Another post about baseball

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time with America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.” W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe. The novel was made into a movie, Field of Dreams, in which Terrance Mann delivers a speech based on these words.

Baseball has always been a game of strategy as well as talent. From the competition between pitcher and batter to the alignment of fielders on the diamond, baseball players try to outthink the competition. The statistics of baseball have become ever more complicated, with technology assisting the measurement of the speed of pitches and of hit balls, launch angles, and other fine details of the game. Players and coaches study these statistics in an effort to improve. They also study the opposing players, searching for tendencies that can be exploited as weaknesses.

When I was in high school, I patterned my batting stance after Dave Kingman. Kingman played in the major leagues for sixteen seasons, including three with the Chicago Cubs. His stance at the plate was wide, with the distance between his feet greater than the spread of his shoulders. He had an upper cut in his swing long before people were discussing launch angles. In his career, Kingman hit 442 home runs. That’s a lot. He also struck out 1816 times, also a lot. Sometimes he would hit the ball five hundred feet… straight up in the air, only to have it be caught in the infield not far from home plate.

Analysis of the 2018 baseball season shows that a higher percentage of runs scored was due to home runs than ever before, and a higher percentage of outs was due to strikeouts than ever before. It is as if every batter wants to be Dave Kingman. Forty years ago, not everyone wanted to be Dave Kingman. At that time I was taught how to modify my stance to drive the ball to right field or left field. The goal was to get a hit by putting the ball where the fielders were not close. In today’s baseball games, many teams adopt “the shift” on defense. If they know that the tendency of a batter is to hit to the right side of the field, they put three infielders there and only one on the left. A good coach should be able to teach a good hitter to take advantage of the shift. I remember one game in the 2016 playoffs when Ben Zobrist ended a string of hitless at-bats for the Cubs team by bunting the ball down the third base line. The San Francisco Giants had to adjust their defense to account for this possibility; the Cubs responded with a string of hits, went on to win the game and the series against the Giants, to beat the Dodgers for the pennant, and to beat the Indians for the World Championship. It all came down to one bunt.

Pitching has changed in baseball. Pitchers go through such contortions to add speed or spin to the ball that it is rare for a pitcher not to need major surgery on his arm or shoulder before his career has ended. Batters have to adjust. They learn to react to the habits of a pitcher, seeing how he prepares for each pitch and guessing from those preparations what the pitch will be. Pitchers study the habits of batters, knowing which of them have a tendency to swing at pitches they cannot hit. New players have a brief advantage, since their habits have not been revealed. After a short time, though, new players have to adjust because the opposing teams have learned their habits.

As the Chicago Cubs use the coming months to prepare for the 2019 season, I hope they will adjust their thinking. Learn to hit the ball to the opposite field to compensate for the shift. Level the launch angle for contact with the pitch rather than trying always to hit a home run. Use the bunt and the stolen base to upset the rhythm of the opposition. Pitch more to induce weak fly balls and groundouts rather than trying to strike out every batter. Over time, good fundamental baseball always overcomes the latest tactic or gimmick. This matters, because the one constant through all the years has been baseball. J.

Field of Dreams

Spring begins this weekend, and a young man’s thoughts turn to… baseball. Spring training is underway, and the regular season approaches quickly. With that, the time has come for me to review my favorite movie involving baseball. Warning: spoilers abound in the following paragraphs.

Field of Dreams, made in 1989, is about baseball and about much more. It is about pursing one’s dreams. It is about reality and how poorly we notice what is truly real. It is about the relationship of parents and children. It is about two hours long.

Ray Kinsella and his wife, Annie, own a farm in Iowa. With their daughter Karen they live in a farmhouse next to the cornfields. One day, as Ray is inspecting his corn, a voice tells him several times, “If you build it, they will come.” Ray has visions of a ballfield and of the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball because of his association with gamblers. In spite of his doubts, Ray plows under some of his corn and invests the family’s savings to build a baseball field. He installs a small set of bleachers behind the first base foul line. There is no outfield wall; the corn begins where the ballfield ends.

