“If you build it, he will come.”
Thirty years after the release of “Field of Dreams,” it’s time for a major reassessment.
Sorry, all you folks who view baseball — and this movie — as some sort of timeless metaphor for connecting to your past and understanding what America is really all about.
In reality, it’s just another terrible film.
If you can somehow get past all the factual errors and horrible casting — Ray “Goodfellas” Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson? — you realize this is nothing more than an epic helping of corniness, passed off as some of ethereal fantasy that gets to the deeper meaning of life, which apparently is nothing more than the chance to play one more game of catch with your athletically challenged dad.
Like so many people, I remember gushing over “Field of Dreams” after it was released on April 21, 1989, but that was also a time when I still clung to the schmaltzy belief — pushed by folks such as George Will and Bob Costas — that baseball was more than a sport. It was the national pastime, a slow-moving game that somehow managed to epitomize all that is great about our country on a patch of grass and dirt marked by 90-foot paths.
Or as James Earle Jones’ character, reclusive author Terence Mann, tells Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella, in one of the film’s signature scenes: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
Can someone pass a barf bag?
That sequence gets to one of the major problems with “Field of Dreams,” which conveniently ignores the ugly racial history of baseball and America, even though it chose to cast Jones, one of our most esteemed African-American actors, as a central character. (In the novel the movie was based on, “Shoeless Joe,” the reclusive author was J.D. Salinger, but the filmmakers were apparently afraid of a lawsuit if they referenced him, so they came up with a fictional character instead).
Jones’ Terence Mann, we’re told, was a 1960s firebrand whose push for social change was so radical that an Iowa school wants to ban his books. Yet he’s mesmerized by a cornfield that features a bunch of players from an era when Major League Baseball was for whites only.
To briefly recap, Costner’s Kinsella is the owner of a struggling Midwest farm who, while wandering through his stalks one evening, hears an ominous voice command, “If you build it, he will come.” This leads to him to mow down part of his crop to construct a baseball field, even though this will likely cause his financial ruin. (It’s never explained why using a small patch of land on a farm that appeared to be hundreds if not thousands of acres would cause it to go under, but we digress).
We also learn that Kinsella had a troubled relationship with his father, who idolized Jackson despite him being implicated in the Black Sox scandal. One day, Jackson appears on the field in his Chicago uniform, and he later returns with the other seven players who were accused of taking payoffs to throw the 1919 World Series.
We also find out from Shoeless Joe that they won’t let the ghost of Ty Cobb play because he wasn’t a good guy.
No jerks allowed on this field!
But you fixed a World Series?
After hearing more voices, Kinsella takes off for Boston, winds up kidnapping Mann, goes to a game at Fenway Park, travels on to Minnesota to pick up the ghost of Moonlight Graham (portrayed by Burt Lancaster in his final film role and based on a real person who played one game in the major leagues, didn’t get a chance to hit and went on to become a doctor), reveals a falling-out with his father over the Black Sox, returns to Iowa to watch more ghosts playing ball and — well — blah, blah, blah.
Moving ahead to the spoiler alert: Graham finally gets a chance to bat against big leaguers (though, strangely, he hits a sacrifice fly, which still doesn’t count as an official at-bat even for a ghost) and Mann follows Jackson and all those players into the corn stalks (apparently to integrate baseball in the great beyond). Then Kinsella gets a chance to play one last game of catch with his dad, who was on the field the whole time but obscured by his catcher’s gear, and throws like someone who’s never picked up a baseball in this or any other life.
“Field of Dreams” was a success at the box office and a hit with the critics, who apparently skipped all the scenes with Liotta portraying Jackson, who was born, raised and died in South Carolina. Liotta played Jackson with the same wise-cracking demeanor and New York accent that would fit the part much better the following year, when he portrayed a turncoat mobster in an actual movie classic, “Goodfellas.”
The baseball flick was nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards — losing to “Driving Miss Daisy” in what was clearly a down year for the film industry — and added to the National Film Registry for its historical significance in 2017. No mention was made was all the cliche leads the movie’s best-known line would inspire from lazy sportswriters (yep, me included) every time a new stadium was built.
If you want to watch Costner in a baseball movie with some entertainment value, may we suggest “Bull Durham.”
“Field of Dreams” deserves to be ghosted.