At its best, “Field of Dreams” is a celebration of baseball’s power to transcend space and time, connect people and — most importantly — offer redemption. At its worst, the film uses that same sentimental gloss to obscure some of the sport’s most problematic elements (including, notably, the color line). The contradiction between the idea of baseball and its reality is something the movie both plays with and falls victim to at different moments. So it’s fitting that Thursday’s Field of Dreams Game, which will see the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees face off in an idyllic Iowa cornfield, is equally complicated to unpack.
The event, which (like many sporting events) was postponed from 2020 by COVID-19, comes at a time when MLB is facing crises on many fronts, ranging from the ongoing pandemic to various scandals, a looming labor deadlock and sometimes just an unwillingness to do the right thing that feels pathological. It can be hard to forget all of that and simply embrace the simple magic of the game, even when the best players are performing their craft against such a perfect backdrop. But flawed — or otherwise tragic — characters were at the center of the film’s narrative as well.
Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banished from MLB for his role (or not) in the 1919 Chicago White Sox’s game-fixing scandal, helps serve as protagonist Ray Kinsella’s ghostly spirit guide as Kinsella quixotically turns his farm into a baseball field despite his family’s impending bankruptcy. Among the cornstalks, Jackson and the rest of the eight men out are finally allowed to play big-league ball again. Meanwhile, small-town doctor Archibald “Moonlight” Graham gets to take a turn at the plate against the greats, 50 years after his chance seemed lost forever,1 and a young version of Kinsella’s late, estranged father is even behind the plate catching.
Identities of the rest of Jackson’s dream team aren’t entirely clear, though some callouts and additional sleuthing can give us educated guesses. For instance, Brian Deines made a compelling case that other ghost players included Hal Chase (another Jackson contemporary long dogged by gambling allegations), Jack O’Connor (who was banned for trying to rig the 1910 batting title) and Joe Gedeon (who also bet on the 1919 World Series).
|Career WAR† as…|
|OF||Shoeless Joe Jackson||1908-1920||61.3||0.0||61.3|
|P/OF||Smoky Joe Wood||1908-1922||9.3||29.1||38.4|
In the movie’s romantic view, the purity of baseball helped all involved in the game find peace amid their problems. And certainly MLB has had its share of its own problems since the film’s release in the late 1980s. So if we were making an updated lineup to join Shoeless Joe and friends, who would be in it?
As Deines points out, most — though not all — of the cornfield players share the common themes of either being involved in a scandal that saw them disowned by MLB, missing a shot at the big leagues or having their careers (or lives) cut short due to injury or illness. So within each category, we can break down the best candidates to emerge from the outfield corn or otherwise make a pilgrimage to heav– err, Iowa.
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Careers marred by scandal
Perhaps the most obvious player that we would place in a new version of “Field of Dreams” is all-time hit king Pete Rose, who was banned from MLB for betting on games in August 1989, just four months after the film hit theaters. Rose has been compared to Jackson ever since, and his post-baseball life has taken on a similar air of tragedy as his various attempts to be reinstated have been denied. With his throwback hitting style and hard-charging comportment, Rose would fit right in alongside the old-school players of Jackson’s day — though he does have a history of taking these exhibition games a little too seriously.
Other clear-cut candidates in this category include notorious names from MLB’s steroid era. Not every PED-user makes sense for the field of dreams, though, since many players who have tested positive or were implicated in the Mitchell Report still went on to have long careers. Their legacies are complicated, but not necessarily tragic. But there are a few players whose stories would make sense among the original ghost-team lineup.
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Barry Bonds certainly got to play plenty of big league ballgames, even breaking the great Henry Aaron’s all-time home run record along the way. But there’s a good case to be made that many teams could have used Bonds’s services in 2008, when MLB collectively turned its back on arguably its greatest modern player while he still had something left to give. Although it’s debatable if Bonds would get invited to the cornfield from a personality standpoint — remember, Ty Cobb was denied because the other players couldn’t stand him — his talent would be a natural fit.
I’m also including a few more accused steroid users. José Canseco is another player with an incredibly complicated legacy within the history of the game and a bizarre, sad post-playing career arc. But he was electrifying to watch as a player in his prime, and he fits with the overall theme of guys MLB would prefer just went away. And like Canseco, who was still playing independent-league ball well into his fifties, closer Éric Gagné is here not only because he was truly dominant at his peak, but also because he kept playing long after his MLB days had passed by: In 2017, Gagné attempted a comeback at age 41, nearly a decade after his last big-league season. The field of dreams is nothing if not a place for players with checkered pasts who nonetheless can’t let the game go.