Many months pass before the ballfield receives its first mystical visitor. One evening Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. Ray hits a few fly balls to the outfielder and then throws some batting practice. Joe reminds Ray that seven other White Sox players were banned from the game. Ray assures Joe that they are all welcome.

Meanwhile, Ray and Annie are facing financial hardship. Annie’s brother Mark offers to help them by buying the farm from them. Annie was willing to consider his help until Joe appears. Ray and Annie discover that Mark is unable to see the baseball players; neither can Mark and Annie’s mother. Ray is delighted being able to hang out with the baseball players, but then he receives a second message: “Ease his pain.”

A meeting is held at the school. Some parents are demanding that certain books be removed from the curriculum, particularly books written by Terence Mann. Annie defends Terence Mann, one of her favorite authors from the 1960s. Ray concludes that he is supposed to ease Terence Mann’s pain by driving to Boston and taking Mann to a baseball game. When he does so, Mann is skeptical and even hostile toward Ray. Reluctantly he attends the game with Ray, where Ray receives a third message: “Go the distance.” On the scoreboard, statistics are given about a former ballplayer, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one major-league game in 1905. Ray decides to drive to Chisholm, Minnesota, to meet Graham. Surprisingly, Mann decides to accompany him.

Throughout these occurrences, Ray reveals to Annie and to Terence Mann that he regrets being alienated from his father, who has since died. In Minnesota, Ray and Terence Mann learn that Graham became a doctor, a pillar of the community of Chisholm, but he has also been dead for years. When Mann learns from a newspaper that his father has reported his disappearance to the police, Mann telephones his father, and Ray goes for a walk. He finds himself walking the streets of Chisholm in the year 1974, where he encounters an elderly Doctor Graham. Graham invites Ray to his office and reminisces with him about his brief baseball career. Ray comments that some people would consider coming that near to their dream and having the experience end as a tragedy. Graham replies that if he had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, that would be a tragedy. He declines Ray’s offer to visit the ballpark on Ray’s farm.

The next morning, on their way out of Chisholm, Ray and Mann pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a youthful Archie Graham looking for a place to play baseball. He accompanies Ray and Mann to the farm, where the three of them discover that Joe Jackson has invited other deceased players to join him on the field so they can play ball. Graham is welcomed to join the other players.

The next day Ray, Annie, Karen, and Terence Mann are watching the players on the field. Archie Graham takes a turn at the plate. Shortly thereafter Mark arrives. He tells Ray and Annie that they are delinquent on their mortgage and are about to lose the farm. Terence Mann gives a moving soliloquy about the importance of baseball and promises Ray that “people will come” to his magical baseball field. In his exasperation at Ray’s seeming lack of concern about his financial predicament, Mark accidently knocks Karen off the bleachers. She lies on the ground, not breathing. Annie is ready to phone for an ambulance, but Ray’s eyes turn to the field. Young Archie Graham rushes to help. An instant later, the elderly Doctor Graham is tending to Karen. She was choking on a piece of hot dog, but the doctor revives her. Only then does Ray realize that Archie will not be able to play baseball again, but the doctor assures him that he doesn’t mind. He then walks off, disappearing into the corn.

Terence Mann is invited to explore the unknown with the baseball players through whatever spectral gate exists in the cornfield. Ray objects, but he is reminded that his family needs him. With the help of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray learns that the man catching in the ballgame is his father, now young and living his dream of playing baseball. Ray introduces his father to Annie and Karen. The two men are seen playing catch as a line of cars is revealed approaching the field, carrying those people that Terence Mann promised would come.

The movie succeeds on many levels. The themes of baseball, finding one’s dreams, accepting alternate realities, and loving one’s family are skillfully intertwined. The movie is filled with memorable scenes: a debate between Annie and another mother about Terence Mann’s writings, Mann’s initial refusal to let Ray take him to a baseball game, Doctor Graham’s conversation with Ray in the doctor’s office, baseball players emerging from the corn and disappearing into it again, and Mark striding across the field oblivious to the baseball game happening around him. The script, the scenery, and the soundtrack are all superb. Many of the exchanges of dialogue are classic lines: Shoeless Joe asks Ray, “Is this heaven?” and Ray responds, “No, it’s Iowa.” Mann says to Ray, “You’re seeing a whole team of psychologists, aren’t you?” Ray, watching to find the gate in his cornfield protests that he has taken so many risks and done so much work to provide the ballfield, “and I’ve never once asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” “What are you saying, Ray?” Joe asks him, and Ray shouts back, “I’m saying” (pause) “’What’s in it for me?’”

