I watched The Field of Dreams again tonight.
No reason, really. I’ve seen it six or seven times, usually late at night, never intending to watch it all the way through, but losing track of time, staying up too late. It’s fanciful, and fun, a little heavy-handed at times, but good-hearted and hopeful, and restorative.
And sometime, after the field has been built in an Iowa corn field, sometime after the field works its magic, sometime when dreams take hold, I tear up again, as I always do, and again I am surprised and confused by overwhelming emotion, by hope and loss and reconciliation.
It’s about baseball, of course, and baseball is just a game, although for some of us there’s something sustaining about the game, not necessarily, the day-to-day ballgames, but the game itself. It’s no accident that it was this game that first lived beyond the season in what were called Hot Stove leagues, allowing coots such as I am to huddle for warmth and swap strongly held convictions about what pitcher could mow down what batter in what situation, and who was the greatest, and which line up could prevail in any situation. Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame infielder who holds the record for the highest batting average in the major leagues, .424 in 1924, put it this way:
“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
It matters that baseball keeps track of itself with an earnestness that other games do not. Live ball or dead ball, spitball, raised mound, designated hitter – we know some things with certainty. So, for example, we know Lou Gehrig batted in 185 runs in 1931 as part of the Yankees Murderer’s Row. Why is that an important thing to know? Well, the National League leader in RBIs this year, Nolan Arenado, knocked in 133, and two years ago, Mike Trout took the American League title with 111. It’s not the records themselves that are important, although it is difficult for purists when steroid use jumped up the number of home runs in a season; what matters is the conversation, the continuum, the community that experiences the game as an inheritance.
George Will, the crusty and often curmudgeonly political analyst, grows positively rhapsodic when writing about the game.
“Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals.”
The film touches on all of that but also allows the field to call to other, perhaps deeper, emotions. It’s about dreams deferred, about investing heart and soul in unlikely causes, about faith, about making amends, about longing for gifts we could not dare to request. It is about fathers and about sons and about the rituals that allow fathers and sons to connect with each other despite the strictures of being a father or a son.
I’m snuffling almost from the start but lose it all completely when Kevin Costner, who as a son had turned his back on a father who died too young, picks up a ball and asks a father returned, “You want to play catch?”
Here’s how poet Donald Hall recalls his own experience with his father.
”Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard, violent and superficial. Baseball is the generations, looping backward forever with a million apparitions of sticks and balls. . . . Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, lazy and murderous, wild and controlled, the profound archaic song of birth, growth, age and death.”
It’s complicated. I never had a father, never played catch. That still hurts, could be the sort of wound that festers and embitters. But I have sons, and I have a daughter, and I did play catch with them.
One summer I took one of my boys on a Hall of Fame pilgrimage. We stopped in Cooperstown and Canton and Springfield, and South Bend. On the way home, we stopped in Iowa.
We drove right up to the edge of that field, parked, took out our gloves, and walking toward the first base line, I heard what I had longed for without knowing it was a longing.
“Hey, Dad. Want to play catch?”
In the film, players come to the field and ask, “Is this Heaven?” and the answer they receive is “No, it’s Iowa”.
I sit today feeling grateful that for me it has been Iowa, or Michigan, or California, or Oregon, or wherever I am.