“Field of Dreams” is absolutely terrible

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I first saw “Field of Dreams” when it came out in the spring of 1989. I hated it. I saw it again about 15 years ago but nothing had changed. Still hated it.

In the ensuing years I began to talk about my hatred of the movie on Twitter and in articles around here based on those viewings of it. At first I did so because a baseball writer is obliged, at some point, to weigh in on baseball movies, but I continued to do so because I quickly learned how contrary an opinion it was.

Most “best of” lists with respect to baseball movies rank “Field of Dreams” at or near the top. Beyond the critics, most baseball fans you talk to will sing its praises as well. They will invariably talk about how it “gets me every time,” or how it’s a real tear-jerker. Go on any social media platform and suggest, even mildly, that “Field of Dreams” is less-than-great and people will crawl out of the woodwork to tell you that you have no soul. I kept slamming it because I like to be contrary and because I know it gets people wound up.

But I recently began to wonder if I have been unfair to “Field of Dreams.” I was not quite 16 when I first saw it and 16 year-old boys hate everything with even an ounce of feeling in it. On that second viewing I had not yet lived much of an adult life, so maybe I was missing the themes the movie most passionately addressed. The pain of loss. The regret one has for things said and unsaid and the realization that you can’t turn back the clock to do the things you wish you had done or to undo the things you did and wish you hadn’t.

I’m in my 40s now. I have children. I have, unfortunately, suffered loss. There are a lot of movies I hated as a kid or as a young man that I admire or even love now by virtue of the new eyes only the passage of time can bestow, so maybe it was time to give “Field of Dreams” a fresh look to see if I had missed something. Or if I had simply been unable or unwilling to listen to what it was trying to tell me. Last night I did so.

Sorry, it’s still terrible. Indeed, it’s even worse than I had remembered it being. It’s not just bad, it’s aggressively bad, bordering on insulting.

This has very little to do with the nitpicks baseball fans often make when it comes to “Field of Dreams.” It’s annoying that the filmmakers seemed to care so little for detail, but I can get past the idea that, in their conception of baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson was a right-handed Italian-American with a slight New York accent instead of a lefty from rural South Carolina. I can get past the fact that John Kinsella, who was supposed to be in his 50s when his son was born, looks to be about 25 in the family picture during the opening montage. I can get past the idea that, somehow, the sun both sets and rises over left field in that ballpark in the corn. I can get past the idea that 2-3 acres of plowed-under crops can somehow bankrupt even a small family farm which is frankly preposterous, economically speaking.

There is a boatload of that kind of nonsense in “Field of Dreams,” but I can let that stuff go in any movie if the story it is trying to tell is a good one and if it tells that story well. The problem here is that “Field of Dreams” does a horrible job of telling the story it wants to tell. And, to be honest, the story it wants to tell is a pretty terrible one once you dig even an inch below the surface.

You know the big emotional arc here: Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella, a Baby Boomer who came of age in the 60s, didn’t get along with his much-older, baseball-loving father, John. Their failure to see eye-to-eye while, presumably, all-encompassing, played out through baseball, with Ray rejecting the sport his father loved and then twisting the knife by calling his father’s hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, a criminal, after which they never spoke. A voice tells Ray to build the baseball field in the corn and the forces of magical realism do the rest: Jackson and the other ballplayers appear and, eventually, so too does a young John Kinsella, allowing for a long-denied rapprochement between father and son. Along the way a wish is granted to a man who never got a chance to bat in the big leagues and hope and optimism is restored to a writer who had lost his love for and faith in the world.

Which is all fine if you don’t think about if for more than half a second. If you do think about it, however, you start to realize that the filmmakers do almost nothing to give any substance to Ray and John’s relationship. Nearly the entire weight of baseball fandom’s love for this movie is based on this father-son-dynamic — indeed, anyone who passionately advocates for this movie, always a man, will reference their own father within the first 30 seconds — but it does nothing to actually show us the conflict or to convince us that it’s real. We’re never told what, besides baseball, they disagreed on. It’s dashed off in a couple of lines of dialogue here and there with references to fairly common generational differences and a bit of bickering over a hobby.

