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A Sports Writer and a Film Writer Deliver. . . : The Pitch for Baseball : From Fathers to Sons: Catching a Memory

Times Staff Writer: <i> Mathews is a Times film writer</i>

“You ought to see my dad’s fingers. They’re this big!”

Whenever I told childhood friends about my father’s fingers, I illustrated it by making a circle with my own hands that suggested something with a circumference of a fire hose.

To small kids, a man’s hands are natural wonders, great leathery clumps with oak branches attached, amazing devices that can lift you to the sky or adroitly button your shirt.

But in my father’s case, I didn’t exaggerate much. As a catcher on a semi-pro baseball team in Kansas during the Depression, he had had his fingers broken so often by foul-tipped pitches that the joints were left permanently twisted and swollen.

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His hands were as ugly as spiders but he took great pride in them and so did my brothers and I. For boys growing up in the postwar years, there was nothing more important than baseball and our dad had been paid to play it! Only a couple of bucks a week, but what did we care?

I was reminded of the family’s brush with baseball immortality by Phil Alden Robinson’s “Field of Dreams.” In the opening moments of the film, the major character--an Iowa farmer played by Kevin Costner--tells how his father had given up on a baseball career for the security of a job in the Brooklyn shipyards and worked himself to death.

Upon those reflections hang both the film’s theme--dreams unpursued are dreams unfulfilled--and its plot. Through a series of magical events that occur on a baseball diamond carved out of a cornfield, Costner’s Ray Kinsella sets out to understand the father he never knew. The movie is not about baseball, of course. It’s one more in a never-ending series of attempts by men to understand bonds with their fathers. Kinsella didn’t connect with his father when he was alive and, like many men reflecting on their relationships with their dads, he has found a bond in baseball. The symbol was Shoeless Joe Jackson, a great Chicago White Sox player who was banned from the game for life for his part in the fixing of the 1919 World Series.

In the movie, Kinsella recalls hurting his father, a devoted Shoeless Joe fan, by asking him how he could revere a cheater. It’s a question that, given the moral lapses by many current sports heroes, kids may be asking their fathers today.

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“Field of Dreams” doesn’t deal with the integrity of baseball heroes but with how the game has--for much of this century, at least--provided a special bond between boys and their fathers.

My earliest memories of my father are of those gnarly fingers and the stories that went with them. Dad would hold up one of his fingers and tell how he had had it broken by a foul-tipped slider thrown by Hungry Boyd. As he told it, he would merely set the break himself, wrap some tape around it, and keep playing.

Kids understand these things. You can’t quit in the middle of a baseball game. Not unless it’s so dark, you might catch the next one in the face.

When he wasn’t talking about Hungry Boyd or his other pitcher, Turk Henderson (he and Turk were once invited to the Chicago Cubs training camp, but Turk got sick and they both stayed home), he was talking reverently about his own Shoeless Joes--Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller. Once in a while, he piled us all in the car and took us to Wrigley Field in Los Angeles where we rooted for Pacific Coast League stars named Max West and Dee Fondy.

More than anything, I remember the summer evenings playing catch. There was no conversation that I can recall, just a ball being thrown back and forth until he decided it was time to go in.

Why is an activity of such apparent monotony remembered with such fondness? And why does “Field of Dreams,” a blatantly sentimental film with fewer complications than an overhand fastball, have so many grown men weeping in their popcorn?

For many men, at least for those of us who were raised before early gender identification was deemed a form of child abuse, baseball was the simplest and most intimate way for an American dad to let his Y chromosome toddler know what he was.

The truth of most father-son relationships is that they don’t become openly close--if ever--until the son is himself a man. Between the first game of catch and the first adult connection, there is a lot of livin’ to do. Oedipal complexities, adolescent rebellions and the inevitable burden of youth knowing everything.

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If the father doesn’t live long enough, the bond simply never matures.

That’s the case with Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams.” He didn’t get a chance to square his disappointments with his dad before his dad was gone. Only through this dreamy baseball metaphor--with his father’s hero summoned from the beyond for batting practice in an Iowa cornfield--is he able to get on with his own life.

People have been lumping “Field of Dreams” in with the current “Major League” and last year’s “Bull Durham” as evidence of baseball’s commercial viability on film. Certainly, the game is bedrock American, a handy remedy for all sorts of literary ailments, but it doesn’t explain the success of “Field of Dreams.”

Judging by the exit polls, which show that the movie is equally liked by all ages and both genders, Robinson has tapped into something very basic about the early bonds formed between children and their parents. That this story is specifically about fathers and sons doesn’t, as Yogi Berra might have put it, include anyone out.


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