Spoiler Alert! If you have not seen the film this piece abounds with spoilers. And what’s wrong with you that you haven’t seen this film yet?
It was supposed to be a movie about baseball. That’s all I really knew about it as I stood in line waiting for an afternoon showing back in 1989. It was the perfect combination of two of my most favorite things. The bucolic pace of baseball interrupted occasionally with bursts of action, and the cool, dark communal experience of watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon.
So, I was confused when the patrons of the earlier show began to stumble out into the bright light of the afternoon, and I could have sworn that I saw an older gentleman hurry away from the theater in tears.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “Weird.”
The matinee was a momentary escape for my wife and I from our two kids, who were 2 and 7 at the time—a typical afternoon respite from work, kids, responsibility, life.
As the film began, I probably should have paid more attention to the monologue delivered by the Kevin Costner character where Ray Kinsella (Costner) describes the tortured relationship with his father and his desire to not live the dreamless, workaday existence that he perceived was his father’s fate:
Dad was a Yankees fan then, so of course I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58, the Dodgers moved away, so we had to find other things to fight about. We did. And when it came time to go to college, I picked the farthest one from home I could find. This, of course, drove him right up the wall, which I suppose was the point. Officially, my major was English, but really it was the ’60s. I marched, I smoked some grass, I tried to like sitar music, and I met Annie. The only thing we had in common was that she came from Iowa, and I had once heard of Iowa.
Hell, I loved baseball, had majored in English, showed up at some Vietnam War protests because we heard Joan Baez was going to be there (she was), and everyone tried to like sitar music because George Harrison liked it and everyone wanted to like whatever the Beatles liked. I could totally identify with this guy.
In that dark theater, I should have paid closer attention as Ray and the fictional author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) begin their road trip and Kinsella tells Mann about the effect of one of his books on his relationship with his father:
“By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was fourteen I started refusing. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.
“That’s when I read “The Boat Rocker,” by Terence Mann.
“Oh, God.” (rolling his eyes)
“Never played catch with him again.”
“You see? That’s the kind of crap people are always trying to lay on me. It’s not my fault you wouldn’t play catch with your father!”
I was completely caught up in the mysticism of the movie and the story of how a dream, any dream, could find fulfillment. How the ball field in Iowa, carved out of his cornfield by Kinsella would provide redemption for Shoeless Joe Jackson and a chance for Moonlight Graham to finally get his first at bats in a big league game. The cornfield also provided the backdrop for Mann to deliver his now famous ode to baseball and its part of the fabric of America where he assures Kinsella that, “People, will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” I was eating up every fantastical theme it was throwing out about redemption, faith, and second chances as avidly as an outfielder diving for a line drive.
So, when Terence Mann drifted off into the cornfield and Shoeless Joe left Ray with one more cryptic message as he pointed to a lone player lingering behind and then left the field, I was completely blindsided. Never saw what the film was really about.
Because down at the backstop, the player, a catcher, was still cleaning up his gear alone and unnoticed. The player was Ray’s father, a young man on this magical field, not worn down by life, dreaming of being a big-league ball player, a man with dreams—a man that Ray had never known.
In that moment, Ray and I realized that he had a second chance—a chance to introduce his wife and his father’s granddaughter, a chance to play that game of catch that he had rejected in his youth.
Ok, by now, I’m not crying, I’m weeping. I’ve been so taken by surprise that I’m stunned by the implications of this film and it’s ultimate message. Don’t tell anyone, but I cry at movies, especially ones about sports. I cried at the end of Mighty Ducks II. I cry during about every third episode of Friday Night Lights. Brian’s Song?—forget about it.
This film suddenly flooded me with memories of my dad and thoughts about the father I was trying to become. I had a vivid memory of asking my dad to come and play catch with me. After one or two tosses, I discovered that he had no natural athleticism or feel for the game. He threw so awkwardly that I quickly made up an excuse to cut the session short. As wonderful as he was in so many ways, he did not have this one skill. It was probably the only time that in my youthful ignorance, I felt disappointed in him.
As I grappled with that memory, I was struck hard by thoughts of my own children. I was not an indifferent, neglectful father. I did my share of the chores. In the infant days, I took many turns at late-night feedings and staying home to care for them on days they were sick. I shuttled them to and from day care and pre-school, helped get them dressed every morning, and read books every night.
But having children had both filled a void and torn a hole in my identity that took me years to understand. The all-consuming nature of parenthood had put the brakes on any thoughts about the kind of person I wanted to become outside of parenting and teaching. I probably would never have biked across Europe or climbed Kilimanjaro, but for that period of time I had stopped dreaming.
Even seven years into parenthood, I felt that something was tugging at me that did not allow me to fully embrace the role that I had, to all appearances, fully embraced. I felt an almost constant desire to be relieved from my responsibilities and a tiny, nagging resentment that my life was on hold, that I was missing out on something even if I wasn’t sure what that “something” was.
And absolutely none of this was on my mind when in the dim twilight of the final scene of the film, Costner turned and saw the lone, young catcher. “Oh my god,” I whispered. “It’s his dad.”
It suddenly came crashing down on me that the whole film had been a journey of forgiveness, reconciliation—a second chance for a father and son to “have a catch”, to reaffirm a relationship, to salvage love.
Tears still streaming down my face, it didn’t matter that the ending became awkward and improbable and maybe a little silly; I was too lost between the memories of the son I had been and the father I had become. The singular thought that seared through by brain at that moment was simple, but enduring—you only get one chance to get fatherhood right. One chance.
Outside of Hollywood, there are no do-overs, no cornfields of forgiveness and reconciliation. I realized that I had one chance to be a good dad, maybe an excellent dad, and that already, the years were slipping by quickly.
The film did not so much change the way that I behaved as a father, but it completely changed the way I thought about it. Some of the resentment began to drain away and I more fully accepted everything that came with being a dad.
My clearest memory of how this change affected me came after a long day, after the kids had both been bathed and put to bed and it was my turn to get in the shower. I had to kick away the toys left behind to avoid slipping, tripping or otherwise injuring myself and stood in the stream of hot water and looked about the walls, festooned with colorful, tile stickers the kids had found. Part of me longed to take a shower like an adult, in a clean place without plastic octopi tangling my feet or sea stars staring at me with googly eyes.
And then the thought, the new “Field of Dreams” thought, hit me—look how rich my life is. All of this stuff surrounded me was the stuff of fatherhood and children, of life and love, of the chances that life gives to you only once.