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What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Baseball and Life, According to Kevin Costner

In one eleven-year period, from 1988 to 1999, Kevin Costner played the lead Baseball Guy in three unrelated Baseball Movies. During that time, Costner would also jump around, testing other bona fide movie-star vehicles. He was Robin Hood and Wyatt Earp, he prosecuted the conspiracy to murder the president in JFK, he starred alongside Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard, played a mutant drifter in Waterworld (then the most expensive movie ever made). At both ends of this blockbusting stretch sit the actor’s Baseball Movies – the inoffensive, optimistic, earnestly American roles that helped shape the identity of Kevin Costner: Movie Star.

1988’s Bull Durham follows Costner’s Crash Davis, a minor league journeyman catcher in the twilight of his career. A year later, Costner reappeared as Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer urged by bodiless voices to build a home field for dead ballplayers in Field of Dreams. The actor then stepped away from Baseball for a decade before taking the field one last time in For Love of the Game, starring as Billy Chapel, an aged superstar who relives memories of a failed romance while he pitching in the last game of his career.

Each of these Baseball Guy iterations endures a certain degree of pain. Davis is finishing a career defined by shortcoming, haunted by his failures at the games’ highest level. He carries a pit of regret, occasionally lashing out but mostly sauntering through life unwilling to leave a sport that doesn’t want him anymore, and maybe never did. Baseball is Crash Davis’ occupation, a calling even if his talent never rose to the level of his passion for the game.

In Field of Dreams, Costner’s Ray Kinsella is a middle-aged man who, despite enjoying a full personal and professional life, fixates on the lacking relationship he had with his father. That man, John Kinsella, was a distant figure, dissatisfied and settled long before Ray’s arrival in the world. John had a stint in baseball that became nothing, and then spent the rest of his life lugging stuff for a paycheck. Ray, now many years removed from his father’s death, is only tangentially related to baseball; he has retained a fan’s interest in the game, seemingly as a stand-in for the substantive paternal relationship he missed (and still misses).

Billy Chapel, unlike his understated counterparts, is a superstar. For Love of the Game joins his professional story in its final throes, but Chapel had been to the pinnacle of the sport and back before that time. His nice cars, prima donna attitude, and frosted tips are a fit for Costner, who established himself as a genuine box office draw long before For Love of the Game debuted. Chapel’s pain is tangible – broken and neglected relationships, throbbing shoulders, damaged nerves. He is a man who has achieved everything, and is tallying the true cost of that success in terms of physical discomfort and romantic disrepair.

In a vacuum, Davis, Kinsella, and Chapel are mostly the same man. They are characterized by Costner’s physicality, the unique mixture of weathered handsomeness and lithe athleticism that allowed him to believably portray professional athletes even into his forties, but the similarities continue past throwing motion, hitting mechanics, and jock swagger. The women in these movies, for instance, exist only to relate to Costner’s characters, and they adore him.

Bull Durham pairs Costner with Susan Sarandon as Annie, a cougar’s cougar before the term existed. Annie is baseball-obsessed, and supplants her expertise with sexuality; she critiques the player’s mechanics, watches every game, and each season she takes one lucky Bull as her lover. In the spirit of that tradition, Annie chooses the team’s star pitcher in the film’s beginning, but is so enamored with Crash that she becomes uncharacteristically conflicted.

The film introduces Annie as a strong and independent – if eccentric and a little pitiable – force, an intellectual and sexual dynamo who amuses herself by making men out of minor league boys. In one scene she lectures her protégé on agency, forcing her to repeat a mantra – “I didn’t get lured, and I will take responsibility for my actions.” Still, Crash Davis – one ballplayer out of hundreds who have ostensibly come through Durham during Annie’s time there – is so singular, so commanding and undeniable that Annie’s romantic identity frays. By the film’s end, Annie is completely smitten.

