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This baseball movie that is not a baseball movie features a man on a journey of sorts as he learns to reconnect with his long dead father through their mutual love of the sport. A critical and box office success, it helped propel Kevin Costner into international superstardom while both engaging fans of the game and existential thinkers alike. There’s a lot that’s memorable about this classic movie experience, directed by Phil Alden Robinson, but here’s 5 things you (probably) never noticed. Warning: Spoilers Ahead
In the story, Ray Kinsella (Costner) is raising his young family on a farm in Iowa, he and his wife (Amy Madigan) products of the 1960s. As a younger man, Ray’s father died while the two were estranged, the father and son never truly connected. In a prologue to the film, we hear about Ray’s father’s love of baseball, and even a short stint he had in the pros where they splash a picture of him (Dwier Brown) in a striped uniform with his catcher’s mask and backward cap, the image a sepia-stained throwback to days gone by.
Much later in the film, as the magical baseball field in the corn becomes a haven for ghosts of the sport, Ray’s father arrives, and when first seen, is in the same pose as he was in the image at the start of the film, striped uniform, catcher’s mask and backward cap, but also … it is the same field. The only difference is, now, he’s wearing a NY emblem on his sleeve.
Narratively speaking, whoa, this raises huge questions, like, has this happened before? Who took the old picture? Are there two timelines? Is history repeating? Was that short stint in the Major’s played only as a ghost? More likely it’s the only day of shooting actor Brown was on set and they just took some stills of him from that moment and pasted it at the beginning of the movie thinking no one would notice. Um, we noticed.
So Ray hears voices. He’s in his cornfield, tending to the corn when a disembodied voice tells him “If you build it, he will come.” Everybody knows that one. Anyway, in the story, it kinda freaks Ray out, naturally, and he’s not entirely sure how to handle it. He’s a sane guy. Yeah, sure he experimented in the 60s but that’s behind him. So what’s going on?
Thinking of logical explanations, he finds himself at the feed store picking up supplies while chatting with a local old-timey farmer, making small talk about you know, strange things that happen in the fields, like … hearing voices. Of course, the old-timer hasn’t any idea what he’s talking about and to make it worse, announces to the whole place that Ray’s hearing things. That’s the proverbial record scratch moment.
If you pay attention though as the scene unfolds, you’ll notice that a song is playing softly in the background, apparently over the sound system at the store. The song? Well its title is heard just at the very moment when everyone stops and stares at Ray when told he’s got voices in his head. It’s ‘Crazy’ by Willie Nelson, made famous by Patsy Cline, yet it’s not Patsy Cline singing, it’s Beverly D’Angelo who played Patsy Cline in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter. The studio behind both films? Universal. Crazy.
So after Ray plows under his corn and builds the ball field, amazingly enough, the actual ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) appears, along with the other 7 players kicked out of baseball from the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. It seems the voice in Ray’s head was right. He built it. He came. But … wouldn’t you know it, that’s not the ‘he’ the voice was talking about. To make matter worse, now the voice instructs him to ‘ease his pain.’
It doesn’t take long for Ray to figure out that the voice means a man named Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones), a highly-reclusive author of the 60s who wrote some of that generation’s most influential works, including a book called The Boat Rocker, a title right on the nose in terms of defining what the character is meant to represent. Either way, as Ray tries to figure out how a satirist from the 60s could be connected with ball players from 1919, he goes to the library and searches microfiche (anyone remember them?) and archival magazines, coming upon an article about the writer.
One page is on screen for less than one full second and yet, is a nearly fully-fleshed out article that has only one repeating set of paragraphs. It goes on to describe how Mann left the literary circle and has many wondering where and why, but also of his great political power in that time, even landed in jail for a few days. The guy was a rebel.
At one point in the story, in one sentence, it makes a reference to baseball, comparing him to a player who has lost his fastball. Sure, we later learn a bit more of his love of the game, but this little addition, in an image viewed in an absolute blink is a cool touch that shows, even in the details, the movie was working its metaphors wherever it could. Nice little easter egg.
Speaking of Terrance Mann, the fictional character was meant to be legendary author J.D. Salinger, who in the book version of Field of Dreams is the man Kinsella seeks out in order to ease some pain, but refused to be in the film and threatened a lawsuit if his name was used. Written as a character exclusively for the movie, Mann is a similarly influential person and mirrors Salinger in that he has given up writing and gone into hiding, preferring to live in solitude.
There is a brief scene in the film after Ray convinces Mann to attend a Major League game in Boston, where the two are driving home from Fenway on rain-soaked streets while the VW bus travels along neon-lit streets. At one point, as the camera pans from Ray to Mann, a storefront sign slips across the windshield right into the eye-line of Mann, reveling a single blue word that recalls who and what he once was: Books.
It’s a subtle little reminder of the character’s past, and the somberness of the moment, highlighted by a piece of wonderfully emotive piano music by composer Jerry Horner that really resonates, even as the glimpse of the word might be missed. Good stuff.
After Mann joins Ray in the quest to figure what the baseball field really means, they get a clue to head to a small town in Minnesota to meet a old player named Doc “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster). Once there, they discover that the man died years earlier, and their hopes seemed dashed, but when Ray heads out of the motel that evening, boom, he finds himself transported to 1972 and meets the aged doctor strolling the streets.
Ray and Moonlight talk about baseball, and how Graham had one shot at the Majors, playing half an inning in the outfield before giving up and making a career in medicine. Yet, sensing Ray is a man who can make wishes come true, tells of how he’d like just one day to live it again, to have a chance to get at bat, but more so, to stare down a pitcher and wink, to run the bases, to stretch a double into a triple and flop face-first into third plate and wrap his arms around the bag. That is his wish.
Well, of course, the next day, Ray and Mann are driving back and pick up a young hitchhiker (Frank Whaley) who turns out to be a young “Moonlight” Graham looking for a chance at that dream.
They drive him back to Iowa and sure enough, he joins the big leaguers. He does get a chance at bat, winks at the pitcher, and then … singles before getting tossed out, allowing a runner to get home. Good job, and an emotional moment but … so much for his dream. Next day, he’s called into a different kind of action and well, maybe some things shouldn’t be spoiled.