a league of their own, athletics, bad news bears, bang the drum slowly, baseball, baseball movie, brad pitt, Bull Durham, charles comiskey, charlie sheen, david strathairn, eight men out, errol morris, field of dreams, final four, john cusack, jonah hill, Kevin Costner, little big league, Major League, michael lewis, moneyball, ncaa, oakland a's, philip glass, Philip Seymour Hoffman, pride of the yankees, rookie of the year, susan surandon, the natural, the sandlot, tim robbins, walt whitman, Yale
With baseball having resumed last week and tonight being the final of the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, it seems a fitting time to do a Final Four inspired assessment of baseball movies. By starting with only four, I’m naturally eliminating quite a few candidates right off the bat. This being a purely subjective exercise, cases by others can certainly be made for their spurned favorites, I’m shooting from the hip and, in general, ignoring a few genres altogether. Let’s hash out some of the non-competitors right off:
The Saccharine Love Letters to Baseball’s Mystical Essence
Field of Dreams
For Love of the Game
A League of their Own
All of those movies have a bit to recommend them. They are all literary based, so a great deal of the introspective tone can be attributed to the novel medium, which allows for description and exploring a character’s thoughts in a way that doesn’t interfere with the story. For a movie to incorporate those realizations and motivations which an author can more subtly spell out, quite a bit has to be force fed to the audience, and this is where some valuable nuance is sacrificed.
The Improbable Dream Comes True for a Kid
Little Big League
Rookie of the Year
These three really aim for the kid audience, understandably. Little Big League offers a kid the chance to manage an organization (the Twins), while Rookie of the Year takes a freak accident and gives a kid the chance to pitch for the Cubs. The Sandlot could more easily belong in the former group, being soaked in nostalgia and set decades earlier than the other two, however the characters, target audience, and spirit of the movie is certainly more in line with this second group.
Somber Character Studies
Pride of the Yankees
Bang the Drum Slowly
I take no umbrage with folks who would choose these as their favorites. And really, the movies I am electing to my final four take qualities from all of the above, but don’t exclusively occupy one category. A movie can have a difficult protagonist and be rife with struggle, but the great ones can supply humor, excitement and awe as well.
The Bad News Bears
This one occupies it’s own niche category, in my opinion. It inspires nostalgia, but only because it’s some decades old now. It features kids, but not in any kind of cheesy gimmick like Big League or Rookie, and it doesn’t gloss the day to day of these kids in the halcyon summer sheen of Sandlot – these are kids who do what you do that that age, play Little League, but alot of them suck, the best ones are ridden into the ground, the one who has a family member as a coach is going to blow up at them, and it’s all a little awkward and ridiculous the way youth sports inevitably are. Why I exclude this profane, unapologetic gem is because it doesn’t really fit in with the four I want to talk about (convenient!): It’s not involved with professional baseball (beyond Buttermaker’s failed career), and so while some of the themes of acceptance and camaraderie and disappointment are universal, it’s relegated to a world populated by kids.
Which brings us to the four entries:
Eight Men Out
Semifinal Matchup #1:
Major League vs. Bull Durham
Let’s get right into it. While the finals could have been these two against each other with not much surprise elicited from the reader, I figure let’s have the two that are always compared just go at it from the beginning.
Best Character: Ricky Vaughn
Runner Up: Jake Taylor
Best Quote: “I hear baseball players make awfully good salaries nowadays”
“Well it all depends on how good you are.”
“How good are you?”
“I make the league minimum.”
Runner Up: “We wear caps and sleeves at this level, son.”
Plot Originality: More or less Slap Shot meets baseball with some of the game’s insider knowledge that Bull Durham offers though with a more widely crowd pleasing sports movie mentality.
Key moment: Pedro Cerrano using voodoo to elicit strong performances from his bats as well as acknowledging his respect for Jesus Christ, yet seriously doubting the impact the worship of him would have on hitting and, by extension, the man’s ability to hit a curveball.
