Twenty years ago last week Field of Dreams arrived in theaters, and a farmer named Ray Kinsella saw a ghost in his cornfield, a once-great ballplayer who was reeling from a terrible mistake. "Getting thrown out of baseball was like having part of me amputated," the player said. He wanted to leg out triples again, sure. But he also wanted to get back into the celestial pennant race. He wanted forgiveness.
Shoeless Joe Jackson? Yes, but fans who pop in the Field of Dreams DVD today will be forgiven if their minds wander to baseball's more recent miscreants. Two decades after the voice whispered, "If you build it," Shoeless Joe's plight is echoed, or soon will be, in baseball's continuing steroids inquiries. Baseball has begun the process of willfully forgetting about players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa. Though never officially banned, those players are headed for baseball purgatory for crimes (proven and alleged) against the game. They're our new Shoeless Joes.
Field of Dreams may be the most nostalgic and sentimental of baseball films, a genre that has produced more than its share of dewy-eyed moments. But watching it today is a reminder that despite the movie's unironic faith in baseball and forgiveness (two of our national pastimes), those who run afoul of the game by gambling or cheating, even if the transgressions aren't proved, face exile as little more than historical footnotes. It's as if baseball's desire to put scandalous eras behind it is best served by forgetting the past, not by reconciling with it.
After they exit the stage, tainted players enter an eternal seventh-inning stretch, stranded somewhere between immortality (Cooperstown) and ignominy (wherever Pete Rose is signing baseball cards this weekend). The movie's Shoeless Joe found some measure of solace in the Iowa corn. But there was no such magic for the real Joe Jackson, who, along with seven White Sox teammates, was expelled from baseball for life for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series. According to biographer David L. Fleitz, Joe, who admitted to taking money from gamblers, exiled himself to Greenville, S.C. Though he spent happy days playing semipro ball and running a liquor business, in the minds of the newspaper columnists he was not the sympathetic loser we know from Field of Dreams but rather a fool who was part of a "conspiracy that shook the confidence of America youth," in the words of the writer Westbrook Pegler. Sound familiar?
Like Bonds, Jackson always protested his innocence. "I gave baseball all I had," he told The Sporting News in 1942. "The Supreme Being is the only one to whom I've got to answer." But by the time he died in 1951, various attempts to have him reinstated in baseball had failed.
The new Joes are suffering in their own special ways. McGwire, Palmeiro and Sosa have practically vanished, at least as far as the media is concerned. (McGwire, the only one who is now eligible for the Hall of Fame, received just 21.9% of the vote from writers last year, with 75% needed for induction.) Bonds, while trumpeting his innocence, has been buried under a raft of subpoenas.
Like Oprah Winfrey and the Catholic church, baseball is willing to embrace prodigal sons who confess and repent (see: Jason Giambi). But as Bonds, McGwire et al. have learned, anyone who sins against the game, or is suspected of sinning, and refuses to beg for mercy is soon out of sight and out of mind. In Shoeless Joe's day the dilemma for the ejected player was how to make a living. Today's players have piles of money; to borrow a line from the movie's dugout philosopher, Terence Mann, "It's money they have and peace they lack." Onetime heroes like McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro have also lost the recognition that came with their accomplishments.
There were nights, the movie's Shoeless Joe says, when the old smells of the ballpark would fill his room, and his refugee status became unbearable. The new Joes will have their own nights, even if what they miss isn't the scent of pine tar and tobacco juice. It's just not the same when they walk into a room these days, and there's that little matter of the Hall of Fame. What do you do with the rest of your life? Well, you could become a sneering denialist (Bonds) or a sphinx (McGwire). Rose, a tenured member of the Shoeless Joe club, has tried both approaches, and in recent years has added abject apologizer to the list.
Is this heaven? Not even close, and while it's a hell of the new Joes' own (alleged) making, there's something depressing, not just for them but for every baseball fan, about a flogging that lasts an eternity. Ted Williams, who stumped for the real Shoeless Joe to make the Hall of Fame, liked to point out that Joe's "lifetime" ban extended well beyond his death. The movie felt good to watch two decades ago, still does. But Field of Dreams has never felt more like fiction.
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at the web site The Daily Beast.
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Those who sin against the game are soon OUT OF SIGHT AND OUT OF MIND.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW