perform. No words can describe how amazed they were by this. America was this place where you could go to dinner and then suddenly, for no reason at all,  Neil Sedaka just shows up to sing Laughter in the Rain.

My father knew nothing about baseball when he came here, absolutely nothing, not even the basic rules. I have always been convinced he learned the game because I was born. I’ve said this before: My father is the most American person I know in that he believes strongly in American things — fireworks on fourth of a July, turkey at Thanksgiving, outdoor picnics, Costco on Saturdays, the Constitution, 1950s rock ‘n roll and that an American father should play baseball with his son.

We played catch in our little Cleveland backyard just about every evening when he would get back from the factory — he would have oil on his clothes and rings under his eyes, and he wore this little plastic glove that looked like the kind that came in a kids wiffle ball set. It looked this way because it was a little plastic glove that came in a kids wiffle ball set.

He loved baseball for me. I’m sure of that. His sporting tastes always ran more toward Central Europe. He had been a semi-professional soccer player in Poland, he was the anchor-leg bowler on his team, he once won the Cleveland Open chess tournament. And so he always preferred something with a little more, I don’t know, movement and violence — he liked Cleveland Browns football and those old Soccer Made in Germany shows and any of the countless fights that were on TV then. But I loved baseball so he tried to love it too.

* * *

In recent years, it seems, Field of Dreams has been getting beat up a little bit. The latest jab came from the New York Post’s Kyle Smith, who previewed the upcoming Million Dollar Arm by compiling a list of the 10 greatest baseball movies of all time.

1. Bad News Bears
2. The Pride of the Yankees
3. The Natural
4. Bull Durham
5. Bang the Drum Slowly
6. Moneyball
7. 42
8. A League of Their Own
9. Fear Strikes Out
10. Eight Men Out

What strikes me about the list — well, there are two things. One is how prosaic and populist it is; there are no interesting choices on it — nothing off-the-path like the underrated HBO movie Long Gone or the brilliant Sugar or The Sandlot or even the Negro Leagues episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball. It isn’t that there are any bad movies on his list — though Fear Strikes Out is pretty terrible and has undergone an odd and I think undeserved renaissance in recent years — but there are quite a few “eh” movies. I loved Moneyball and 42, but only because I was predisposed to love them; I don’t think either is anything more than an average movie.

And I’ve come to think of The Pride of the Yankees as sort of the Pie Traynor of movies. For years and years, everyone in baseball kept saying that Pie Traynor was the greatest third baseman ever. He got into the Hall of Fame based on that premise. When you look back on his career, though, you see that Pie Traynor  was more a good ballplayer, less a great ballplayer — he kind of got grandfathered in. I think the same about Pride … it’s a perfectly fine movie but it doesn’t hold up all that well except for the schmaltzy stuff. It deserves its place in the Top 10 but certainly not No. 2. Or anyway, that’s my view.

But the second thing that strikes me about the list is this: Smith clearly goes out of its way to leave out Field of Dreams. Any baseball movie list this commercial that DOESN’T have Field of Dreams on it meant to leave it out (and also Major League, which is a whole other point).

This is the direction things are going. When Field of Dreams came out, it was something of a phenomenon. It was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, this in the days when only five movies were nominated. Roger Ebert, by far the most influential critic of the time, gave it four out of four stars; other critics followed with raves of their own. Over the years, it made countless best ever lists. The American Film Institute in 2008 listed it as the sixth-best movie ever in the fantasy genre. ESPN in 2004 called it the third best sports movie ever. Ask Men and Baseball American put it as the second best baseball movie.

But over the last few years it seems like more and more people — certainly more and more people I know or read — savage Field of Dreams. After the Post list came out, Sonny Bunch, the managing editor of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, made a stand for Field of Dreams which included the Tweet: “Fun fact: If you hate Field of Dreams you wanted the USSR to win the Cold War.”

Matt Welch, editor in chief of the libertarian magazine Reason, then lead an attack on Bunch with this Tweet: “I had heard that Sonny Bunch had abysmal taste in movies, but man. … Field of Dreams is worse than Enver Hoxha.” In case you are wondering, Enver Hoxha was the monstrous communist leader of Albania. These political writers don’t play when it comes to baseball movies.