John’s wife and Ray’s mother is killed off when Ray was a baby in the opening montage and is never spoken of again. I’d suspect that the loss of a wife and mother looms a bit larger in a father and son’s life than baseball, so maybe at least a word about how her absence and their grief impacted all of this is in order? Beyond that, we know that Ray rejected John’s passion — baseball — but what things which were important to Ray did John reject or fail to respect? We have no idea, of course, because the movie presents this as a one-sided lack of respect showed by Ray toward his father, communicated only through baseball and resolved via a game of catch. If you had your own legitimate, complex and unresolved issues with your late father, I suspect this is all rather insulting. If you’re someone who got on well with your dad and actually communicated with him in a healthy manner, this wholly un-sketched conflict is sort of a problem given that a filmmaker is in the business of telling a story.

Here, I suspect, the filmmakers assumed that everyone must have some minor daddy issues someplace, that no one really wants to dig into them and that it was best to allow our natural hesitance to engage with difficult feelings and our love of projecting our problems onto other people to do all of the heavy lifting. “You don’t like ‘Field of Dreams’ because you never played catch with your dad!” is a common refrain one hears from defenders of the movie. My response: “This movie is not about you and your dad. It’s about Ray and John Kinsella, and they are total ciphers about whom it’s nearly impossible to care because the filmmakers decided their story wasn’t really worth telling.”

It’s not that the filmmakers lazily mailed in the father-son story, however, relying on you to bring your own baggage into the the theater in order to provide any dramatic heft. They just had a story they wanted to tell more. A story about how a parent’s values are more important than their children’s, how youthful idealism is a sin and how 1960s-style progressivism must be repudiated and repented for.

As Ray and the writer Terrance Mann are driving back to Iowa after Ray’s first encounter with Moonlight Graham, Ray tells Terrance about the fight he and his dad had about Shoeless Joe Jackson. Terrance, after taking it all in, tells Ray that this whole business — the field and their travels — is Ray’s penance. That’s the word he uses, “penance.” The literal repentance of sin. What was Ray’s sin, exactly?

He, like a lot of teenagers, didn’t see eye-to-eye with his father, but he led a good life. He was a good enough student that he got into a good college. Once there he wasn’t in The Weather Underground and didn’t sell drugs and funnel the money to the Black Panthers or anything. He became something of a mild and amiable hippie, fell in love with a good woman, had a sweet kid and started farming. The alpha-and-omega of Ray’s “sin” was that he insulted a long-dead baseball player his dad had liked 50 years earlier.

Even if you extrapolate a bit more broadly and say that it’s about a son not accepting his father’s values, “Field of Dreams” is all about the elevation of an old man’s dreams over those of the young, which it considers silly. There is no suggestion whatsoever that John Kinsella, in life or in his new afterlife, was obligated to even consider Ray’s values or the things he loved. Ray — who was living a seemingly happy and contented life when the movie began — plows under his farm, repudiates everything he stood for from his teens until one summer evening in 1987 and risks his family’s financial security as an apology for wanting to be his own person and not the one his old man wanted him to be.

That 1960s idealism he adopted? It’s mocked, mostly. Ray’s wife Annie has a big moment standing up against the PTA moms who want to ban some books, but she is portrayed as a simplistic and unhinged caricature of a 1960s radical during that scene. As soon as it’s over she’s super excited — this may have been the first time in years that her old youthful, activist fire had been lit — and she wants to revel in it with her husband. He immediately cuts her off, though, changing the subject to the voice he heard and having to drive to Boston and find Terrance Mann. So much for all of that.

Mann himself is used to undermine idealism. He’s portrayed as a writer who was at the vanguard of progressive thought in the 1960s but, by the end of the movie, he’s giving heartfelt speeches about how disillusioned Americans would gladly pay $20 a pop to deny the present and revel in nostalgia for just a little while and how utterly important and restorative it would be for them to do that. As my friend Steven Goldman pointed out a couple of years ago, Mann does all of this without even noting that the game he characterizes as “healing waters” is, as it is being played out before him, in its pre-integration form. Call me crazy, but I feel like a black, progressive writer who cited Jackie Robinson as his hero earlier in the movie may have made at least passing reference to that.

Taken all together, the message is pretty clear:

  • Kids have an obligation to please their parents but parents have no obligation to allow their kids to find their own path in life;
  • The fixations of a young man in 1919 are super important and must be honored, even if it literally requires moving heaven and earth;
  • The fixations of a young man — or an older writer — in 1969 were silly and can and should be repudiated, apologized for and, in some cases, repented for;
  • No matter how bad things get, they can best be fixed by looking backward in time and, if necessary, retreating into the past. Oh, and if we can make $20 a pop off of others doing the same, all the better.

How uplifting.

