Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Can of Corn
2004-12-29 08:43
by Alex Belth

By Brian Gunn

When Alex asked me to guest host a segment of Bronx Banter, it seemed only natural that I should write about movies. See, I may have grown up a Cardinals fan in the suburbs of St. Louis, and Alex may have grown up a Yanks fan in New York, but when it comes to movies we're from the same neighborhood. We're both nuts about Bob Altman, Pauline Kael, and Robert Towne, and we've both seen Hollywood from the inside out, each of us working in the film business at various times (just like another All-Baseball scribe, Jon Weisman).

I originally wanted to use this space to talk about some of my favorite baseball movies (Bull Durham, Bad News Bears, even that almost-masterpiece Cobb), as well as some of my least favorite baseball movies - like, say, Field of Dreams. But I didn't feel right talking about Field of Dreams because I hadn't seen it since it came out 15 years ago. It's possible, I thought, that it had improved over time. After all, the film was made for guys like me - yuppies in their mid-30s, about to have families of their own, maybe feeling guilty about their relationship with their dads. If I was going to write about it I needed to see it again, hopefully with an older and wiser perspective. So I rented it on DVD, thinking maybe I'll actually like it after all these years…

Nope. I still think it's utter hokum. It's as earnest and New Agey as I remember, and I still dislike Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella. He's dry and pizzazzless, and I don't for a second buy him as the kind of cockeyed dreamer who'd risk the family farm to build a ballfield in his backyard.

Worst of all, I think the movie traffics in one of the hoariest clichés about baseball - the one that says a ball diamond is a sacred place of healing, a house of worship. I mean, just look at the way the ballplayers go about their business in that corn field (and remember, these are the Black Sox, for crying out loud) - they play wordlessly, almost reverentially. Apart from a few harmless barbs, there's no nastiness, no cutthroat play, no real energy. The whole thing is, pardon the pun, pure corn.

Of course, these pastoral scenes are supposed to hearken back to some primeval bond between fathers and son. But honestly, does the relationship between Ray Kinsella and his dad - where they heal years of pain by playing a good ol' game of catch - resemble any kind of real relationship between a father and a son? Would you even want that kind of relationship with your father? I mean, it seems pleasant enough on the surface, but it sorta reminds me of something George Bernard Shaw once wrote - "heaven, as conventionally conceived, is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable, that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day there." If Field of Dreams is supposed to be a slice of baseball heaven, then I think I'd just as soon spend some time far south of there.

There's also a weird anti-modern strain that runs throughout Field of Dreams. The good guys are all hearty throwback types - the family farmer Ray Kinsella, the Salingeresque recluse Terence Mann, the country doctor Moonlight Graham, the lovable Black Sox players. And the bad guys are all impersonal corporate types: the bankers and the owners and the bean-counters who, we're led to believe, care more about commerce and expansion than our National Pastime. I think this is part of the reason so many people love the movie - it plugs into a yearning for the good old days, before steroids and runaway salaries and Barc-o-loungers and midgets in the locker room and all the things that Rick Reilly piously rails against in his SI column each week. In fact, I don't think it's a coincidence that the first of the family-style throwback ballparks - Camden Yards - came about just a couple years after the release of Field of Dreams.

What Camden Yards and Field of Dreams and the Rick Reillys of the world assume is that our shared baseball past was cozier and more quaint than it is today. This is a highly debatable point (people tend to forget the rampant labor strife and competitive imbalance and flat-out cheating that plagued baseball's early days). And for me personally, my baseball upbringing was never as genteel as it appears in Field of Dreams. In particular, my relationship with my dad - especially when it comes to baseball - has never been as bloodless as the one Ray Kinsella had with his own pop.

My dad is a very big guy, both literally and figuratively (for most of my life, in fact, he weighed as much as any two of his five sons put together). A vigorous Irish lawyer who always wears his emotions on his sleeve, he's like one of those cartoon characters who has lightning bolts crackling out of him when he's angry or clouds hovering over his head when he's sad. You never have to guess where he stands, because his feeling are so comically overscaled. He's always fully there.

And when I was growing up my dad was never as broad and over-the-top - as fully there - as he was at the ballpark. My family had season tickets in the front row behind the Cards' dugout at Busch Stadium (still has 'em, in fact) - the same seats my grandfather had back in old Sportsman's Park. So in the '70s and '80s I spent countless nights down in those seats with my dad and usually two or three of my brothers. Objectively speaking, it wasn't the most pleasant ballpark experience - the air down by the Mississippi River was always soupy and bug-riddled, and the Astroturf at Busch in those days was a shade somewhere between mint-green and rat-gray. But I loved it anyway, in part because of the ongoing hoopla that my dad brought to these games.