Then I would say most of the people I know come down on Welch’s side these days. It’s not just that they believe Field of Dreams has not aged well; the feeling is more vehement and passionate than that. They actively and loudly and fervently loathe it. I have a friend, generally not prone to overstatement, who says, if I remember the quote right, that “FIeld of Dreams is all that is wrong with America.”

I’m not blind. I can see why they dislike it. Field of Dreams is corny, and it’s trite, and the acting is way over the top, and it has Shoeless Joe hitting right-handed (which is like having Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in Toledo), and the music is like melodic paper cuts, and it has a whole lot of the gooey baseball poetry stuff that makes many nauseous.

“The thrill of the grass,” Shoeless Joe Jackson says.

“That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella,” Burt Lancaster says. “That’s my wish. And is there enough magic floating around in the moonlight for you to make that wish come true?”

“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers,” James Earl Jones says. “It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game … it’s a piece of our past. It reminds us of all that was once good. And that could good again.”

“Oh yeah,” Ray’s father, John, says when asked if there’s a heaven. “Heaven’s where dreams come true.”

No, I can’t kid myself — I know why over the years many people have rebelled against Field of Dreams.

But it also my father’s favorite baseball movie. When the movie came out I was dating someone who hated Field of Dreams with every cell of her DNA. It still remains unclear to me if this had anything to do with the ensuing breakup but I still think about that sometimes. I understood why she didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand, though, why she hated it.

* * *

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Dwier Brown. He played the father in Field of Dreams. He has written a little book about the experience, about his life as a struggling actor and the joy of those five minutes he got on screen in that memorable scene at the end. It hasn’t been an easy career, picking up small parts here and there. At the beginning of the book, “If you build it,” he has this great aside about his career and the crossroads he hit in the fall of 1986.

“In the previous five years I had been killed over a dozen times. In films and on TV, I have been shot to death six times, died of a heart attack, been lynched and knifed and, in the Thorn Birds, run over by a wild pig (which I affectionately called being “boared to death.”). On stage I had been stabbed, died of old age and, in an amazing tour de force of death, had my neck broken and died of an aneurism in the same play.”

In his hopelessness over all the small and depressing parts, he says that one day he found himself watching Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” — another dreamy and, to many, mawkish movie. Dwier felt himself moved by the moment. This was why he wanted to act; to be in a movie that didn’t hide from its hopefulness. He asked God to help him play in one meaningful film. Not long after that, he got the role in Field of Dreams.

Is Field of Dreams a meaningful film? And now we get to the heart of things. It seems to me that a hard thing in an ever-more cynical world is to allow yourself to be exposed and open and vulnerable. We talk about people being forgiving; but in my experience people have a hard time forgiving after being made the fool. That’s a tough one, isn’t it? That’s the biggest part of the hurt and anger I tend to hear in people’s voices when they talk about the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998. They tricked us. They fooled us. They made us believe in something that wasn’t real — or at least wasn’t as real as we wanted to believe. They stole something from us. They made us colder.

Field of Dreams, if you think about it, is not only the strangest baseball movie ever made, it’s one of the strangest movies ever made. A man in a cornfield hears a voice. The voice tells him to build a baseball diamond so that the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson can come back and play baseball again. The voice tells him to go find a famous and reclusive writer (in the book, it is J.D. Salinger; in the movie it is someone named Terence Mann) and take him to a baseball game. The voice tells him to go find a dead ballplayer who only got to play one inning of one game.

There’s a fun scene in there where Ray — played by Kevin Costner, Dad — is trying to convince his wife that he has to follow the voice and has to go take this writer to a baseball game.

“Ray,” she says, “this is nuttier than building the ball field.”

“Not it’s not,” he says. “It’s pretty weird, I grant you, but building the field was weirder. Five, ten percent weirder.”

None of these things make any sense. They don’t make sense when compared to reality but, in truth, they don’t even make immediate sense in a fantasy world. A boy who finds out he’s a famous wizard because his parents were killed by the darkest villain of all — you don’t have to read Harry Potter to follow the story line. A young man with powers he doesn’t fathom is needed to help the rebel cause against the seemingly invulnerable empire — you don’t need to watch Star Wars to get the basics.

But a man needs to build a baseball field so the dead Shoeless Joe Jackson can play ball again … hard for the brain to process that one. And that’s only the beginning.