“Field of Dreams” was made in 1988 and released in 1989. It was a time when, for the better part of a decade, pre-1960s values had been anachronistically recalled and religiously revered and idealism and progressivism were considered a punchline. It’s a movie that could’ve been made by a Ministry of Information for the Reagan Administration if such a thing had existed. Now, nearly 28 years later, it’s a monument to nearly the exact moment the Baby Boomers decided to chuck what remained of their youthful values and make sure that they got theirs before they got too old to go get it. They’ll come, Ray, they’ll pay you $20 a pop, you’ll get rich, your dead dad will be happy with you once again and isn’t that all that really matters?

If you’ve read even a part of what I’ve written around here in the past eight years, you know that I prefer to look forward and not backward and that most of what I find to be wrong with baseball analysis and commentary is a function of people doing way too much of the latter and nowhere near enough of the former. Against that backdrop, “Field of Dreams” is the cinematic equivalent of some old baseball writer lecturing us about “The Golden Age” and telling us that Mike Trout couldn’t carry Mickey Mantle’s jockstrap. It’s a call to look backward, not forward, and to allow sentiment, emotion and nostalgia trump reason and present experience. I don’t care how much it manipulatively pulls on your heartstrings, it’s a worthless and useless message to send. And a cynical one at that.

And forget what I said earlier: Shoeless Joe Jackson was a lefty. If you make a baseball movie and you show him batting right-handed, you don’t deserve to rank anywhere on a “best-of” baseball movie list. That’s just poor and the people who made this movie should feel bad.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights. The Orioles-Indians one is last and is really, really long, but I suspect a lot of you will appreciate it.

Pirates 2, Cubs 1: Adam Frazier socked a two-out, pinch-hit, 11th inning walkoff homer to earn a split for the Buccos. That it was a split was a minor miracle, really, given that the Cubs scored exactly four runs in the series. One run each game, in fact. They just happened to win 1-0 on both Thursday and Friday.

Rockies 4, Braves 2: Atlanta won five in a row last week and claimed first place and then went and got swept in a four-game series at home this weekend. Not that beating good teams is new to the Rockies. Colorado is 30-16 since June 26 and all 46 of those games have been played against winning teams. Or, at the very least, teams which were winning teams at the time. DJ LeMahieu was a killer this weekend. He hit a tie-breaking homer in extra innings on Saturday night and then he homered again here. Braves manager Brian Snitker, commenting on four straight losses on the heels of a five-game winning streak:

“In this business, every time you think you have something figured out, you get kicked right in the teeth”

If he’d have changed “this business” to “life” and then he’d really be dropping truth bombs. Lucky for him sometimes, even when you get kicked in the teeth, things don’t go as bad as they could, though. Such as the Phillies losing two in a row to the Mets and missing out on an excellent chance to make up more ground.

Marlins 12, Nationals 1: The Nats, meanwhile, dropped their seventh game in their last ten. They could do nothing against Jose Urena — and lucky they didn’t, or else maybe he’d try to hurt injure them — who tossed a complete game, allowing just the one run on only two hits. Starlin Castro had five hits and scored three times. JT Riddle and J.T. Realmuto each homered and drove in three, proving once and for all that the periods, or lack thereof, in their first names have no bearing on their baseball ability. That’s just science.

Rangers 4, Angels 2: Rougned Odor hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh to give the Rangers their third win in the four-game series. Bartolo Colon was supposed to start this one for Texas but didn’t because of back stiffness. This is how, all the jokes about his size and his age aside, you know that Colon is a legit athlete. For all normal 45 year-olds — and I speak from personal experience here — back stiffness is more or less the default status, not the rare anomaly which interrupts one’s normal routine.

Rays 2, Red Sox 0: Five Rays pitchers combined to shut out the Sox, Joey Wendle and C.J. Cron went deep and Tampa Bay avoided the sweep. In related news, over the weekend some Rays fans on Twitter decided to take me to task for not thinking the Rays would be good this year. Even the Tampa Bay Times got into the act yesterday, citing yours truly by name.

On the one hand I will totally cop to thinking the Rays would be far worse than they are. Like a lot of predictions, I blew that one. Kudos to the Rays for beating mine and everyone’s expectations for them.

