From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, March 29, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Play Ball! Week

Bull Durham

"I believe in the Church of Baseball. "
Annie Savoy, Bull Durham

For me personally, this is the best time of year to be alive. You start March out with college basketball conference tournaments, followed by three weekends of the best college basketball of the year in March Madness. Then when you're about to go into basketball overload, you have the first day of baseball season on the first Monday in April.

This year, the goober that is Bud Selig has set up my New York Yankees to "open" the season a week early halfway across the world in Japan against Tampa Bay. So one the eve of this sham event, I'll start a look back at five great baseball films, starting with one that is widely considered one of the greatest sports movies of all time.

Ron Shelton's ode to life in the minors starts with a monologue from Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) about the merits of the Church of Baseball. Annie sees a great spirituality in baseball, and there are metaphors for life aplenty throughout the game. Annie also has a goal in her sojourn to the ballpark. She seeks the player with whom she will hook up with for the season.

She quickly narrows the field down to two players. The first is star pitching prospect Ebby Calvin "Nuke" Laloosh (Tim Robbins). Ebby is the epitome of the player with a million dollar arm, and a five cent head. He's had the world handed to him because of his potential, but he doesn't really know how to harness it. The man who would be able to help him towards the end is Annie's other candidate: Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a career minor league catcher who has long since left his best days behind him as a player. Crash has been brought to Durham to be a mentor to Nuke, and teach him the difference between being a thrower and a pitcher.

From there the story gives a wonderfully vivid snapshot of life in the minor leagues, draped around the frame of a love triangle. Crash is strongly intrigued by Annie, and sees well past the intellectual/philosophical facade she puts up to mask her personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Annie has committed herself to Nuke, trying to teach him the ways of life, and help him grow up as a person, just as Crash is trying to help Nuke develop as a player.

This is a wonderful movie from beginning to end. There's a real chemistry between Sarandon and both of her male leads. I believe that this is where Robbins and Sarandon first met on their way to becoming a Hollywood power couple. And the chemistry between Costner and Sarandon is very different in a lot of different ways. Annie and Nuke very much convey a relationship between a young buck, and an older, more experienced woman. Annie and Crash on the other hand have the experience card played on both sides. So their connection is a lot stronger, more developed, and potentially richer than anything Annie could ever have with Nuke.

The script also gives a real feel for what life is like as a minor leaguer. From Nuke as the bonus baby who has the baseball world on a string for him to take, to Crash's career minor leaguer, who's come to grips with his mediocrity, there's a character that every person in the audience can relate to, and you don't have to be a baseball or sports fan to make the connection. You see people you know, and maybe have worked with in your own walk of life.

I think for me, that's one of the things I love about the movie above all else. It's very true to the spirit of the game, and recognizes the difficulties of it. But it also makes you understand that to the fan, this may very well be just a game. But for people playing it professionally, it is every bit a job. It is one that has it's ups and downs. It is one where everyone is looking for the break that will net them the big promotion that they dream of (in the case of all the Bulls, it's the chance to go to "The Show"). And it's a job that make you very humble when you fail, and wonder whether or not you've made the right career choice. When the manager of the team has to break the news to a player that he's been released, you see just how uncomfortable he is breaking the news. He's a boss who's having to lay off one of his employees. There's an awkwardness there that makes you understand just how tough a job he has pulling the crew together.

And the funny moments that give the movie its color are truly inspired, goofy touches. There's a story about a manufactured rain delay that comes from Shelton's own experience in the minor leagues. The conversations that the players have on the field are just this side of absurd given the context they are being held in. And all of it moves towards the end being neither good nor bad, but are just part of the story to help fill in the bigger picture. Just like one game in a season doesn't define the season as a whole.

I earnestly believe that this movie captures what Annie describes when summarizing what she believes in at the start of the movie. "I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball."

Holy season starts a week from today. I can't wait.

Trivia note: Kurt Russell was originally slated for the role of Crash, but events conspired to keep him from the role. He did help Shelton write the script. While rewatching the movie for this piece, I watched the credits to see if Russell got a contribution credit for the movie. While Russell did not get credit anywhere, I did see one name who caught my eye. There was a credit for "Baseball Trainer", presumably someone who worked with the actors to get the motions done right. Check out who did the work here.

Somewhere, I hear some of my VBL brethren screaming :-).