If You Build It, They Will Watch: Why Baseball Films Rock

I played baseball from age six until freshman year in high school; around that time, kids stopped playing for fun and started building careers, and my laissez-faire attitude toward the game did not mesh with the aggressive, driven mentalities of my teammates. I gracefully made my exit (and grateful that I didn’t have to deal with the douchey egomaniacs a few of my teammates became), but I never stopped watching the game. At first it was a regular family outing that dug into homework time, but then I started to dig it. I fell in love with the spectacle of baseball.

Baseball is not a fight against the clock like soccer or football; it’s a series of moments, each more tense than the last, and any of them has the potential for spectacular glory. Capturing these moments on film makes baseball movies the greatest of all sports films, but it’s not just the action on the field; baseball is so weaved into American culture that the spectacle of the game speaks of a simple contest preserved through the years. In the deific voice of James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams,” “This field, this game, is a part of our past … it reminds us of all that was once good, and could be again.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the best baseball flicks effortlessly ride the wave of nostalgia that yearns for simpler times when we could just, well, play baseball. “The Sandlot” is as much about growing up as it is about the freedom of youth to play ball without the fame and money that complicates the Major League. The game has changed so little over time that stepping onto the diamond might as well be a step into the past, and when Smalls dashes down the first base line, he’s running the same 90 feet as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson did.

Baseball heroes on the silver screen are famous and talented like every other icon glorified in sports films. But baseball heroes are flawed. Baseball heroes have character like “The Natural’s” Roy Hobbs, who perseveres through years of a very humanistic disillusionment to earn his rightful place on the ball field as one of the greats. We cheer his success and ability, sure – but we’re really admiring Hobbs’ love for the game. We can’t play like Hobbs, but we suffer the same self-doubt and share the same adoration for the crack of a wooden bat and the rush before a pitcher’s delivery. It doesn’t really matter that Hobbs walks on the field in front of tens of thousands or when Smalls hits the outfield with the neighborhood gang – they play the same game, driven by the same passion.

There are other films worth mentioning for their perspective on the game: the comedy of “Major League,” the erotic resonance of sex and baseball in “Bull Durham” and the heartrending twilight of a player’s career in “For Love of the Game,” but all respect the game’s dynamic appeal. Films use baseball as metaphor for the peak of life and what comes after, as language to explain the very simple appeal of the best of life’s pleasures.

Of course, baseball films are never simply about the game, and the best do more than chronicle a season of an underdog success story. “Field of Dreams” is my favorite baseball flick, and its protagonist doesn’t even play. Rather, the movie tracks baseball’s ripples in Ray Kinsella’s life – how his love of the game anchors his family and sustains him when the material world threatens his titular field. Love of baseball connects Kinsella to all the ghosts of players that frequent his field and, most importantly, to his long-dead father. The field connects the past and present – it’s the game that was and will be. “They’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’ve dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces,” said James Earl Jones’ Terence Mann.

Every game progresses with the same interval of action and transition, but no game is the same. Movies narrate moments in our lives as they evoke memories. Watching “The Sandlot,” I remember little league; watching “Field of Dreams,” I remember seeing games with my Dad up in the stands, content to witness our heroes face down pitchers and chase down high flies back to the wall; watching “A League of Their Own,” I remember watching my sister brazenly decimate the field as the only girl on the team. I was never meant to play the field, but baseball will always be the game that takes me out of my mundane toils and plants me in the stands for a perfect afternoon with a dog and a beer to bear witness to what could be the best nine innings ever played.