Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who grew up in New York and went to college at Berkeley, stands in the middle of his first Iowa corn crop and hears a voice say, “If you build it, he will come.” He begins to understand that this means he must plow under the corn crop and build a baseball field so that Shoeless Joe Jackson, barred from baseball since 1919 and dead for years, can play on it. Ray and his wife (Amy Madigan) know this is a crazy thing to do, but they do it. And “Shoeless”Joe Jackson does show up, with his teamates. Jackson had been the hero of Ray’s father, a former minor leaguer, with whom Ray had never been able to connect.
The voice speaks again: “Ease his pain.” Ray comes to understand that this refers to an iconoclastic author of the 1960s named Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), now a recluse. Ray finds him, and together they hear the voice say “Go the distance.” This leads them back in time to find an elderly doctor (Burt Lancaster), who had a brief career in baseball but never got a chance at bat in a major league game. On their way back to the farm, they find him again, as a young man, and together, they go home, just as the farm is about to be foreclosed. The doctor gets his chance at bat. Mann gets to tell another story. And Ray gets a second chance to do what he regrets not doing as a teenager, to play catch with his father.
Discussion: The themes of this movie are dreams, family, and baseball. There are echoes of Ray’s father throughout the movie. It begins with Ray’s description of growing up, using his refusal to play baseball as his teenage rebellion, and as a way to test his father’s love. Ray tells Mann that his father’s name was used for a character in one of Mann’s books. Ray builds the field to bring back Shoeless Joe, his father’s hero, the hero Ray accused of being corrupt because he knew that would hurt his father. And of course at the end, it turns out that the dream all along was not bringing back the greats of baseball, but of a reconciliation with his father that was not possible before he died. “I only saw him when he was worn down by life,” Ray says. His own understanding and maturity are what enable him to see his father as he really was, even before he reappears on the baseball field. Ray asks his father, “Is there a heaven?” and his father answers, “Oh yeah. It’s the place dreams come true.”
Family discussion: Why doesn’t Annie’s brother Mark see the baseball players at first? Why is he able to see them later? · What did Ray mean when he talked about how he needed to insult his father’s hero when he was a teenager? · How do you know when to follow a dream that seems crazy or foolish?
If you like this, try: Find out more about Shoeless Joe Jackson and the famous “Black Socks” scandal. “Eight Men Out,” with D. B. Sweeney as Jackson, tells this story sympathetically. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the history of baseball also has a video devoted to the story. See also baseball history movies “Bingo Long” and “Sandlot” (both also starring Jones) and “A League of Their Own.” And listen to James Earl Jones as the voice for Darth Vader in “Star Wars.”