Thursday, March 21, 2013

Heath Holland On...Field of Dreams

If you build it, they will come. And by "they," we’re talking about ghosts. Who you gonna call?

It’s happens around this time every year: the frost starts to melt, the trees and flowers start to bloom again, and I have to fire up the lawn mower for that painful first cut of the year. Winter is releasing its icy grip and the sun is teasing us with the faintest hint that soon we not only won’t need that thick winter coat. We might not even need long sleeves (or even pants!). Spring (not Winter) is coming. Of course, with Spring comes a whole new set of circumstances. Bees buzz and pollen covers EVERYTHING with a sickly yellow film that just screams “You’re gonna be washing your car…a LOT.” The threat of a bunny breaking into your house and leaving eggs and candy is statistically greater at this time of year. But with all that comes something wonderful. The all-American pastime. No, not competitive eating. I’m talking 'bout baseball.

I don’t know what it is about baseball. I can’t quote statistics, batting averages, RBIs, MVPs, FBIs, CIAs, AOLs or WTFs. There is no professional team in my city -- or even in my state -- so I didn’t grow up going to games. I live in far more of a football community than a baseball one. But when March comes each year, I find myself looking forward to the crack of the bat, the smell of the baseball glove…okay, and competitive eating.

Baseball has some sort of a hold on America. There’s that saying about apple pie, and I think it’s true. Baseball, somehow, is part of who we are. From the grandstands of the stadium to the backyard, playing a father/son game of catch, many of us have some sort of touchstone surrounding baseball.

And at around this time every year I want to watch Field of Dreams. It’s my favorite baseball movie, more than Major League, Bad News Bears, more even than the multiple Oscar winner Rookie of the Year. It’s a movie that exists almost solely for the purpose of sentimentality -- a sentimentality not just for baseball as it had been before any of us were born, but also of the cultural idea of what baseball stands for to so many people. If you break it down and think too much about it, you quickly realize that Field of Dreams is not a great movie. It doesn’t hold together or make much sense. But it does accomplish what it sets out to do, which is connect baseball to a feeling. You know me, I’m a sucker for a sappy movies. I get mushy at the end of Terminator 2. OF COURSE I love this movie.
Kevin Costner stars as Ray Kinsella, a middle-aged ex-hippie who, along with his wife (played with zero restraint and near unbearable gusto by Amy Madigan), decide to move to the Iowa country and start a farm, complete with a huge corn field. One day, while walking in that corn, he hears a whispering voice that tells him “If you build it, he will come.” Build what? A baseball field, of course, complete with lights, fences, and some bleachers -- everything except a 19-year old selling those cheap plastic sticks that flash and make noise. The voice continues to communicate with Ray, urging him on his quest, and before you know it Ray has what appear to be the ghosts of dead baseball players batting and catching in his field, led by Ray “Pass-The-Cocaine” Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson. But that’s just the start. Before the credits roll, we’ve followed Ray on a road trip to find James Earl Jones, to Boston’s Fenway Park, to Minnesota looking for Burt Lancaster, and then back to Iowa for the Unrestful Dead World Series.

Where these baseball players come from, why they have not aged since their baseball-playing heyday (they aren’t old man ghosts), and where they go when they walk back into the corn is never explained. I don’t think the movie is interested in explaining that, nor do I think we’re supposed to dwell on the finer details and the “why” of the story. We’re supposed to blindly follow it (like Ray does) and go along with the story. And while the movie is playing, it totally works. It’s after you’ve wiped your eyes and gone to fix a hot dog that you start to ask these questions. The movie casts a spell, but the spell doesn’t last forever. It’s a sentimental candy bar, good for the moment but not for lasting satisfaction.
The acting, for the most part, is pretty good. Costner is in full “everyman” mode, and no matter what I watch him in, I feel like I’m seeing him as he really is. He’s a likable, believable dude, and that’s what this role requires of him. You don’t hire Costner for Shakespeare; you hire him for Midwest, salt of the earth roles. Similarly, Ray Liotta does his Ray Liotta thing. He’s always watchable and frequently seems to be on the cusp of being dangerous. Whatever you do, don’t look directly into his eyes for more than a few seconds. Gary Busey did that once, and you can see how that worked out.

James Earl Jones is awesome, as only Darth Vader can be. I like watching him because he always looks like he’s having fun. In fact, everyone in this movie seems like they barely knew the cameras were rolling. These days, I find that I have a much greater appreciation for actors that appear natural on screen and say their lines with effortless grace, like they could care less that they’re being captured on film for all eternity, than I do for people that chew scenery. I’m not going to call any actors out on that scenery chewing thing, but let’s say one of them rhymes with Hal Macino. Hooooo-ah!