While Bull Durham is R-rated, adult and sexual, Field of Dreams is far more saccharine and sentimental, so Annie is replaced by Annie (seriously), and Karin, Ray’s wife and daughter, respectively. Annie and Karin apparently worship Ray, supporting the man even when his foolhardy obsessions endanger the farm and nearly bankrupt the family. Ray hears a voice early in the film, famously urging him to build a field; Annie is easily convinced, and Ray proceeds to level a substantial amount of their crop. This pattern continues when Ray is called to Boston by forces beyond his understanding, diverted to Minnesota in similar circumstances, and returns home to stubbornly resist even the most sensible salvaging of the family’s financial security. This is a man’s movie about a man and his father and the man’s game they both loved; Annie and Karin exist merely to look at Ray with bewildered smiles, awestruck adoration, or something in between.

Interestingly, For Love of the Game respects its female character the least, even though the film explores romance as much as it does sport. Jane meets Billy by chance, who stops to help her with car trouble because she is alone and attractive. He easily impresses her, and the two start a periodic fling, with Billy meeting her whenever his team is in New York to play the Yankees. It’s a relationship that starts under dubious circumstances, and mostly continues as such despite the sticky-sweet montage in the film’s middle that gives the audience Chapel briefly appearing to actually commit himself to Jane. Chapel is a superstar, with only enough love for the game, and he viciously and thoughtlessly lets Jane know as much on more than one occasion in the film.

At the end of For Love of the Game Billy has reached his mountaintop, yet realizes that he is still unfulfilled. So, he runs to the airport, where Jane – resolved to leave Billy and the toxic relationship for good – is waiting to board a plane to London. He recounts to Jane his grand epiphany – that he needs her – and she can’t help but be convinced to stay, to work things out, because as the audience knows, she has never been anything less than obsessed with Billy since he first stopped to hit on in front of her broken car. The moment is hollow, largely because the revelation is, too. Billy’s change of heart comes only after he has faced his professional mortality, only when it became not just convenient, but necessary to occupy himself with something other than baseball. It’s natural to almost root for Jane to leave – Billy wouldn’t allow Jane to have him at his best, so why should she be persuaded to settle for anything less? That can’t happen, however, because Billy Chapel – like Crash Davis, and Ray Kinsella – is irresistible.

The Cult of Costner: Baseball Guy isn’t limited to women in these films, as all three of these characters are natural leaders of men. Crash Davis’ role in baseball is to literally mold young men; he is acquired by the Durham Bulls with the sole purpose of looking after and helping shape Nuke, the wild and wildly talented pitcher with a “million-dollar arm and five cent head.” Davis goes even further, naturally becoming the de facto leader of the entire team, providing guidance even to the Bull’s overwhelmed manager.

Ray is chosen by supernatural forces to build a home for the searching, wandering heroes of baseball’s past. His quest is biblical, and his assumed authority postures him as the ruler of his own mythical baseball kingdom. Shoeless Joe and the other players may be destined for immortality, everlasting life in the collective memory of America, but they can’t play unless Ray turns the lights on, unless Ray refuses to sell his farm. And they want desperately to play.

In For Love of the Game, Chapel’s reputation around the league is godly – players and coaches speak his name with reverence, preaching about his old-school, no-bullshit work ethic and his considerable achievements on the mound. Like Davis, Chapel’s team follows his lead, a right he earned with years in the game and statistics compiled. Chapel’s catcher adores him like young boy adores his older brother, and his owner dotes on him like a fawning father.

Both of these groups – men and the women – are influenced by the masculinity of Costner’s characters. These films are about baseball and life, but each of them is about the life of a man – a kind man that doesn’t really exist anymore. Kinsella is a platonic ideal of manhood: he can swing a hammer, he provides for his family, he’s honor-bound, his looks are accessible, rugged, weathered. He even has cliché daddy issues, issues he addresses not with any emotional intelligence, but instead with drastic, errant behavior.

