Monday, February 27, 2017

Favorite Baseball Movies

Spring training has started.  The world reawakens.  And over at Bill James Online, Daniel Marks has written a lovely piece summarizing the consensus on the best baseball movies, along with defending Field of Dreams, his, and many others #1 pick, but a movie also detested by many.  First, the results, second, my take and finally, the "problem" of Field of Dreams.

The first list is from a Bill James Online Poll:

1.  Field of Dreams
2.  Bull Durham
3 (tie): Eight Men Out
3 (tie): The Sandlot
5.  A League of Their Own
6.  The Natural
7.  Moneyball
8.  Major League
9.  Bad News Bears
10. Bang the Drum Slowly

The second list is a combination of 20 other lists and contains 9 of the ten listed above.

1.  Bull Durham
2.  Field of Dreams
3.  The Natural
4.  A League of Their Own
5.  The Bad News Bears
6.  Eight Men Out
7.  Moneyball
8.  The Sandlot 
9.  Major League
10.  The Pride of the Yankees

My take.  I've seen all 11 movies and there's only one bad film on these lists; The Natural.  I couldn't stand it.  It's the bizarro version of Field of Dreams, which continually teetered on the verge of being silly and maudlin but managed to mostly make the right decisions in telling its story, while The Natural mostly made the wrong ones.  Trying way to hard to be mythic it compounded its problems by changing the end of Bernard Malamud's novel, thus killing its point.

Like pretty much everyone else, Field and Bull Durham are at the top of my list, with the latter my #1 pick (only marred by Tim Robbins' inability to throw a baseball properly), though the former is the one that tears me up at the end every time I see it.  All the rest are fine films but who knows how they sort out?

There are a lot of good baseball movies out there.  Ones that didn't make the list include 42, The Rookie and Fever Pitch Cobb is definitely not on my list.

Most of Marks' piece explains why Field of Dreams is not really a baseball movie.  He's right and his analysis is insightful, though I disagree about the James Earl Jones speech at the end; it really was clunky.  Some excerpts.  You should really read the whole piece, particularly the part where he tells us why what Bill James created was like what author WP Kinsella did with Field of Dreams.

But first; everyone knows Kevin Costner starred in the top two movies on this list.  Who is the only other actor to star in two of the Top Ten films?  Answer at end of post.

And now, back to Marks: 
It’s not a fictional drama, it’s not a dramatization of real events, it’s not a comedy.  The genre it belongs in is fantasy.  It belongs in the same class as films like "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Princess Bride", films like that. . .  Saying that "Field of Dreams" is a baseball film contains some truth to it, but I think it’s a little like saying that "The Wizard of Oz" is a witchcraft film.

See, the film is indeed about second chances.  But, not just any second chances.  It’s not about getting another chance to do something that you weren’t able to do before.  It’s about getting second chances directly related to decisions that the characters themselves made, second chances related to regretful decisions or errors on their part. 

Look at the main characters more closely, their background stories, and their connection to the Field of Dreams that offers them a second chance:

  • Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and his father John (Dwier Brown) – their relationship deteriorated over time due to their respective actions and behavior, and they never reconciled.

  • Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) – an author who loved baseball and writing, but over time became cynical and reclusive.

  • Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster as the old Graham, Frank Whaley as the young Graham) – A fringe ballplayer who only made one appearance in the Majors and never got a turn at bat, and then hung it up to become a doctor.  He didn’t regret his choice, because he knew that being a doctor was his calling, but he always wondered about what it might have felt like had he stuck with baseball a little longer and had the chance to take a turn at bat.

  • The 8 Black Sox players – Found guilty of throwing the 1919 World Series, banned from the Majors forever for their actions.

What do these characters all have in common?  They all made choices that, to one degree or another, they regretted, because those decisions caused them to lose something they loved, whether it was a relationship, a passion, an opportunity, or a livelihood.  The Field of Dreams is not simply some kind of Nirvana where all the dead players can regroup and play together in peace and harmony while re-living their glory years.  It’s a place for second chances, most definitely…..but specifically it’s a place that provides second chances for those who have erred in the past, a chance to right a wrong of their own doing.  A chance for redemption.  A chance for absolution, if you will.  A place of forgiveness.

Answer:  James Earl Jones; Field of Dreams and The Sandlot

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