Burt Lancaster is my favorite thing about this movie. He plays an old man who has long since left his boyhood baseball dreams behind him and become a real hero by saving lives as a country doctor. He’s wonderful; his performance is moving and subtly powerful. It speaks of a man who has found peace in realizing that life has taken him down wonderful but unexpected paths, leading to happiness he might never have found had his baseball career taken off. It’s the kind of performance that can only be given by someone who has lived a long and full life and can relay that experience and hard won wisdom in his performance. A few years after this movie, Burt Lancaster was gone.

The reason I like this movie more than any other baseball movie is because it’s not just about baseball. It’s not a romance set against the backdrop of baseball, or Rocky story of an aging athlete facing overwhelming odds. This movie resonates with me so well because it’s about family, and making the most of the time we have with the ones we love.
Interestingly, a trip to Wikipedia revealed that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were in the crowd of spectators at the Boston Red Sox game shown in the movie. And that the field that Ray built in the movie had, until 2011, been owned by one man who allowed thousands and thousands of visitors each year to come see it without charging a dime for admission. His sole revenue stream from the field was from a souvenir shop on the property. He signed for it to be sold in 2011 to a company called “Go the Distance Baseball." There are plans to make the site even more of a tourist destination. I can’t say for certain, but I worry that the generous spirit that’s surrounded the site and allowed it to remain open and free for over two decades will soon be a thing of the past.
Next year, Field of Dreams will be 25 years old, but it has aged well. It still stands up as a great drama about America’s love affair with baseball and how the sport is woven into our fabric. It’s among the few sports movies that transcends being a movie about a game and becomes simply a good movie about people.

Do you have a favorite baseball movie? Is anyone else excited about the start of the season? Let’s discuss it below.


  1. Heath! Nice column. As a baseball fan, this gets me pumped up a bit.

    "Zero restraint and near unbearable gusto" may be my new favorite description of a performance.

    I can't even type 'wanna have a catch' without almost crying. That Kevin Costner man. He is AMERICA! He's like the Bruce Springsteen of actors.

    My personal favorite baseball movie is The Sandlot because it shows what baseball means to kids and that's when most of us fall in love with baseball. It also shows an era when that's what you did all summer..played baseball and shot the sh*t with your friends. My Dad has told me that is how it was for him growing up. Unfortunately when I was in little league it was tough getting 4 let alone 9 or 10 people together to play a pick-up game.

    What MLB team do you root for?

    1. I don't have tons of history with MLB because I wasn't really raised with it. With us not having teams here, the closest I ever got to actually going to a game was the Atlanta Braves, 2 1/2 hours away, and that was rare. But baseball is part of the American conscious, so I do tend to root for the Braves, the Cubs, the Red Sox, and the Yankees. Really, though, because I wasn't raised to root for a team, I'm usually content to watch games without getting too worked up about a side. It's more about the whole experience.

  2. I like Field of Dreams a lot and in my case it is not aided at all by a pre-existing fondness of baseball. The film just works.

    I've never been bothered by any of the unexplained aspects of the fantasy elements. The film never breaks any of its own "rules" as far as I can tell.

  3. Ah Field of Dreams, I agree with your sentiments Heath its a fine film indeed. I have to admit when I first saw this movie back in the day I couldn't take it seriously when the old tv show The Critic did a Field of Dreams parody which had all the players being incredibly crude and asking where they could get a hooker.

    After I washed that bit of comedy out of my mouth I revisited the film and also found it to be very pleasant piece of Americana. It's kind of a shame Costner went from doing this movie to doing For Love of the Game which wasn't the worst baseball movie ever but thats only cause there was no monkey in that one (then again trade whoever played Costner's girlfriend with the monkey you would have one hell of a memorable time)

    As for my fav baseball movie I am with Mr. Riske on that with The Sandlot. One of the great things about The Sandlot besides the Beast and Wendy Peffercorn is that all of the characters in the film are very distinct but also don't fall into that trap of being stereotyped like a bad teen horror flick. One of the best ensemble casts I have ever seen in a movie, no wonder this puppy still gets a lot of play on cable (we will just pretend the horrendous DTV sequels don't exist ok) I know I've said it before but you should totally do a podcast on Sandlot.

    As to Adam's question I am from Tampa so I am a Tampa Bay Rays fan, the ultimate underdogs of baseball lowest salary in the MLB yet every year we are in the hunt. I guess saying that my fav baseball movie should be The Rookie but it does have the Dennis E-Quaider effect going for it. By the end of my little league days I kinda wished I was on the Bad News Bears, at least when they lose the game they get to drink brews afterwards.

    1. Field of Dreams is FILTHY. I can't watch it with my kid because of the explicit blow job scene.

      And I'm of the opinion that monkeys make all movies better. That's why Jack Black has had such a successful career. HEYO! I kid, I kid. He's a fine, fine comedic personality.

