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Love is a baseball field: “Shoeless Joe”

“If you build it, he will come.”

Besides “Shoeless Joe,” there are few sports novels (actually, none that I can think of) that have such an iconic line. W.P. Kinsella connects with it on page one.

“Three years ago at dusk on a spring evening, when the sky was a robbin’s-egg blue and the wind as soft as a day-old chick, I was sitting on the verandah of my farm house in eastern Iowa when a voice very clearly said to me, ‘If you build it, he will come.’”

Ray Kinsella (yes, he has the same surname as the author) surprisingly asks very few questions when he hears the voice. Perhaps because with the voice comes a vision—that what he needs to build is a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield, and when he does, disgraced (and deceased) outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson will appear. All this is treated by Kinsella (the author and the character) as though it’s just a routine pop-up.

Also, Kinsella the author says it sounded like a “ballpark announcer.” What would you do if Vin Scully telepathically gave you this cryptic order? I suppose that is the central question of the novel. Actually, I take that back—the central question is: Why is Vin Scully telepathically giving you this cryptic order?

On paper, Ray Kinsella’s life has a lot going on in both the Pros and Cons columns. Pros: a loving wife Annie and daughter Karin, and a farm house that I imagine is decorated with all manner of Country Living tchotchkes. Cons: his farm is losing money and the bank may repossess it. Also, he lives in Iowa. (Actually, I didn’t mean that, Iowa. I live in NYC and I’m kinda jealous of you. But by the first few pages Kinsella makes it clear that he’s only in Iowa because of Annie. It’s a state of little imagination and even worse, a football state.) Also, he’s hearing voices. So maybe there’s a bit more in the Con column at the moment. But our protagonist— cheered on by his wife— still has a healthy dose of youthful optimism, and decides to follow that voice wherever it leads in the hope that his life will get better.

I don’t believe any other sport lends itself to literature quite like baseball. (Perhaps boxing is a close second.) Kinsella mines its lyricism with all his might, yet it doesn’t come off as forced. When Ray’s wife lovingly insists he follow the voice and plow into their already shaky cornfield, we believe it. When undead Shoeless Joe Jackson, shamed member of the 1919 Black Sox (watch John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out” for background) eventually appears in the ball field, talking about getting banned as though he were also a poet, we believe it. And when the voice returns with “Ease His Pain,” meaning Kinsella not only has to find reclusive author J.D. Salinger (who’s nowhere near Iowa) but bring him to a ballgame, we believe it. No questions asked.

Kinsella also seamlessly goes back and forth between the present and his days growing up with a much older father, who looked upon Jackson’s banishment with the same gravitas as that of Adam and Eve (if anything, it was even more unjust), and used baseball as a way to connect with his son, who must have seen the same magic his father did … or was it W.P. Kinsella who did?

After watching “Field of Dreams,” the film version of “Shoeless Joe,” my mother remarked that, while she loved the movie, she thought it was more fairy tale than sports film. What wife would cheer her husband all the way to financial ruin because he’s following the voices in his head? Most wives (or any partner) would think he’d gone insane. And Kinsella paints those who challenge him as the unsmiling, God-fearing worst of the Midwest, instead of possibly rational people who may just dislike baseball. (There have been pitchers’ duels I’ve sat through which made me think, “This is four hours I’m never getting back,” so I can relate.)

Perhaps it is that fairy-tale aspect that makes “Shoeless Joe” work. All I know is, if you can make your reader believe that dead ballplayers can reanimate and play in an Iowa cornfield with J.D. Salinger watching from the stands, you’ve done your job. But what also comes into play is that the connection between father and son–even one that seems tenuous–might be more powerful than the one between a boy and his Hall of Fame heroes.

 

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