The only way to process it is to come at the movie unarmed, unwary, willing to go down any corridor, willing to embrace the oversweet schmaltz and mush, willing to hear lines like, “Win one for me one day, boys,” without cringing and recoiling and falling out of the moment. Then again, why should we? Why should we endure hokey lines and strange turns and stuff that makes no sense? Why should we open up to a movie like “Field of Dreams?”

I guess you can always ask that question about anything: Why should we?

* * *

This week, I watched Field of Dreams again. It has been a few years. There were two scenes that struck me. Well, actually, I was struck by a lot of things: the mawkishness of the dialogue (it really is more than I remember); the scenery-eating overacting of the great Burt Lancaster (“by a sky so blue it hurts just to look at it!”); the intrusiveness of James Horner’s overbearing music. It would have been nice to let a scene or two breathe just a little bit without attacking us with the music.

But there were two scenes that struck me most. One struck me because I had the script with me and I was following along. Remember the scene where James Earl Jones is asking people in the town about the ballplayer Moonlight Graham, who had become the town doctor? Jones asked one old guy about Moonlight Graham’s wife:

Here’s what the guy was supposed to say according to the script: “Alicia. She moved to South Carolina after he passed. She passed a few years later. She always wore blue. I bet you didn’t know that.”

Here’s what he actually said in the movie: “Alicia. She moved to South Carolina after he passed. She passed a few years later. She always wore blue. The shopkeepers in town would stock blue hats because they knew if Doc walked by he’d buy one. When they cleaned out his office, they found boxes of blue hats that he never got around to give her. I bet you didn’t know that.”

Is the movie version sentimental, cheesy, maudlin? Maybe. I love it. In a way, the difference between the script and the movie is exactly what Field of Dreams is about.  The script is plenty sentimental. She always wore blue. But the movie goes for something more. I love Doc Graham, a good man in that small town, stopping at shops because he cannot resist buying his wife a blue hat. I fall for it.

And, I guess, that gets at the heart of why I love Field of Dreams — it is so unapologetically hopeful. It is so unapologetically optimistic. “Bull Durham” is funnier and “The Natural” is more romantic and “Bang the Drum Slowly” is more poignant and “A League of Their Own” is more layered. But none of them are quite as unabashedly dreamy.

“Field of Dreams will not appeal to grinches and grouches and realists,” Roger Ebert wrote in his glowing review. “It is a delicate movie, a fragile construction of goofy fantasy after another. But it has the courage to be about exactly what it promises.”

The second scene is, of course, the final scene, the one Dwier Brown holds on to as he thinks about his life as an actor. It is the scene where Ray, after hopelessly fumbling around for a way to talk with his dead father, finally says: “Hey Dad. You wanna have a catch.” And the Dad says: “I’d like that.” And they throw the baseball around while the music blares and the camera spins around them and, in the background, you see all the cars coming toward the field.

And dammit, I know the tricks of this movie, I know the emotional hooks it digs. The thing comes at you with all the finesse and subtlety of a low-hanging sun. You see everything coming from a million miles away.

And still … it gets me. I’m 10-years-old. We’re in our little Cleveland backyard. Dad has just come home from the factory, and he’s exhausted, and he would rather just be on the couch letting that freight train headache subside. But he’s here, and he’s got a Kent cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he’s wearing a baseball cap that is two sizes too small, and he’s wearing his work clothes except for the K-Mart canvas sneakers with the hole in them. He throws a pop-up that looks like it will never come down. The sky is so blue it hurts just to look at it. I’m circling under the ball, uneasily. There’s a thrill in the grass. I catch the ball and fall down. This field. “Good catch!” my Dad says. This game. “But try to stay on your feet after you catch the ball.” It’s a part of our past.