As for players from the latest scandals MLB has faced? It’s much too early to contemplate the legacies of pitchers who used sticky stuff, and most of the key figures from the Astros’ and Red Sox’s sign-stealing scandals are still active (and in some cases, causing us to question our assumptions about the effect of the tactics). But in a nod to those controversies, we’ll include Boston skipper Alex Cora — who had a role in both scandals but is also one of the better managers in the game today — on the roster as a player-manager.
Missed — or denied — chances at greatness
One of the most memorable real-life parts2 of the “Field of Dreams” story involved Dr. Graham, who really did play just one MLB game and never did make it to the plate. (Relatedly, I defy anyone to watch Burt Lancaster’s speech about dreams and not well up with emotion.) Baseball-Reference.com actually keeps a list of hitters like Graham, who merely got a “cup of coffee” in the big leagues — usually no more than one game. But even the majority of those on the list who were position players at least got to take a turn at the plate. True Graham-like players are harder to come by, and only three of them have played since 1985:3 catcher Joe Hietpas of the 2004 Mets, infielder Pedro Santana of the 2001 Tigers and utility player Bob Hegman of the 1985 Royals. All three must be included on any updated team taking the field at the Kinsella farm.
So, too, must one of the movie’s biggest injustices be redressed. In what seems now like a staggering omission, no Black ballplayers were included in the original “Field of Dreams” lineup. (Director Phil Alden Robinson later said this is the first thing he would change if he could do it over again.) This applies both to players like Jackie Robinson, whose role in integrating MLB made him arguably the most significant player in baseball history, and his predecessors from the Negro Leagues, whose historical accomplishments are only now getting the official recognition from MLB they’ve long deserved. Among the latter group, it makes sense for our team to feature a group of legends, the very best players that MLB locked out via the color line: catcher Josh Gibson, shortstop Willie Wells, center fielder Oscar Charleston and two-way titan Bullet Rogan — all players whose talent made them every bit the equal of Jackson, Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby and the greats from the original film.
Gone too soon
As mentioned earlier, one of the other overriding themes among players invited to the field of dreams is an element of untimely injury or even death. (Gehrig, Ott and Hodges all died not long after their careers ended, for instance.) Over the years, MLB has lost a number of players at much too young an age, particularly those who died during their careers.
On the position-player side, right fielder Roberto Clemente is the greatest player in baseball history (according to wins above replacement4) to have died while actively playing in the majors; he was killed in a plane crash at age 38 in 1972, while on a humanitarian mission to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua. We also have the tragic story of Ken Caminiti, the former MVP third baseman who struggled for years with substance abuse and ultimately died of an overdose at age 41, just three years after his big-league career ended. And we have the versatile, underrated Tony Phillips, who played 18 years in the majors as both an outfielder and infielder and was a quintessential Hall of Good type of player. In 2016, he died of a heart attack at age 56.
The pitching staff is filled with even more players who were taken from us far too soon. Recent Hall of Fame inductee Roy Halladay, one of the game’s consummate control artists, died in a plane crash at age 40 in 2017, just four years into retirement. On the field of dreams, his battles with Jackson and Ruth alone would be worth the trip to Iowa and the $20 price of admission. Joining him would be closer Rod Beck, who racked up 286 career saves but also died within several years of retiring.
And the rotation would feature a trio of talented pitchers whose lives were lost mid-career: Darryl Kile, José Fernández and Yordano Ventura. After a rough stretch early in his career, the 33-year-old Kile had carved out a place as one of the game’s most consistent right-handed starters when he died of a heart attack in the middle of the 2002 season. Fernández’s potential had been limitless before a boat accident claimed his life just a few months after his 24th birthday. And Ventura remains one of current baseball’s biggest what-if stories: The 25-year-old with the electric fastball and tight-spinning curve had been masterful at times during Kansas City’s back-to-back World Series runs in 2014 and 2015, and he still had his whole career ahead of him when he died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic in early 2017.
The chance to see all of those late stars play again, together with the other greats who fit the theme of the original “Field of Dreams” lineup, could only come out of a Hollywood script. But how great would it be to see this team in action?
|Career WAR† as…|
|C||Joe Hietpas ☕||2004-2004||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|IF||Pedro Santana ☕||2001-2001||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|UT||Bob Hegman ☕||1985-1985||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|Career WAR† as…|
As it is, the reality of this week’s game will give us a very good White Sox team and a Yankees club that may finally be discovering its long-dormant potential. And the coverage will surely lean hard on the themes of nostalgia and sentimentality that were hallmarks of the film as well. Whether you consider it touching or sappy, the movie is a vision of what baseball can be in our minds and memories, along with what it actually is. The players from the original film (and members of our dream team) were not perfect; far from it, they were looking for redemption at Kinsella’s field, along with a chance to experience the simple joy of the game again. These days, MLB has plenty of redemption left to seek — but if we’re lucky, baseball also may have plenty left to provide.
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