All That Once Was Good And Could Be Again

There’s a part of James Earl Jones’ marvelous soliloquy in Field of Dreams where he calls out Baseball as “all that once was good and could be again.” That’s a pretty romantic gesture, and one that resonated so well with its audience. Phil Alden Robinson’s screenplay, based on W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, took some liberties with the plot, but mostly for the better — it ended up with an Oscar nomination.

If you read the original, though, that line never appears.

The book says:

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.”

While Kinsella also calls back to calico dresses and Indian-head pennies — old things, things from a previous century, things from an idyllic agricultural world — he never once intimates that baseball by itself is all that once was good and could be again. No, that’s not what Shoeless Joe says at all: it says that baseball is a bellwether that is just as mutable as the Iowa farm country it emerges from.

Baseball changed plenty in the timespan of the book — and while the rules of the game are much the same as they were in Moonlight Graham’s day as much as they were in Fenway Park in 1978 — there was a lot that had been built, demolished and rebuilt in that same era.

No, baseball isn’t the same now as it once was, where the owners were the only ones building empires based on their players’ successes. Baseball integrated in the 1940s and 50s, after the second World War, but before the Civil Rights Movement. The Marvin Miller Era of the MLBPA raised the salaries and rights of players substantially.

Is that what Kinsella meant by marking time? I’m not sure.

Kinsella’s not looking back to the idyll alone, he’s looking back with his heroes, and in so doing, projecting them forward fifty years after their primes. It’s hard to imagine that the 1919 Black Sox would recognize the 2015 Nationals — not their makeup, not their look, not their wealth, not their swagger. No, baseball’s truth is that it evolves as society does, and in fact, the progressive changes that baseball has made over the years are among its strengths.

“All that once was good and could be again,” is romanticizing even the already-romantic arc of Kinsella, and I think it’s a bridge too far.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the sentiment.

Major League Baseball has put out a pair of spots for Opening Day this year, and I love them both. Our “Field of Dreams” is James Earl Jones’ soliloquy again, but voiced by the stars of the game. The second is called THIS, and features Buck Showalter of the Orioles, talking about the current generation of players. He finishes: “These are the best 750 players in the world, that the world has to offer. The game’s being played better than it ever has in the history of it. These are the good old days. They are.”

If it’s possible to be both nostalgic, and live in the present, Major League Baseball can do it. Here’s to hoping this season can live up to that high bar.

Happy Opening Day.

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