Crash Davis’s swaggering confidence belongs to the world of athletics, it’s the disposition of a man who knows he is the smartest in the room, but is too old and wise to truly give a shit. It’s earned with experience, with home runs hit, women bedded, miles traveled, whiskeys drunk and hangovers fought. The boys on his team follow him because he is the lone man among them, and Annie melts before him for the same reason. Like Kinsella, Davis is tortured by the past, but his festering wound seeps through only in flashes of drunken anger and woe-is-me pity. In the morning after his outburst in Bull Durham, sunglasses are donned, voices are lowered, and the entire episode is dismissed, nothing more than “howling at the moon.” Costner’s Baseball Guys repackage their emotional damage and pour it into the game, where it ostensibly belongs.

That is, until Chapel realizes that the game can’t be everything, that it can’t possibly love you back. Chapel wrestles with his emotions more openly than the other characters, but mostly as a matter of necessity. In order to win Jane back, his teary confession is necessary, because unlike his counterparts, Chapel treats his romantic interest with something between insensitivity and disdain for much of the movie. This fits though – Crash Davis and Ray Kinsella are wholesome throwbacks, but Chapel is a modern man, and a more successful one at that. His virility is stylish, contemporary, and rich. He drives nice cars, wears weird pants, sleeps with masseuses, and is unafraid to direct his anger at the women – and men – who inconvenience him, or who he misunderstands, or who try to set him straight.

All three of these characters are man-children in the way that all professional athletes and sports-obsessed fans must be. Crash Davis is an athletic Peter Pan, unable to leave the children’s game that no longer welcomes him. Kinsella is approaching middle age, but remains impossibly fixated on his childhood. Chapel is bratty and entitled, a silver-spooner with prodigious talent and a penchant for petulance. They are all man-children by definition, but their respective films admire their passion, revere the sport, and focus on the magnetism of their masculinity and the righteousness of their cause instead of the toxicity of their arrested development.

For their overwhelming similarity, Crash, Ray, and Billy relate to baseball in unique and different ways. For Ray, the game is a literal bridge to the past – a metaphor that has defined it in the larger culture for much of its existence – and the connective tissue of his relationship with his father. Crash and Billy have baseball, but they lack the building blocks of Ray’s life. Ray has the family, but turns to baseball for what he lacks: a purpose, a sense of direction, but most importantly, a window into the psyche of the man whose absence informed much of Ray’s emotional development.

For Crash, baseball is the only job worth doing. Never good enough to make it all the way, but never bad enough to wash out, Crash is now on the wrong side of thirty, forced to confront his impending exit from the sport. His relationship with baseball is mostly one-way – he’s given years of his life and received little more than memories in return. He has certainly been denied either the rewarding personal life of Kinsella or the fruitful financial rewards of Chapel. Baseball for Crash is part unrequited love and part paycheck – he uses the game, and the game has likewise used him, and there appears to be nothing left. Maybe a managing opportunity for a minor league club in some podunk town, which leaves Crash wondering aloud the familiar refrain: “Do you think I could make it to the show?”

While Kinsella is a fan and Crash is a player, Chapel is a superstar. His success in baseball was preordained, as much a matter of pedigree as talent. Billy reached the pinnacle, and as the others are left to wonder, to lament unfulfilled potential and retain some purpose in their striving, Billy is the only one who has seen the truth: that baseball can’t be everything, that no matter how talented you are and how long the game allows you to stick around. In the end, everyone is ultimately faced with the same uncertainty. Crash has the luxury of looking at the moon and wishing he could go there, and Chapel is cursed with having gone and knowing it’s not enough.

The circumstances of each of these characters reflect what each film is saying about baseball. Of course, having something to say about baseball is a hallmark of the Baseball Movie genre – these are movies about characters, but really they are about a game – but, as they would have the audience believe, they also have something to say about each of us.