      I haven't seen the Sandlot in a long time, but I was a little older than those kids were in that movie when it came out and that may have flavored my interest in it. I have, like, zero memory of it.

  4. I have never seen Field of Dreams (guess I should!) or a few others mentioned, but I have seen, and love, The Sandlot. Still holds up for me. If you wanna talk hockey, my favorite movie is Mighty Ducks 14: Bend Over and Get Quacked.

    My love for baseball ended in the Summer of 1994 when they went on strike. This just after all of my boyhood dreams came true TWICE with the Toronto Blue Jays winning back-to-back World Series. The first one especially is my greatest sports moment of all time, but after the strike I discovered NFL Football which I was both better at playing and more interested in watching. When baseball came back on the next year, my love for it did not (nor did the Jays as contenders).

    I've got a brother-in-law that's totally into it and, if the Jays really have the Dream Team they're talking about I might try to get back into it this year!

    1. Your Mighty Ducks joke made me giggle with glee. Did you ever buy/read The Dark Knight Returns? No pressure, just wonderin'.

    2. I am so glad you asked, sir, that column feels so buried (the Internet moves too fast) I wasn't sure when/where to bring it up.

      I totally bought AND read The Dark Knight Returns a few weeks ago now and not only did I dig it the most, but it also sorta rekindled my love for comics in general. I don't think I'll ever really become a regular collector again, but I've been picking up TPBs - the Reign of the Supermen series for old time's sake, the Claremont/Miller Wolverine book, some Aliens stuff - on eBay for pretty friggin cheap. So, yeah, thanks man, in a small way you've CHANGED MY LIFE.

      But back to The Dark Knight Returns - such a masterpiece of storytelling period - I don't think I've ever found Batman so interesting (and I've always found him pretty interesting). I did rent the movies too (I'll buy the inevitable box-set) and found they captured the spirit of the book perfectly - having read it first only added to the experience. As much as I wish it could be done well in live-action, you're right that the cartoon (probably not hipster to call it a cartoon?) was the only way to go - I like my Batman with white eyes too!

      You had me at The Hobbit but this definitely locked you in as a Trusted Recommender of Good Shit - like all of the other F This Movie...TROGS.

      I'm sure y'all aren't as monster-y as I'm now imagining you are.

    3. Well, I'm a monster, but more of the Charlize Theron Oscar winning variety. No makeup, and I tongue kiss Christina Ricci.

      I'm really glad you enjoyed both the Dark Knight Returns comics and the movies. It's good to get the feedback on that. Also, Reign of the Supermen! Woohoo! Love it. And Superman coming back with a mullet? Yes please. Superman should always have a mullet. He should also have a special cape that says "these colors don't run."

      I'm really glad that it all helped you to get back into comics. Not collecting, per se, but reading them and enjoying them. That's pretty much where I'm at. There's way too much to try to collect or keep up with, so I just hit the stuff I know I like a few times a year. Since you're back into it, let me recommend the last great Batman story that rocked my world. It's Batman: The Court of Owls volume 1. Canadian Amazon link below!

      It's part of DC's New 52 branding from a year or two ago. They kind of wiped the slate clean on their characters because they were so bogged down with continuity that it was nearly impossible to pick up the stories anymore. It seems to have freed them up a lot. This is some of the greatest Batman I've ever read. I mean, it's up there with classic stories. It incorporates current Batman with a secret society that's been manipulating Gotham City for over a hundred years (The Court of Owls...members of Gotham's elite and high society who use assassins dressed as owls to kill), so there's elements of modern Batman as well as old, Victorian Gotham City. And the book does some crazy stuff. In one part, Batman is very disoriented, and the book slowly starts to turn. You have to turn it sideways to continue the story. Then as you go, the book eventually turns upside down. It was something that was SO effective, I'd never seen it done before. Really disoriented you and helped the storytelling. Blew my mind. And the things they do to Batman, I've never seen anyone do. They put the character through the wringer. It's SO dark. I loved it, and it's still going on. I've only read the 7 or so issues that are in that one book. But since you're back into it, you should check it out. Maybe they'll animate that one day. It would be killer.

    4. Thanks for the tip buddy, I'll be sure to check that one out - sounds very interesting.

  5. I don't care for baseball. I hate the fucking NY Yankees. I don't care for baseball movies, but I love "Field of Dreams." It's lightning-in-a-bottle good, as in everyone (Costner, the cast, writer/director Phil A. Robinson, the location, the year it came out, etc.) is where they should have been when the cosmic game of life set the wheels of its creation in motion. I've never played catch with my dad (wasn't around when I was a kid and as an adult neither one of us cared enough about sports to even try it) but that line between Costner and you-know-who at the end is just powerful, head-of-steam-built-from-the-opening-shot stuff that can (and has) made grown man cry. A modern day classic.