On one hand he was a boisterous celebrator, full of gladhands and high spirits. He seemed to be on a first-name basis with everyone in the stadium, from the lowliest usher to the fattest fat cats in Augie Busch's box seats (you can be that way in a town the size of St. Louis). And when the Cardinals pulled off some great play, my dad was the heartiest guy in the world. In my head I can still see Willie McGee smoking a triple into the right centerfield gap, then there I am jumping up and down with my father, engulfed in a bear hug. Looking back on it, those were some of the few moments of my childhood where my dad was genuinely physically demonstrative. In fact, I sometimes wonder if that's why sports were invented: as an excuse for intimacy between guys.

But it wasn't all hugs and cheers at Busch in those days. There were other times where my dad's behavior at the ballpark was, well… I don't want to say wrong, but it was certainly weird. I'll give you a few examples:

One time in the early '80s - I'm guessing it was during the Cards' last championship season in 1982, which would have made me 12 years old - my dad was driving into the parking garage outside Busch Stadium, all hepped up about going to the game. My younger brother Sean and I were in the back seat. And for some reason the parking attendant - a gruff old guy with an ax to grind - had prematurely closed down the preferred parking section. My dad told him that, in fact, he had a parking space in that very section and that the guy would have to re-open the reserved level.

For whatever reason the attendant (who, to be fair, probably deals with jerks all the time) assumed my dad was trying to pull some kind of scam, so he pointed a gnarly finger at my dad and snarled, "you're not going to the reserved level. You're gonna go where I tell you to go." Now, understand that the worst thing you could do in my dad's world is tell him what to do. It sets off some kind of recoil action in him, and more often than not he'll do the very opposite of what you tell him to do. So in this case he muttered "fuck that" to this parking attendant, veered the car sharply to the right, and plowed right into a row of wooden sawhorses blocking the reserved parking level. He didn't slow down for a moment; in fact, I'm fairly certain he sped up. I can still hear the sawhorses thump thump thumping off the car as we raced away.

Sean and I were in the back seat giggling like crazy, but it wasn't exactly carefree laughter. My face was hot and flushed, exhilarated at the thought of doing something wrong, the same way I got whenever my brothers and I would try to stifle a laugh during Mass. At that moment my dad was both a champion to me (the parking attendant was so clearly playing the villain) and someone scary and threatening. I kept looking out the back window, certain that the cops would be flagging us down any moment, feeling that distinctly odd sense of pride and shame deep in my gut.

Here's another incident for you: in the early '90s, about five of us kids - including my only sister - went to a ballgame with my dad, and he got into yet another altercation with an attendant outside Busch Stadium. The details of the argument aren't worth repeating, but the way it ended is. As my dad stormed away from the argument he huffed, "have a nice day!" And the guy shot back - brightly, righteously - "you have a Christian day!" The implication, of course, was that my dad wasn't acting very Christian. So my dad spun around and bellowed, "AW, FUCK THE CHRISTIANS!"

These weren't isolated incidents either. There was also the time my dad tried to choke a man who accused my little brother Matt of stealing a poster of Fredbird, the Cardinals mascot. Another time my dad and my brother Patrick exchanged blows with some sloppy-drunk Cubs fans (in the middle of the scrum my dad yelled to Patrick, "I represent stadium security - we gotta get outta here!"). Then there was the memorable evening when home-plate ump Richie Phillips walked over to my dad's seat and threatened to have him thrown out of the stadium for persistent heckling. Swear to God.

I never knew quite how to take these moments, and truth be told, I still don't. Like most meaningful experiences with your parents, they're unsorted, messy. And in some ways that's precisely the point. My baseball memories with my dad aren't anything like the goopy, well-mannered stuff I saw in Field of Dreams, nor would I want them to be. When I first told Alex Belth some of these stories, he pointed out that my dad was nothing like Ray Kinsella's father and much more like another character from baseball movies - Buttermaker, the lumpy-faced Little League coach played by Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears.

If you recall, Buttermaker was a wayward fatherly presence. He makes fun of his players, runs them ragged in practice, plays favorites, pours a beer over Tatum O'Neal's head, and even lets his team (kids!) pop open a few brewskies to celebrate their near-championship at the end of the movie. And yet somehow he brings dignity to the kids who play for him, even if the movie would never frame it in such sappy or explicit terms.

All the relationships in that film work the same way - a far cry from Field of Dreams, where you know exactly how you're supposed to feel at all times. The Bad News Bears offers something much trickier. Take, for example, the climactic scene when the pitcher for the Little League Yankees openly defies his father and holds onto the comebacker to the mound, allowing fat Engelberg to circle the bases. That single moment is more authentic to me, and more indicative of how father-son relationships actually work, than the entire hour and 46 minutes of Field of Dreams. This is why I cringe when people talk about a ballfield as some kind of shrine or place of worship. For me it's a place for marshier emotions, a place that brings out both the best and worst in people. My dad taught me that.

At times I've wondered how my life would be different if I had a different kind of dad - you know, a proper dad, one that made time to drive you to Little League games and maybe wore a goofy Christmas sweater this time of year. But I'll take my dad, with all his outbursts and his cartoonish bluster, any old day. Or, given the choice between a Ray Kinsella dad and a Buttermaker dad, I'd take Buttermaker. After all, he's a real person.

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