The end of the baseball season is hard for me, although it dovetails nicely into the hell of the holidays. The whitewater rush of our wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, my birthday, pre-Christmas, Christmas, and New Years, along with the ethics business’s dead income period and resulting Marshall cash flow anxiety at the end of every year pretty much has me distracted until January, and Spring Training starts just six weeks after that. Early November has me in withdrawal, however, so I yielded to temptation and watched the 1989 baseball fantasy “Field of Dreams.” It is also an ethics movie of sorts, exploring the complexities of family, fathers and sons, forgiveness, sacrifice, faith and redemption.
Ethics Alarms has highlighted the annoying ethics problems in two classic films, “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Now it’s “Field of Dreams'” turn. Oh, I’m still a sucker for one of the most shamelessly manipulative movies ever, don’t get me wrong. I cannot, and I’ve tried, stop myself from getting choked up when Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) says to his incredibly gorgeous hunk of a father (Dwier Brown), long dead but miraculously returned to corporeal form and younger than his son,”Hey, dad? Wanna have a catch?”
See? I got choked up just typing that! (Damn movie.). From an ethics perspective, however, the film makes even less sense than the plot.
I’m going to assume, if you continue reading this, that you’ve seen the film. If you haven’t, see it. Don’t let my jaded observations spoil it. It sure works the first time.
Here are the aspects of “Field of Dreams’ that now drive me nuts.
- Ray Kinsella is a reluctant and unenthusiastic Iowa farmer who lives with his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan), and daughter, Karin (Gaby Hoffman). In the opening narration, Ray explains his estrangement from his father, John Kinsella, who was a baseball fanatic and who idolized Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced star of the infamous Chicago Black Sox, who threw the 1919 World Series. By the end of his father’s life, Ray hadn’t seen his father for years. He is still feeling remorseful for refusing to play catch with his father, because rejecting baseball was a way to hurt his dad.
The Problem: The whole film’s premise (and that of the novel, “Shoeless Joe,” it was adapted from) is based on the popular fiction that Joe Jackson was unjustly banned from baseball for being part of the gamblers’ plot to fix the Series. This is untrue. Jackson accepted a bribe. He did not inform authorities. He knew his seven similarly-bribed team mates were trying to lose. He did nothing to stop them. he allowed the Series to be fixed, the fans to be betrayed and the fame itself to be brought to the brink of destruction. Jackson, who was illiterate and from all accounts appears to have had an IQ of about 85, argued that he tried to win despite taking the bribe. First, the evidence is questionable on that point.Although he batted .375 against the Reds in the series, he failed to drive in a single run in the first five games, four of which the White Sox lost. That’s how you throw games without looking like you’re throwing games. Second, he was making the argument that stealing money from bad people isn’t still unethical. Joe probably believed that, but then he was an idiot.
- . While walking through his cornfield one evening, Ray hears a whispering voice saying, “If you build it, he will come.” He decides, after the voice keeps pestering him, that he is supposed to build a baseball field—with lights!—in his corn field, and that if he does, Shoeless Joe Jackson will return from the dead and play there. Or something. Annie is dubious–ya think?—but lets him do it. After the field is finished and nothing happens for months, we see Ray and Annie going over their financial records:
RAY: How bad is it?
ANNIE: Well, given how much less acreage we have for corn, I’d say we’ll probably…almost break even.
ANNIE: We’ve spent all our savings on that field.
RAY: So what are you saying? We can’t keep the field?
ANNIE: t makes it real hard to keep the farm, Ray.
The Problem: And I said Shoeless Joe was stupid. NOW they are having this conversation? This is so irresponsible and incompetent, it defies description. Ray has a family. They have a little girl. Spending their savings on Ray’s whim and a ghostly and ambiguous whisper is the ethical equivalent of parents blowing their money on drugs. Through it all, Annie, who proudly styles herself as a Sixties veteran, is relentlessly cheery regarding her husband’s lunacy, and once Shoeless Joe appears on the cornfield diamond she’s all in. What, honey? Another voice is telling you to drive to Boston (from Iowa, remember) and talk famous recluse novelist Terrance Mann ( J.D. Salinger in the novel) to join your fantasy? You want to leave while we are trying to stay out of bankruptcy? Sure, go for it!
At the very least, they could have skipped the lights. None of the 1919 White Sox ever played in a night game; there were none then.
