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Field of Dreams: A Father's Day film worth remembering

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Field of Dreams, which came out 25 years ago this year, is one of those unique movies that is remembered for bringing grown men to tears in the movie theatre. What is it about this baseball movie that resonates so strongly with men?

Truthfully, Field of Dreams is not exactly what you would call a “baseball movie”. Though baseball serves as the film’s backdrop, the real story is that of a broken relationship between a father and a son and there being enough “magic in the moonlight” to reconcile them long after it seemed humanly possible to experience reconciliation. As such, it is an especially poignant movie to look back on during Father’s Day weekend.

1. Plot summary

Ray Kinsella (portrayed by Kevin Costner) is an Iowa farmer who lives with his wife Annie and their daughter Karen. One night, Ray hears an enigmatic voice in his corn field saying, “If you build it, he will come”. Ray becomes convinced that if he converts a section of his corn field into a baseball field, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, a long dead former Major League Baseball player, will be able to come back and play the sport he loves.

For Ray, giving Shoeless Joe a chance to come back from the dead to play baseball is more than a fan’s obsession with a sport; it is intensely personal. Shoeless Joe was the hero of Ray’s father, himself a minor league baseball player. Ray says that as a child, instead of fairy tales, he was put to sleep by his father’s stories of the great Shoeless Joe. Jackson was a member of the infamous 1919 Chicago White Sox team which attempted to “fix” the World Series (popularly known as the Black Sox scandal); Jackson and seven of his teammates were banned for life from playing baseball. Jackson’s guilt was long a point of debate—in the series he was allegedly trying to lose, his performance was stellar. As Ray tells his daughter, though Shoeless Joe took the money gamblers paid him, no one could ever prove he did a thing to intentionally lose the games.

Ray knows building the field makes no sense, but he fears it may be his last chance to do something risky, to prove to himself that he’s not his father. When Annie asks Ray what his father has to do with the field, Ray tells her that he never witnessed the man take one risk in his life. He was cautious—and Ray is determined not to follow suit.

Though Ray’s neighbors question his sanity, sure enough, once the field is constructed, Shoeless Joe (portrayed by Ray Liotta) arrives one night. Little by little, more and more deceased baseball players show up, though at first no one except Ray and his immediate family are able to see them or the games they are playing (Annie’s brother Mark is aghast at how much time Ray spends sitting at the field “staring at nothing”).

The next voice Ray hears tells him to “Ease his pain”, and Ray becomes convinced this is a reference to reclusive author, Terrance Mann (patterned after real life author, J.D. Salinger). Ray drives across the country to kidnap Mann and take him to a Boston Red Sox game. At the game, Ray gets another voice—“Go the distance”—and this time Terrance Mann (portrayed by James Earl Jones) is able to hear it as well. This leads them both to drive to Minnesota to find another former baseball player, Archibald Graham (portrayed by Burt Lancaster).

As the movie progresses, piece by piece, we learn how Shoeless Joe was woven into the breakdown of Ray’s relationship with his father. Ray says at one point his that father tried to shove baseball down his throat and by the time he was a teenager playing catch with his father had become a chore—like eating his vegetables. Fed up, at age 17, Ray told his dad he could never respect a man whose hero was a criminal (Shoeless Joe) and ran away from home. Asked why, knowing that Shoeless Joe was not really guilty, he would say such a thing, Ray said, “Because I was 17”. Ray looks back with pain, thinking of how his father never had the chance to meet Annie or Karen. “The son of a bitch died before I had the chance to take it back,” he said. Ray grieves that he can’t bring his father back, but he reasons that the next best thing he can do is bring his hero, Shoeless Joe, back.

Ray’s family is on the verge of losing the farm; the construction of the field and the consequential loss of so much crop space has left them unable to pay their mortgage. At this point, Karen “prophesies” that people will come to watch the baseball games and the money made from the tourism will get them through. Seemingly taken over by the same prophetic spirit, Terrance Mann echoes Karen, assuring Ray that people will come.

At the end, Terrance is invited to “go out” with the players (meaning walk into the corn crop and disappear with them into wherever it is they go to when the games are over). At first, Ray is jealous thinking that if anyone should be entitled to go out with the team and see what lies beyond, it should be him. After all, as he says, the players are guests in his corn. Shoeless Joe tells Ray he must stay behind, then nods to the catcher who is taking off his equipment. “If you build it, he will come”, Joe says. Ray is stunned to see his father’s face behind the catcher’s mask.

Suddenly, all of the messages make sense to Ray. “If you build it, he will come” was a reference, not so much to Shoeless Joe, but to Ray’s father. “Ease his pain” may have been about Terrance Mann in a secondary sense, but it too was primarily about Ray’s father. “Go the distance” wasn’t so much about Archibald Graham as it was Ray’s father. Somehow, the magical baseball field Ray has been instructed to build has enabled him to see his long dead father and make amends. Ray introduces his father to Annie and Karen, then, with tears in his eyes, Ray asks, “Dad, do you want to have catch?” His father says, “I’d like that” and the two begin throwing the baseball back and forth to each other.

Ray’s father asks him the same question Shoeless Joe asked at the film’s beginning—“Is this heaven?” Ray assures him it’s just Iowa. When Ray asks his father if there is a heaven, his father tells him it’s the place where dreams come true. Ray looks around at his farm, sees his daughter and wife on the front porch swing, and sighs wistfully, “Maybe this is heaven.” As the camera pans out, viewers get an areal view of the field, seeing cars stretching back for hundreds of miles to get in.

2. Comparison between book and movie

The film is based on the 1982 book, Shoeless Joe written by W.P. Kinsella. Though the book is fascinating in its own right, the film is in some ways an improvement over the book. At times, the book lacks the emotional punch the film carries with it and the characterization is weaker. In the film, Ray wrestles long and hard over what “If you build it, he will come” could possibly mean. In the book, Ray mysteriously just knows the message is about Shoeless Joe, and readers are clued in on the first page. In the book it is not even Ray, but rather Ray’s twin brother (a character the film omits), who has the broken relationship with his father. The reconciliation between Ray’s brother and father comes across as somewhat anticlimactic.

Another minor difference—whereas the film is set in 1989, the book is set in 1978. In the movie, when traveling back in time to interview Archibald Graham Ray goes to 1972; in the book, he goes all the way back to 1955.

3. Conclusion

The Old Testament ends with a prophecy regarding the return of Elijah the prophet—a prophecy the New Testament explains was a reference to the ministry of John the Baptist. Malachi 4:6, the Old Testament’s last verse, promises that the prophet “will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers”, illustrating how much God values harmony between fathers and sons.

In Field of Dreams, Ray got a miraculous chance to reconcile with his father, but most of us mortals will never get such a chance. If you and your father have a broken relationship, the time to make amends is now. It takes two people to reconcile, and perhaps you feel like you’ve already done all you can do, and have been unsuccessful. If that’s you, please don’t give up hope. Persevere and trust God to honor your efforts.

Happy Father’s Day!

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