There are two baseball films that I love and one that I hate. They are all based on books, but actually the film versions are the superior ones. The first two films are magical films at base, dealing with providence, destiny and dreams on the field. The third tries to make the first two disappear, explaining in cold detail how baseball really works. Nothing is ever quite the same once it’s been explained as a series of causes and effects, least of all magic.
In The Natural, Roy Hobbs is given a second chance at fulfilling his life’s dream to play in the big leagues when lightning strikes a tree on his property and he carves the remains down into a baseball bat. In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella, a dissatisfied farmer, hears an enigmatic voice in his corn field, which drives him to plow over his cash crop and build a baseball field for Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other “Black Sox” of baseball infamy (in case you don’t know, the Black Sox were Chicago White Sox players who were accused of trying to rig the 1919 World Series). These films represent a light in a cynical world. Roy Hobbs is bribed, threatened, blackmailed, and suffers every other attempt to dishonor a man. Ray Kinsella is called crazy, ostracized from his community, and almost loses his farm and family. But these men persevere. They trust the plan. They have faith.
Both films deal with the bonds of fathers and sons. Roy, after winning the pennant and shattering the lights in the stadium with a walk-off homerun, hangs up his jersey when he learns that he is a father. The film ends as he plays catch with his son, just as it began with young Roy on the same farm playing catch with his father. Having spurned his father’s wishes for him to be a ballplayer as a young man, he is given the chance to play catch with his dad one more time, as a reward for following the voice and believing in something greater than himself. Because as much as these are baseball films, do not be mistaken: these films are about what it means to be a man.
Manhood and its decline in modernity is a cornerstone of the dissident right. The protagonists of these films are not good men at the start. As a young boy, Roy’s talent is obvious, but his father, a good man, instills in him that gifts are not enough. They train for hours and hours and not once does Roy seem bitter or angry that his father spends so much time with him to hone his skill. His father dies of a heart attack and we see Roy mourn him, the first great loss on his hero’s journey. This loss only strengthens his resolve and during a storm, the tree his father died under is split by lightning and Roy carves a baseball bat, Wonderboy – his very own Excalibur.
Roy was a good, dutiful son and a disciplined student of his craft. He is even on the way to becoming a good father, as he and his girlfriend, Iris, spend a night together before Roy departs for a tryout with the Cubs. But a test of his faith comes in the guise of a seductress, intent on ruining the aspirations of Great men. Roy is shot and his wounds prevent him from playing. His idealism is shattered. He gives up the game. He forgets about Iris and his promise to marry her. The work he and his father did becomes pointless. He does not believe in the plan anymore.
Years pass and an older Roy is finally in the majors. He’s dismissed as too old to be a rookie, but gets his shot and turns the team around, performing feats unimaginable for even younger, more athletic men. Roy’s past catches back up with him, however. The Silver bullet that’s been lodged in his stomach for sixteen years comes loose and sends Roy to the hospital. The team loses the next few games and the last game of the season is their only shot at the playoffs. Roy plays in the game and due to his injury, plays poorly. In a feat of strength, in his last at bat, he sends a homerun through the stadium lights. Having found his holy grail, he retires from the game and returns to his farm to play catch with his son, continuing the tradition of his father and all those fathers before them.
Ray Kinsella is a product of the 1960s or at least the 1960s that were sold the public. He was a hippy who read banned books and determined never to be like his father, an old man obsessed with the game. He’s a farmer with no love for farming. He’s not a bad father by any stretch, but the first two failures can be said to keep him from being a great father to his young daughter. Throughout the movie, he keeps referring to his father and the regret he has with how things ended between the two of them. His father was not at his wedding. He never met Ray’s wife or daughter.
