TIME movies

25 Years Later, Field of Dreams Isn’t As Corny As You Think It Is

Field of Dreams
Kevin Costner holding Gaby Hoffmann in a scene from the film 'Field Of Dreams', 1989. Universal / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Don't be ashamed to love the baseball classic, which came out on April 21, 1989

It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but here goes: Field of Dreams, which came out 25 years ago today, is one of my favorite movies. Not embarrassing the way that loving Blues Brothers 2000 would be, but embarrassing enough. Sure, Field got a best-picture Oscar nom — but it’s also got a reputation for being super cheesy. When it first came out, TIME’s Richard Corliss called it “shaggy doggerel.” Setting the film on a corn farm provided acres of ammo for puns.

Loving a corny movie sincerely is slightly mortifying — like crying at an insurance commercial or sending a Hallmark card because it speaks to what’s in your soul — but you can’t love Field of Dreams any other way. The movie is sincere about everything, from what it means to have a dream that never came true to what it feels like when that dream comes up to bat, to why it matters when that dream is about baseball, the sport that gives you time to look for metaphors while you wait for the next play.

Still, I’m willing to go public, because “sincere” doesn’t actually have to mean “sappy” — and, to me, Field of Dreams looks less corny than ever.

Here’s how I used to see the plot, based on seemingly infinite basic-cable viewings: Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice; he plows under his corn to build a baseball diamond; that action summons the ghosts of Chicago Black Sox; Ray hears another voice telling him to go find reclusive writer Terence Mann; while at a Red Sox game with Mann, they see the words “Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham” on the scoreboard; later, they pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be Moonlight Graham, a ballplayer who played just one game and had zero at-bats; returning to Iowa, Ray finds that his farm is about to be foreclosed on; when Ray’s daughter Karin almost chokes during a family argument, the ghost of Graham, who became a doctor after playing baseball, saves her; everyone lives happily ever after when the baseball diamond becomes a ticketed attraction for people who share Ray’s baseball dreams. In between, everyone talks about how much they love baseball, and I get all misty-eyed every time.

What’s missing from that retelling is the sequence between Fenway and the hitchhiker, when Ray tries to chase down Graham in the present day and finds that he’s already died. While visiting Graham’s hometown, Ray finds himself transported back to 1972, where he meets Graham — who by then had given up baseball to become a small-town doctor. It’s perhaps the weirdest scene in a movie full of weird scenes, the most unexplained moment in a movie that doesn’t bother to explain any of the mechanisms of any of its magic. “Baseball” is enough of an explanation for voices and ghosts and fate, which is all well and good. But those things happen to Ray within the real world. This scene is the one moment when Ray is the person who leaves reality. It’s an anomaly, shoehorned into a plot that’s otherwise consistent in its use of the supernatural, an excuse for him to tell a pretty little story that gives him a reason to play on the Field of Dreams:

But why not just skip from Fenway to the hitchhiker, since the audience already knows that Graham’s baseball dream didn’t come true in his lifetime? Why not avoid the weird time travel stuff altogether?

I think it’s because of what comes after the video clip above cuts off.

The reason Ray has to pick up “Moonlight” Graham as a hitchhiker is that “Doc” Graham says no when Ray offers to take him to Iowa to play with the Black Sox. He says no! Ray even uses the line about how it’s “supposed” to happen, but Doc refuses to leave his town, the place he loves more than any baseball diamond. Ray suggests that it’s a tragedy to get so close to a dream, to have it in hand for just five minutes, and then to let it glide away. “If I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes,” Doc says, “now that would have been a tragedy.”

I used to think the takeaway from the Doc plot was that Ray was right, that it really would have been a tragedy for Doc not to get to play ball once again. After all, whatever fates conspire to make this Iowa magic happen, they arrange it so that Graham makes it to bat.

Except that Doc makes the same choice again when he steps off the diamond to rescue Karin, even though it means giving up his ghostly baseball career. That’s the moment it becomes clear that Doc, a relatively minor character, is the story’s hero; Ray makes an emotional journey but Doc makes a sacrifice to saves the damsel in distress. And this story’s hero is a realistic one, with a quest that’s anything but cheesy.

Doc most special place, as he puts it, is in the real world. It’s in an even realer version of the real world than the world real-life baseball inhabits. His magic is medicine, not sports. His story says that what happens to a dream deferred isn’t always something bad. His message is that when the long-shot life you imagine doesn’t work out, there are plenty of even better things you could be doing with your time. He says that not everyone makes it to the big leagues, but that everyone can make a difference.

Maybe it’s because I’m older now, but Doc’s rosy view of reality is more moving to me today than Ray’s love of baseball is. It’s not that I don’t love baseball or that I think Ray’s dreams — or Shoeless Joe’s, or Terry’s, or anyone’s — are less worth dreaming. The baseball diamond is undoubtedly worth more than a few acres of corn, and there’s no question that Ray should have listened to the voice. But most of us are Docs, not Rays. The voice in the corn doesn’t call to us. Still, in its absence, our dreams can be no worse for being pragmatic.

“We just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening,” Doc tells Ray, but he doesn’t say that those significant moments have to be on the baseball diamond, or whatever the equivalent place is for each of us. It’s worth looking for dreams off the field too, in our homes and communities and workplaces — and, like Field of Dreams, that’s something worth getting sentimental over.

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