Even the casting is superb. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella. Costner also played a minor league catcher in 1988 in Bull Durham, and he would go on to play a major league pitcher in 1999 in For the Love of the Game. Amy Madigan plays Annie, and Gaby Hoffmann plays Karen, one of several little-girl roles she portrayed around that time. Ray Liotta is Shoeless Joe Jackson, Timothy Busfield is Mark (Annie’s brother), James Earl Jones is Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster is Doctor Graham.

Field of Dreams is based on a book, Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The book is good, but the movie is excellent. The book includes several additional characters: Ray has a twin brother named Richard, whose location has been unknown for years until he appears at Ray and Annie’s door. Ed Scissons is the farmer who sold Ray and Annie the farm; he claims to have pitched for the Chicago Cubs and to be the oldest surviving member of the ballclub. Instead of Terence Mann, the writer whose pain Ray seeks to ease is J. D. Salinger. By replacing Salinger with a fictitious writer, the moviemakers managed to avoid a lawsuit and also were able to have some of W. P. Kinsella’s best lines in his book written or spoken by Terence Mann in the movie.

The book explains why Mark is eager to buy the farm from Ray and Annie. It is not merely that he wants to help his sister and her family; Mark and another investor want to take several small farms and make one large agricultural establishment, streamlining production by removing all the fences and farmhouses, and mechanizing farming. This sort of thing was happening at the time in Iowa and other states. The book also makes clear that Ray and Annie’s financial difficulties were not caused merely by an acre or so of corn being used for a baseball field—the real problem is that Ray used all the family’s money to buy supplies and equipment to build the field, and now they cannot pay their debts. In the book, Ray visits other ballparks on his way to Boston, and he and Terence Mann and Archie Graham also break into the ballpark in Minneapolis to frolic on the field late at night.

More significantly, in the book much time passes between the return to the farm and ballpark and the key events involving Mark, Terence Mann, Karen, and Doctor Graham. The movie condenses those events into a single day, which is important for a reason I am just about to explain.

Before I do, however, I must again marvel over the many little touches with give the movie depth and authenticity. In a store Ray asks another farmer if he has ever heard voices in the field; that farmer and the others in the store stare silently at Ray while the overhead radio plays Beverly D’Angelo singing “Crazy.” While Ray is fretting over hearing voices and wondering what it means, Karen is watching the movie Harvey on television—when he recognizes the movie, Ray quickly clicks off the television. As Terence Mann rides in Ray’s van at night after the ballgame, the neon sign with the word “Books” is briefly reflected off the windshield in front of the writer. From all these details, I know that the moviemakers did on purpose what I am about to describe.

In Chisholm, Doctor Graham tells Ray that he mildly regrets never getting to bat in the major leagues. He reflects that as the pitcher went into his windup, he would wink at the pitcher as if he knew something the pitcher did not know. In Iowa, when Archie Graham gets to bat, he winks at the pitcher, Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte. In response, Knuckles’ first two pitches are aimed at the vicinity of Archie’s head. Shoeless Joe gives some friendly advice to Graham, who swings at the next pitch, flying out to right field. His teammate at third base then scores, beating the right fielder’s throw to the plate.

In baseball, when the ball is hit in the air, the runner must then touch the base where he was when the ball was hit before advancing to the next base; otherwise, the fielding team can throw the ball to the fielder where he was, and the runner will be called out. Once he has touched the base after the catch, though, the runner can advance, hoping to make it to the next base before the ball can be thrown to the fielder at that base, who would otherwise tag the runner out. When a fly ball is hit and caught and the runner advances, the batter is not charged with an official at bat. In other words, Archie Graham still does not have an official at-bat although he has helped his team to score a run. This play is called a sacrifice—signaling what the good doctor will do shortly to save Karen’s life. J.