When I came home from work this afternoon, I changed clothes, got a Pepsi from the fridge, shared a couple of sticks of cheese with my dog, and sat down on the couch to read the morning paper which arrives long after I’ve gone to work. There was a lot of baseball news in the sports pages today, so when I finished, I turned on the MLB network, and I happened to catch a documentary about the Negro Leagues. I always find that story inspiring because it has a happy ending. When that finished, MLB Tonight’s Week In Review show aired, and I thought it might be a good idea to do some catching up. After all, it’s not every week that Derek Jeter announces he’s retiring at the end of the season. Jim Fregosi passed away this week. I had more than a few Jim Fregosi baseball cards when I was growing up. Ralph Kiner passed away as well. He was before my time so I only know him by name and reputation. But I knew enough to bow my head when I heard he’d gone.
I changed my Facebook page to a baseball theme, and, as luck would have it, TCM was airing Field of Dreams this evening. I always think the best baseball movie is whatever one I happen to be watching at the moment. Tonight it was Field of Dreams. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it over the past 25 years. But I have never stumbled upon it while channel surfing and turned it off. I can’t. There’s real magic in that film. There are hundreds of special moments in it, and at some point you are no longer aware of your surroundings, or what time of day it is. There’s nothing on your mind except what you’re seeing on the screen. And what you’re seeing is magic. Heaven is in a cornfield in Iowa. It’s the place dreams come true.
I don’t believe in heaven anymore, and I don’t dream at my age either – except when I sleep. But every February, when the chill in the air has you believing you will never be warm again, and your shoes and socks are wet from trudging through yet another snowfall, magic happens. Training camps in Arizona and Florida open, and ball players awaken from their hibernation, and there is baseball again.
In the film, there’s a scene where Kevin Costner’scharacter, Ray Kinsella, travels to Minnesota to find “Moonlight” Graham (played beautifully by the great Burt Lancaster). “Moonlight” Graham is “Doc” Graham, the town’s physician, and when Ray arrives he discovers “Doc” has been dead 16 years. One night he leaves his motel room and takes a walk and discovers it’s 1972 again, and he encounters “Doc” Graham on the streets. He and “Doc” walk to his office while Ray asks him about the single Major League Baseball game he appeared in 50 years earlier, and offers “Doc” the opportunity to go back in time, and make his dream of batting against a major league pitcher a reality. But “Doc” turns him down because he’s content with the choice he made to become a doctor. And he tells Ray of his town, “Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again.”
That’s my favorite scene in the movie. In the course of a lifetime, there are places and people that warm us when that cold wind blows. But any baseball fan will tell you that nothing warms you like the smell of the freshly cut grass on the diamond of an early spring day, the pop of the baseball hitting the glove as the players warm up, and the crack of the bat during batting practice. Baseball has been warming us for more than a hundred years. It has the richest history and tradition of all the sports. There is beauty and precision and mathematics in its design. It might well be man’s most perfect invention.
Had I grown up in any country other than the United States, I would never have experienced the magic of baseball. And what else could possibly warm me every February?
My thoughts have already turned to the season ahead. I’m watching player transactions, and listening to analysts make predictions. And even though I’m not optimistic about my team’s chances for a pennant this year, I’m still excited about the baseball season. This is Derek Jeter’s final year playing baseball. That’s enough to catch any fan’s attention – even if the Yankees are not your team. I’ll root for Derek Jeter to have the best year of his career because his career is a throwback to the careers of players past. Baseball’s present is forever linked to its past. Today’s greatest players take the field with ghosts of past greats alongside them. Every home run reminds you of another you saw back in the day. Every great play in the field will be compared to others you recall in years past. And the memories will come flooding in every time you hear an announcer’s call on radio or television.
Field of Dreams is very special to every man who loves baseball because of its final scene – Ray Kinsella having a catch with his father John. That might be the single most universal moment in the history of the cinema for the American male. My own father, who passed on to me his love of baseball, comes out of that cornfield every February along with Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Mel Ott, and Smokey Joe Wood, and all the legends that made baseball the greatest sport in the world. And the thought of my dad always warms the air around me – no matter how cold it blows. Shoeless Joe Jackson has come back to Iowa. Play ball!