I don’t have any excuse for allowing Field of Dreams to do this to me. It just does. I understand why some people are put off by Field of Dreams. I do. But it gets me every time. It has to. Field of Dreams is Dad’s favorite baseball movie.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

Associated Press
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Hope you had a nice weekend. Mine consisted of a lot of sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching stuffy head, fever and, thus, NyQuil and bed rest which (a) meant I went to bed too early Saturday night to see Sean Manaea‘s no-hitter but which allowed me to (b) lay in bed most of yesterday afternoon and see a bunch of games. Not exactly a wash, but if you have to be sick thank God for day baseball. And thank God for NyQuill.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Phillies 3, Pirates 2: It was 2-2 from the fifth until the bottom of the 11th, and that’s when Aaron Knapp tripled and Aaron Altherr singled him in for the walkoff win. The Phillies completed a four-game sweep of the Pirates. It was their first four-game sweep of Pittsburgh in 24 years. There was a time when “in 24 years” seemed like a long time ago — like, that should be in the 1980s or something — but it was 1994 and I had just finished my junior year of college. You lose decades after a certain age. Oh well, the Phillies have won 13 of 16 since we all decided Gabe Kapler didn’t know what he was doing. Guess he figured it out.

Rays 8, Twins 6: The Rays had a 6-3 lead, blew it, and it was tied 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth when Carlos Gomez came up to bat and hit a two-run walkoff homer. Gomez said that he told his son that he’d hit a homer for him in this game. He was 0-for-his-first 4, though, with three strikeouts before the blast. Phew. For the Twins, Brian Dozier extended his hitting streak to 23 games, dating back to September 22 of last year. It’s weird that we count hitting streaks that way. Of course it’d be weird if we didn’t count them that way too, as everyone would still be talking about last year’s games, so I dunno. The world isn’t always perfect and there aren’t always satisfying answers. You may lose decades when you get older but you gain the ability to deal with ambiguity and even embrace a lack of cosmic resolution in things. That sort of zen is one of the best parts of getting older, even if people tend to fight it rather than accept it.

Athletics 4, Red Sox 1: A day after getting no-hit by Sean Manaea, Daniel Mengden and his twirly mustache held the Red Sox to one run on six hits in six and a third and the bullpen took it the rest of the way. I’d say who woulda thunk that the A’s of all teams would cool off the red hot Red Sox bats, but it’s not like any team is going to continue to score 7-10 runs a game ad inifinitum. Khris Davis knocked in all four of the A’s runs, the first one on a ground ball single in the first and the last three with a three-run homer in the eighth, both coming off of David Price. As for Mengden, I like him a lot, but not because of his mustache. I like the way he works from the full windup. This is from a game last year, but check this out:

I was watching him yesterday and he seems to have cut down a bit on that rocking motion, but he still goes both-arms-over-the-head like that. I love it because, even though I know not every pitcher did that back in the 1970s and 80s when I was beginning to watch baseball, it sort of felt like everyone did. It was how kids would pitch when emulating pitchers back then and it didn’t seem weird. I don’t know when that went out of style in favor of the bring-the-arms-in-towards-the-chest thing. I know Paul Byrd pitched like that his whole career and it didn’t feel weird when he did it. I don’t know, maybe I’m just remembering three random dudes who did that and I’m totally misrepresenting baseball history here. You misremember a lot of stuff when you get older too. Anyway: I’m on team Mengden.

Royals 8, Tigers 5: The Tigers took a 2-0 lead but Whit Merrifield hit a solo shot and Abraham Almonte hit a grand slam in the sixth inning to make it 5-2. Then the Tigers tied it up but Mike Moustakas hit a three-run shot in the seventh inning to make it 8-5. “And STAY down,” he said. Or thought. Maybe.

Yankees 5, Blue Jays 1: Top prosepct Gleyber Torres made his big league debut and went 0-for-4. He’ll have better days. Maybe days like Miguel Andujar, who went 4-for-4, had. Austin Romine doubled in a couple and Didi Gregorius smacked a dinger. Luis Severino didn’t need that much support, as allowed only one run on three hits over seven.

Indians 7, Orioles 3: Jose Ramirez hit two homers — a solo shot in the fourth inning and a two-run drive in the ninth — to help Corey Kluber get his third win of the season. Manny Machado homered twice in a losing cause. The O’s have lost nine of ten.

Astros 7, White Sox 1: Lance McCullers scattered a bunch of hits while allowing one run over six, while Marwin Gonzalez and Evan Gattis each drove in a couple. Houston sweeps the White Sox, outscoring Chicago 27-2 in the three-game series. The Sox have lost seven in a row, giving up 53 runs on those games.