Ray hears a voice in his cornfield, telling him to build a baseball field for Shoeless Joe Jackson. Compelled by the mystery and the nagging thought that he has grown up to become just like his father in spite of his best efforts, Ray builds the field, using up his savings and plowing over some of his richest farm land. Shoeless Joe Jackson then appears one night, walking through a wall of corn at the edge of the outfield and the two bond over their love of the game. Ray is then told to find a reclusive author who’s lost his love of writing and a former ball player who never got his shot in the majors.
Terrence, the writer, is invited to see the other side and because of Ray, feels the creative spark and love for his fellow man that brought out his gifts years before. Archie, the former right fielder turned doctor, gets his shot to bat against the greats of his time. But when duty calls, he abandons that dream to save Ray’s daughter’s life. For his efforts, his faith, and the risks he has taken, Ray is rewarded with a gift he swore he never wanted; to be able to play catch with his dad again.
These films bring men to tears because we can no longer play catch with our fathers and because we fear we might not be righteous enough to stay principled in the face of power, corruption, vice, and all other temptations that weaken men. These films are magical because they inspire belief in a miracles, redemption and an uncynical world.
The film I hate, tries to shove all this aside. Moneyball is the real story of baseball. It is the story of old men sitting in a room, debating ballplayers’ physical appearance, dating habits, and other apparently meaningless intangibles. The poor teams are bad because the good teams are rich.
Wealth, greed, ignorance, and old white men are the cause of Billy Beane’s problems. He’s a bitter former ballplayer who was told that he could be the best there ever was. The pressure of such expectations broke him and eventually he became the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a plucky team of misfits who rely on good scouting to keep their team competitive.
Only through the power of analytics are the A’s able to build a roster that can beat the best teams in baseball. On-base percentage wins games and an obsession with Sabermetrics thrusts the A’s to the playoffs in a game that they weren’t supposed to win. There is no magic in Moneyball. Nerds behind computers calculate percentages and the effort, talent, and skill of the men on the field become ones and zeroes in a simulation. It’s that simple. When a past-his-prime player is traded to the A’s for nothing, he tries to bring that spark of heroism to the team, only to be told that he’s washed up and if he wants to play, he needs to play their way. In the words of CS Lewis, “ In a sort of ghastly way, we remove the organ and expect the function to remain.” Analytics removed the soul from baseball and yet we expect the victories still to mean something.
Today’s game looks like a machine, performing inputs and creating outputs. The pitching machine throws a ball that the hitting machine can only hit 1/4 to 1/3 of the time. The fielding machines catch most everything that comes to them. The base stealing machines no longer steal bases because base stealing is analytically irrelevant. The umpires are monitored by machines and if their call is wrong, their authority is overturned. The worst part is, this thinking wins, so it will keep being the standard until something else comes along. The men in the arena have become irrelevant.
So too, go the men in America, and men of the West at large. Heroism can be explained away with rationality, so heroes can’t exist in this world. That would mean someone was better than someone else. Today a man is nothing more than an economic unit, the same as a woman, who can be replaced in the system like a screw or washer in the machine once its worn itself out or become obsolete.
Men are not taught to not respect their fathers. They are taught to be Ray Kinsella, and spurn their fathers, because they are old and have sinned and are obsolete. Society would see them be a jack of no trade, a master of nothing, because self-sufficiency is inefficient. Because a man who does not need the system is a danger to it. And I don’t have to go on about fathering children. Better men than I have written much longer, more profound works on declining birthrates in exchange for extended adolescence.
So what’s the point of sport? Everything sucks because the nerds took over and explained away the things they never could accomplish on their own. Who cares about baseball? Or sports in general? They’ve been compromised for so long. What do we do about it? All fair questions. We don’t need to watch the Majors or give them our money. Same with Hollywood and media in general. I say we coach little league. I say we call our fathers if we’re lucky enough to still have them and I say we play catch with our sons. We bring magic back to the world, little by little. We show them Field of Dreams and The Natural and throw Moneyball in the trash. And when those boys grow up and it’s their time at bat, a hero might knock the cover off the ball. And then I think we’ll be alright.