Field of Dreams is the standard-bearer for this kind of allegory. The movie grants baseball the literal voice of god, transforming all of the romance and reverence reserved for the sport into an actual supernatural force. For Field of Dreams, the transformative power of baseball is derived through passive engagement, through curation and fanhood, through the long slow process of living. Baseball is a marker in the history of our country, and the history of each individual American. It crystallizes our relationships, preserving them in its mythology; it is sentient sentimentality, giving even our most indulgent nostalgia a sense of immediacy, simply by always existing.

Still, these films are truly about what baseball takes from the characters, and what it does – or doesn’t – give back. Kinsella’s story is meant to be inspirational and sentimental, but the story only exists because baseball took a childhood from Kinsella – his dad, resentful after washing out of the minor leagues and unfulfilled in his own life, allowed the game’s heroes to raise his son in his stead, while he sleepwalked through life, all his enthusiasm reserved for the Yankees.

From Crash Davis baseball stole potential, a commodity that can only ever be prospectively appraised. Davis is definitively a minor-league talent at the end of his career; the game took the future from Davis, and shifted the weight of his life to the past. What’s left of Davis at the end of Bull Durham is a man determined to salvage some future by fitting a coach-sized block into a player-sized hole. He traded years of his life, and in return received a mixed bag of memories, a sense of regret, some lingering resentment, and relative solitude. Bull Durham expects the audience to miss this lopsided transaction because, when all is said and done, Crash gets the girl. But despite the relationship in the movie between libido and bat speed, Bull Durham – like each of these films – ultimately asserts that baseball and romantic love meet distinct needs, and that one cannot substitute for the other.

For both Crash and Billy, baseball incurs a cost. Crash tolerates discomfort, indignity, and instability because it allows him to stay in the game. Chapel sacrifices his personal life to stay at the top of it. If Chapel existed in Bull Durham, Crash would encourage Nuke to follow his model – staid, focused, cut-throat and committed, because Crash and Chapel have the same understanding: true potential is a rare and finite commodity, and those blessed with it are bound by duty to realize it at any cost. The cost – self-inflected as it may be – endured by Chapel in For Love of the Game is hardly trivial. Baseball gives Chapel everything, but his singular devotion to the game prevents Chapel from recognizing a relationship with Jane as worth pursuing. His airport plea is typically self-centered and tone deaf, but it’s at least honest. Chapel for so long seemed to imagine he could truly love the game, but only at the end of his career does he realize the game couldn’t possibly return that love.

“What Happens to a Dream Deferred” is the opening line of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” an elegiac exploration of lost futures and stolen potential. “Harlem” grapples with substantially graver subject matter than the man-children of Kevin Costner’s baseball oeuvre, though, as Hughes broadly examines waylaid generations, psyche on a scale both societal and individual, and dreams deferred with a distinct lack of agency on behalf of the dreamer.

Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and For Love of the Game also have a spacious view, but it’s one of baseball as a sort of national compulsion, a cosmic calling for American males of a specific demographic. Still, these films seem incidentally fascinated by the fate of a deferred dream, be it Ray Kinsella’s stunted childhood, Crash Davis’ unfulfilled potential, or Billy Chapel’s romantic dysfunction.

Hughes wonders, do dreams deferred shrivel like raisins, do they fester like sores, or stink like rotting meat, or sag, or do they explode? Kinsella’s dream festers, until he acts drastically to address his loss; Davis’ slowly shrivels, as his prospects dry and die on the vine; Chapel’s stinks, rotting slowly until he begins to smell it. These films, unlike Hughes’ poem, refuse to frame those decaying dreams as anything but the necessary, unavoidable casualties of righteous pursuit, because each of these films believe, more than anything, that baseball is worth whatever cost it may incur. Costner’s characters don’t worry about what happens to a dream deferred, because their most vivid dreams have already been brought to life: to play the game; to never grow up; to be a Baseball Guy.

Written By

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

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