Brewers 4, Marlins 2: Junior Guerra allowed one run — unearned — in five innings and the bullpen allowed one more run — also unearned — in the final four frames. Both of the unearned runs were attributable to the catcher, as the guy who scored in the first inning reached on a catcher’s interference and the runner who scored in the eighth got into scoring position on a passed ball. Of course, it still took hits in both cases for the runs to come in, so it’s not like the pitcher wasn’t at least partly responsible. I am fairly fascinated with blame apportionment when it comes to unearned runs. It makes me wonder which pitcher benefitted most from runs which, while technically unearned because of an error, were really on him anyway because he gave up a bunch of hits later, failing to limit the damage. Or which were unearned because of his own error. Like, I know Bob Gibson’s ERA in 1968 would not have risen to 3.68 if you analyzed things that way, but I’m sure someone, somewhere, got just under 3.00 to 2.98 or something due to the unearned run rules, thereby changing the way he was viewed in a given year as a result. Someone give me a $250,000 advance on a book to study this, please.

Cardinals 9, Reds 2: Close until the seventh when the Cards put up three thanks to a Paul DeJong three-run homer and then added three more in the eighth. Miles Mikolas allowed two runs — one earned — over seven. I’m too lazy to analyze the unearned run situation in this game, though, and no one has given me the advance I mentioned above just yet. Not doing it for free, folks.  Anyway, the Reds got swept and now they go home to play the Braves today. Maybe. I have tickets to that game so, of course, the forecast calls for a lot of rain. Maybe the Reds need a rainout, but I sort of hope Mother Nature doesn’t let them have one. It’s like 100 miles in the car each way for me and I don’t wanna waste the trip.

Diamondbacks 4, Padres 2: The Snakes scored all four of their runs in the fourth, two on a Nick Ahmed homer, one on Patrick Corbin single and one on a delayed steal thingie in which Padres pitcher Joey Lucchesi threw the ball away. In addition to knocking in that run, Corbin dominated the Padres, winning his fourth game of the year with 11-strikeouts over six two-hit, two-run innings.

Rangers 7, Mariners 4: Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo each hit dongs in the fourth inning as the Rangers avoid a sweep at the hands of the M’s. Rangers starter Martin Perez allowed two over six innings, lowering his ERA from 13.14 to 9.82. Yay, progress!

Cubs 9, Rockies 7: Chicago built up a 6-0 lead after three innings, let the Rockies back in it and then added three more later and held on. In other words, just another afternoon at Coors Field. Javier Baez homered and later doubled in two. He also got cute and blocked D.J. LeMahieu when the latter was trying, it seemed, to steal signs. LeMahieu didn’t like that, but well, tough:

Kris Bryant left this one in the first inning after getting beaned — the ball hit the bill of his helmet and spun the dang thing around without it even falling off his head — but he passed his initial concussion tests, so here’s hoping it’s not serious.

Giants 4, Angels 2: There was some history here as Brandon Belt and Jaime Barria faced off in a 21-pitch at bat, which was the longest since they began keeping track of such things 30 years ago. Barria ended up winning that battle when Belt lined up to right field for the game’s first out. Here you go if you like foul balls and/or building tension:

The Giants won the war, however, as Barria couldn’t make it out of the third inning, having tossed 77 pitches. As soon as he left Evan Longoria hit a two-run homer and Belt would add a solo shot later. Johnny Cueto, meanwhile, was more economical and shut the Angels down for six innings.

Dodgers 4, Nationals 3: Washington took a 3-0 lead over Alex Wood and the Dodgers by the top of the sixth but L.A. came back when Yasmani Grandal and Cody Bellinger hit RBI doubles of the two-run and one-run variety, respectively. Corey Seager put the Dodgers up for good with a sac fly in the seventh and the bullpen held on. The Dodgers won their sixth in seven games and climbed back to .500 after a slow start to the season.

Mets vs. Braves — POSTPONED:

Tried to get your attention all night long
Asked you once, I asked you twice, asked you four times
If you’d like to dance to that song
Front crawled the crowd down the stairs
And I followed you out in the rain, nowhere to be found
Never mind, you’ll probably never look that pretty again

You’re not nineteen forever, pull yourself together
I know it seems strange but things, they change
Older woman and an ever so slightly younger man
God bless the band, they’re doing all they can

You’re not nineteen forever
You’re not nineteen forever
You’re not nineteen forever
It’s not big, it’s definitely not clever