On the other hand, the level of aggression I got from the Rays folks over the weekend was pretty hilarious given that, overachieving notwithstanding, we’re still talking about a team that has hovered around .500 all year and is around 25 games out of first place and 11 back in the Wild Card race. The Oakland A’s they are not. It also doesn’t take into account that most of my criticism was about the Rays front office making financial moves, not baseball moves, and doing it pretty cynically and pretty transparently. That those moves have happened to turn out far better for them than expected does not change the fact that they were financial moves that were and remain pretty hostile to casual fans, most of whom are looking for a connection to their team and some continuity to that end, and who do not give a flying frick about how many prospects are playing in Princeton or wherever and are not as jazzed by a three-year plan as they might be by, you know, having a front office who has as at least part of its mission to put an entertaining product on the field. There’s a certain swath of Rays fandom who does not understand that and, in fact, seems aggressively opposed to even trying to understand it.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not appreciating the glory of their accomplishment in 2018. Rather than merely receiving a respectful nod for doing far better than anyone expected and a mea culpa from those of us who got it wrong, maybe the Rays should hoist a “Most wins per dollars spent” banner to go with the Wild Card banner they put up a couple of years back to show the haters exactly what they’re dealing with.

Yankees 10, Blue Jays 2: Greg Bird hit a grand slam in the first inning and everything after that was cream cheese. J.A. Happ won for the fourth time in four starts as a Yankee, this one against his old mates. It wasn’t all good news, though: Didi Gregorius hurt his left heel in a collision at first base and left the game with a deep bruise that could land him on the disabled list. New York sweeps the three-game series.

Reds 11, Giants 4: Cincy put up a seven-run third inning ending this one before it even got going. Eugenio Suarez and Jose Peraza each hit two-run homers and Billy Hamilton tripled twice and drove in three. The Reds sweep the Giants, who fall eight games back in the west and three games under .500. They scored six runs in the whole series.

White Sox 7, Royals 6: Kansas City took a 6-0 lead into the fourth inning but the Chisox put up a tying six-spot that inning and added a decisive seventh run in the fifth. Omar Narvaez tied it up at six with a homer and then knocked in that decisive run I mentioned with an RBI single. Avasail Garcia hit a three-run bomb.

Twins 5, Tigers 4: Eddie RosarioMax Kepler and Jake Cave all went deep as the Twinkies won their fifth of six. Does anyone call them the Twinkies anymore? I haven’t heard that one for a long time. Then again, I don’t really watch a lot of Twinkies games and never watch sports network highlight shows so maybe I’m just missing it.

Brewers 2, Cardinals 1: Mike Moustakas‘ two-run double in the third held up thanks to Jhoulys Chacin‘s six shutout innings. The win puts the Brewers back ahead of St. Louis for the second Wild Card and ends Milwaukee’s three-game losing streak.

Astros 9, Athletics 4: Houston salvages one and in so doing regains their lead in the AL West. Justin Verlander got the W, earning the 200th win of his career. It wasn’t a pretty win — he didn’t make it out of the sixth and gave up four runs in the process, with three of those runs coming on Khris Davis homers — but as we so often note around here, wins are team-dependent and here his team picked him up. Most of that picking up came via the longball, with Yuli Gurriel, Evan Gattis, Martin Maldonado, Alex Bregman and Marwin Gonzalez going deep.

Dodgers 12, Mariners 1: Clayton Kershaw hasn’t gotten a lot of that team support this year but he got five runs before he even had to throw a pitch here and then cruised to his 150th career win. Maybe the Dodgers’ batters were pissed over losing in extra innings on a walkoff balk the night before. I know I would be. Difference with me is that, when I’m mad, I don’t usually do better work. Justin Turner hit a three-run homer and drove in five. Kershaw allowed one run on four hits in seven innings. L.A. did not gain any ground in the West though, thanks in part to that Rockies win over the Braves and thanks in part to . . .

Diamondbacks 4, Padres 3: . . . the Snakes beating the Friars. A.J. Pollock‘s ninth inning homer was the difference. Arizona had tied it at 3 thanks to Daniel Descalso‘s solo homer in the eighth. The Diamondbacks have won four of five. They retain a half-game lead over Colorado.

Mets 8, Phillies 2Amed Rosario had three hits and drove in three runs, Jeff McNeil had a two-run single and Jason Vargas was effective into the sixth inning as the Mets beat the Phillies in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the Little League Classic. The Phillies have lost seven of 11 and drop a half game behind Atlanta in the East.

Indians 8, Orioles 0: Melky Cabrera hit a grand slam in Cleveland’s six-run fourth inning, Mike Clevinger shut the O’s out for six and three relievers finished it off as the Tribe takes two of three from the O’s.

In related news, I took my kids to the first game of this series on Friday night. They’re not really big baseball fans, but they like going to games. Partially because it’s fun and there’s junk food, but mostly because it provides them a new venue for the sort of savage and absurdist commentary for which Gen-Z kids are quickly becoming famous.

