It was the summer of 1987. All the stories about baseball seem to begin with reminiscing about what year it was, so I figure I’ll start with that. It was the summer of 1987, and the Hazelwood Hoosiers baseball team were celebrating their championship victory over the Pee Wee League. My dad was one of the coaches which makes it especially sentimental when I think back on it now. We had gone undefeated at 15-0 and quickly swept the tourney. Having reached the end of my three years in the league, and about to turn the grizzled old age of 10, there was nothing left for this right-fielder to achieve. So I decided to retire while I was at the peak of my career. For the next several years I just kicked back and enjoyed watching occasional games with my dad, or going to see the minor league Indianapolis Indians play at the old Bush Stadium from time to time. I even had a decent collection of cards and a Colorado Rockies cap. In a time when DVR recording wasn’t yet invented, the World Series always took precedence on our living room television set during evenings in the Fall. My memories of those times are all mingled together with campfires and the Charle Brown Halloween special. Even as I grew into my teenage years baseball was still magical.
Then The Strike happened. The Major League Baseball strike of August 1994 became the longest strike in MLB history, and it killed the postseason and the World Series – something that had not happened in 90 years. It was all about money of course… Millionaire players and millionaire owners were fighting over who was going to have just a little bit more. It was a disgusting display of greed that played out over months and laid bare an ugliness that had been festering below the surface of the game for some time I suppose. Eventually it was settled so everyone could go back to being millionaires again. But the damage had been done, and for me, there was no going back. When that summer was over, and the dust had settled, my love of baseball had been shattered. What was sacred had been profaned, trampled upon, and broken beyond repair. There was no longer any magic in it for me. Maybe I took it too personal, but I felt as if something had been stolen from me. That’s what greed does to things that are beautiful – it takes them away. It destroys them.
Then I saw The Sandlot one morning and a part of that magic found its way back into my heart. It was like uncovering an old treasure to discover that there were some movies out there about baseball that were somehow able to capture and contain the essence of the game – the purity that exists underneath when all the other stuff is pealed away. These films are idealizations of the values, history, and sentiments that baseball conjures up for us. There was one in particular that my 10th grade English teacher showed to us in class the year following the end of The Strike – Field of Dreams – and it is, perhaps, the purest and most elegant example of this.
Field of Dreams told me a story about what baseball really was at its core – not a sport – but a religious experience.
The film opens with Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella standing in the middle of his Iowa cornfield hearing a voice. You probably already know what the voice said to him. It’s been echoing in my mind all week. “If you build it, he will come.” Sometimes, my mind likes to play puzzles and alter the words for me, so I end up hearing things like, “if you put it in the fridge, it will get cold,” or, “if you do the laundry now, you don’t have to do it tomorrow,” and my personal favorite, “if you let the dog poo in the park when no one is looking, you don’t have to pick it up.” But anyway, I’m getting off track a little bit. Back to Field of Dreams… It’s interesting to note that the morning after Ray first hears “the voice” he walks into the kitchen to discover that his daughter is watching an old black and white movie. We catch a brief glimpse of James Stewart from 1950, insisting that he’s talking to an invisible six foot rabbit named Harvey. Ray shuts the movie off, insisting to his daughter that it’s no laughing matter to hear something invisible talking to you. Eventually Ray has a vision that instructs him to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. He proceeds to do so with the support of his wife and daughter, provoking the ire of the townsfolk and his brother-in-law in the process. Once completed, the field becomes a sanctuary in which players of the past come to find redemption and peace. You can interpret all this in many ways I suppose, but I like to think of Ray as a prophet of sorts, listening to the voice of God and obediently carrying out his instructions. The Bible is full of people hearing God’s voice, doing what He says even though it sounds crazy, and causing the people who are watching on the sidelines to lose their minds. As Ray says during the opening monologue, “Until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.” Along the way he hears a few other things from “the voice,” and it leads him to find James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster – both playing the roles of aging acolytes in search of redemption themselves.
The beauty of the allegory here is that it’s not just in the film – it’s in baseball itself – and the movie is just a parable that’s showing us what has always been there. The ball field is like a church building. There’s the stands, the outfield, the infield, and there’s home base. These all mirror the essential parts of temples going back to ancient times. Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem once had an outer court, an inner court, and a Holy Place – and a Most Holy Place. Many of our churches today have a parking lot, a foyer, a sanctuary, and a communion table and baptistry at the center. In these places of worship, as on the ball field, people, friends, and families from the community gather together to participate in the same experience. There’s a structure to it all. There’s a rhythm. There is a set of rules that have been agreed upon – and there are guidelines that have been handed down to us from previous generations to show us how to follow them. There are emblems that give meaning, focus, form, and provide function for what is happening. In baseball we call these emblems the ball, the bat, the bases, the gloves. In the Church they are the Cross on the wall, the trays that hold the Communion Bread, the cups that contain the juice. Everyone has their place. Everyone has their own position to play. Everyone participates in some way. There’s the pitcher, the catcher, the batter, the basemen, the shortstop, the outfielders, the coaches, and the Ump. No one messes with the Ump. Even the spectators who aren’t directly playing in the game are invested in its outcome. There’s an energy to it all, an invisible force that pulls everyone together and puts them all on the same page for a few hours or so. It’s a spiritual experience. In its purest form there is no competition – only camaraderie, fellowship, and sharing time together – that’s the original intent anyway. It’s not really a game. It’s a sacred dance of worship. And in these sacred places, in the midst of the experience, encapsulated by memories, is an awareness of our connection to those who were here before us – those who shared time together and observed the rituals faithfully… those who found redemption on the field.
Like Ray Kinsella with his baseball field, we participate in our rituals as a means of re-connecting with our Father as well. And we do it to try and better understand what redemption really is, what it means, and how it will, in the end, take us all back to home base.