- While Ray is gone, Annie’s brother (who can’t see the eight banned and dead Black Sox who Shoeless Joe brought back to play on Ray’s field) forms a syndicate that buys the farm’s mortgage from the bank. Now they are demanding that the note be paid, or they will force the Kinsellas into bankruptcy, and foreclose.
The Problem: What? Who does this to his own sister, brother-in-law and niece? Nobody normal; this is evil, though brother Mark says it’s “business.” Business! The Godfather wouldn’t treat his family this way. Yet at no point does the script hint of any breach between Annie and Mark that could explain such a betrayal, and Annie remains cordial and loving to her brother even while he is going out of his way to destroy her family.
We also meet Annie’s sister and mother, who appear to have no problem with what Mark is doing. The movie is again ethically incoherent. If Mark is supposed to be the anti-Christ, then the screenplay should signal just how terrible his conduct is. Nobody even says it’swrong. The issue is treated like a normal family squabble.
- Ray returns from Boston with Mann (James Earl Jones), having also swung by Chisholm, Minnesota and gone back in time to meet old-time cup-of-coffee ballplayer Archie “Moonlight” Graham in 1972. He was a doctor then, and still regretting the fact that he never got to bat in his brief shot at the Major Leagues in 1905. The 1905 model of Graham is somehow picked up by Mann and Linsella on their way to Ray’s farm. When they arrive, even more old, dead baseball players are on the field, playing a full game this time. Archie suits up, and get his chance to come to bat at last.
The Problem: For a movie about the mystical appeal of baseball and its players, the movie is inexcusably sloppy with details. Shoeless Joe was a left-handed batter, while Ray Liotta, who plays him, bats right. “Moonlight” Graham was a real player, who did only appear in one game, without batting, and he did become a doctor. But he died in 1965. When Archie finally gets at bat, the pitcher throws at his head twice, sending him sprawling. “Hey ump,” he says to the home plate umpire (and where did the umpires come from?), “How about a warning?”
In 1905, when Archie Graham played, that question would have provoked confusion. There were no warnings. There were no warnings for beanball pitches when any of the players in that game were alive: that was a practice that started after Moonlight Graham was dead.
I know, this is relatively minor. It still drives me crazy, every time.
- Mark shows up during the game, still not seeing the players, with an eviction notice. The movie now gets even weirder. Both daughter Karin and Terrence Mann, sounding like they are possessed, give monologues explaining that the family will not be ruined financially because “people will come” to spiritually cleanse and reinvigorate themselves by seeing the ghostly players play.
The Problem: Their argument, in addition to being batty (Where will all these people stay? There are only stands enough to seat a few spectators: will they be expected to stand?) Mann says they will hand over 20 dollars for the privilege. So now Ray is going to profit from what was supposed to be a selfless act of faith? How are the ballplayers going to be compensated? Will they be compensated, or are they Ray’s slaves now? Will they have to abide by a schedule?
In the (ridiculous) ending, we see the headlight ofhundreds of cars on the road, coming to see the field. But the players have already quit for the day. There will be nothing to see, and the players haven’t given any hints of when and if they will return.
This is a movie about integrity, and yet the movie itself has none.
- The dual speeches by Mann and Karin infuriate Mark, and his ensuing rant ends up causing Karin to fall off the stands to the ground. She lies unconscious, not breathing. Terrance Mann says, “I’ll get the car!” But with his daughter in mortal peril, Ray notices Archie lingering at the foul line, as if he’s trying to decide what to do. For what seems like an eternity, Ray delays trying to help his daughter because he has a hunch that 1) Archie will cross the line and magically become old Doc Graham from 1972, although 2) nothing like this has happened before and 3) Ray is gambling that Archie will do this before Karin has suffered permanent brain damage. Annie,as usual, is just standing around while her daughter’s life and IQ points ebb away thinking, “Cool!” Fortunately, Archie does cross the foul line, becomes Doc Graham (Burt Lancaster), gets the littel girl breathing, and Karin, with no help from Ray, isn’t a vegetable.
The Problem: These are the worst parents in Iowa.
- Following this miracle, Mark suddenly can see the players. “Don’t sell this farm, Ray,” he says.
The Problem: What about that eviction notice? Oh, never mind. Meanwhile, Annie cheerily sends her cruel and traitorous brother in for lemonade, without any apology from him, treating the whole episode as if he had belched at the dinner table of something.
By this point, I have been yanked right out of the movie.
So why does this scene still choke me up???