I’ve watched this from a front row seat for a couple of years now. Anyone who follows me on Twitter is familiar with how brutally my daughter Anna, 14, owns me via text messages (and some old timers around here may remember her greatest hits from WAY back in the day). Others who follow me know how deeply into absurdist and envelope-pushing meme culture my son, Carlo, 13, happens to be. Every day is a new, eye-opening adventure. I’m impressed by the level of savagery they’re capable of in their early teens and terrified at what they’re going to capable of once they reach adulthood.

I’m likewise suffering from no small amount of whiplash. I mean, I once thought my fellow Gen-Xers and I had perfected ironic emotional detachment and that whole “whatever, nothing matters anyway” stance. I also thought that a decade’s worth of Millennials restoring an earnestness and emotional honesty to the lexicon of our nation’s youth — the likes of which we haven’t seen for probably 60 or 70 years — had all but buried that jaded sentiment once and for all.

Nope. The Gen-Z kids are going to stomp on the Millennials’ throats and pour acid all over their hopes, dreams and pretensions of an earnest and hopeful world. Then they’ll laugh mockingly at the Gen-Xers as we’re exposed for the amateurs that we are, and will rhetorically kill us, like some warrior coming back to vanquish their sensei. The only saving grace is that whatever Boomers are still left as this happens will just die of shock and outrage. Gen-Z will not be attending their funerals either unless they need some pics of dead grandpa for a devastating meme or two (Carlo has already told my father that he’s going to meme him once he passes away; my father does not quite know what to make of that, mostly because he’s 74 and does not know what a meme is).

Anyway, I’ve blocked out most of what they had to say during the game as a means of psychological self-defense, but trust me when I say that it was three straight hours of running commentary at turns hilarious, frightening and truly disturbing in ways that are hard to pin down. I do, however, remember or have documentation of a few things that went down in between the hot dogs and bon mottes:

  • My son is well aware of my Chief Wahoo stance and, thankfully, agrees with it. Nevertheless, he kept threatening to say “my dad said you’re a racist” to everyone who was wearing Wahoo gear because he said it’d be fun to see what happened. Which, given that he’s basically an agent of chaos — here’s a video of him in action — was a fairly plausible threat. Thankfully he did not do it;
  • My daughter said to my son that Orioles’ outfielder Joey Rickard looked like “that kid Kyle, in your grade.” My son agreed. For the rest of the game, every time Rickard came up, they yelled “don’t mess up, Kyle!” Rickard went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and all the way home they would fill silences with “Dammit, Kyle” and shake their heads after which they’d laugh hysterically. They then said that, at school today, they were going to tell Kyle he sucked but not tell him why. I think it’s 50/50 that they do it;
  • Slider, the Indians’ mascot came up to our section. This is a screencap from my daughter’s Snapchat:

All of that being said, I don’t want you to get the impression that Anna and Carlo’s entire existence is savage owns and joking and ironic detachment. They are actually smart, sweet and sensitive kids who, when they’re not joking around, possess more empathy for their fellow humans than most adults who have seen and experienced far more than they have do. I am proud of my kids for that. Truly proud. Indeed I worry that the jaded exterior I’ve been describing is a defensive perimeter they and their generation have been forced to erect because the generations which came before them have thrown so much fear into their world and, perhaps, are even ruining it before my kids get a chance to live in it as adults. That’s a lot to put on anyone, but the fact that we’ve put that sort of weight on our children is a tragedy. Knowing that the’ll have to cope with what we have done to make their lives harder and, quite possibly, shorter, breaks my heart.

Those thoughts were swirling around my head as the game neared its end Friday evening. As they did, I looked over to Carlo and Anna sitting next to me. They were watching the game intently. And, even though it had started raining, quite contently. They seemed happy. The cynicism and the wiseguy routines had been left back in the middle innings somewhere. When Cody Allen struck out Kyle, er, I mean Joey Rickard, for the game’s final out, they both stood up and cheered a genuine and exuberant cheer. When they did, I figured it was a good opportunity for some rare heartfelt sincerity.

“So, Baseball. You like it, eh?” I said in my proudest dad voice, thinking that, just maybe, we had bonded over something near and dear to my heart. Anna looked at me and smiled. Then she said something I’ll never forget.

“Not really. But I guess I sort of have to respect it because if it wasn’t for baseball you’d be unemployed and I’d probably be homeless.”