Overall: Major League is a firmly entrenched staple of baseball filmmaking. Closers choose “Wild Thing” as their intro music and millions of casual fans were introduced to Bob Euker’s self-deprecating, insightful and hilarious persona. It throws alot at the viewer, with most of it sticking agreeably. A Hollywood sports production to its bone, but also reverent and clear-eyed when it has to be – Major League manages a tricky balancing act like a seasoned vet.
Best Character: Crash Davis
Runner Up: Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh
Best Quote: “We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”
Runner Up: “Get a hit, Crash.”
Plot Originality: Not unlike Slapshot as well, Bull Durham has the bona fides of being a “taken from the life” sort of memoir, bringing real life experience in the minor league to what also doubles as an engaging three way love story.
Key moment: When Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis initially declines to dance with Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, in jumps Tim Robbins’ Nuke Laloosh to the rescue. Except at this point Crash claims her, and the minor dust-up outside wonderfully introduces Nuke to his new catcher, Crash.
Overall: Major League‘s second sequel was subtitled “Back to the Minors”, and had it been a quarter of as entertaining as Bull Durham that would have been great. Instead, Ron Shelton’s masterpiece about bottom scraping athletes and the people who love them is tender and jaded but also aloof and engaging and a great deal of fun.
Winner: Bull Durham
Despite my absolute affinity for Major League and even its two sequels, just about everything Major League brings to the table in vulgarity, eccentric characters, over-the-hill resentment at a would’ve-been career Durham has, and in addition throws in an absurd tryst, a serious connection between two kindred old souls and in its bittersweet, resigned ending, acknowledges what baseball reiterates constantly – in a game where you fail 7/10 times, you’re a Hall of Famer.
Semifinal Matchup #2:
Eight Men Out vs. Moneyball
Eight Men Out
Best Character: John Cusack’s frustrated moral compass George “Buck” Weaver
Runner Up: David Strathairn’s Eddie Cicotte
Best Quote: “Hey Jackson, can you spell ‘cat’?
“Hey Mister, can you spell ‘shit’?
Runner Up: “These guys don’t look so tough.”
“Yeah, that’s what Custer said when the Indians took the field.”
Plot Originality: Well known but seldom addressed, Eight Men Out offers a fresh look at a fascinating tale of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal wherein many Sox players agreed with various gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series.
Key Moment: After clinching the pennant, the White Sox players return to the clubhouse to find their gift: flat champagne. One of the many indignities visited upon the players by owner Charles Comiskey, early on this introduces not only the ability of the Chicago squad, but their obvious desire for something more in the face of such blatant disrespect, setting the table for one of the great sports riggings in history.
Overall: John Sayles’ filmography has plenty of gems in it, and Eight Men Out stands proudly along any of them. Old-time baseball rarely is given its due beyond Ken Burns, and so it’s refreshing to see that the guys with baggy trousers and goofy gloves faced the same issues as modern day players. Even more so – plenty of heft is put upon players today due to their paycheck size, but when baseball was as glamorous as any 9-5, it becomes much easier to appreciate why the slighted would try and do something about it, moral judgement irrelevant.
Best Character: Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane marries the physical presence of a former star athlete and the intellect to recognize a faulty system – an uneasy though eventually stable fusion of brains and brawn.
Runner Up: Jonah Hill’s composite character Paul DePodesta, a Yale graduate whom Billy acquires from the Indian. Together, they indoctrinate the A’s organization to become one of quantitative assessment as opposed to subjective eye measurements.
Best Quote: “It’s a metaphor.”
“I know it’s a metaphor.”
Runner Up: “It’s a problem you think we need to explain ourselves. Don’t.”
Plot Originality: Based upon Michael Lewis’ best-selling book, “Moneyball” as a term has been in the baseball lexicon for some years now. Some see it as a catch-all for getting walks and not stealing, while in reality it is a broad term which suggests finding and cultivating undervalued assets, not overpaying for players and being able to field a competitive team on a minimal budget. As a baseball movie – no other movie I can think of has directly addressed the important of hard numbers and unorthodox evaluation in this manner and in an era where fantasy sports flourish – it is very much a product of and reflection of the time.
Key Moment: The movie, somewhat ironically, reaches its climax during a record-setting regular season win. Though unconcerned with fleeting success, the game features staples of the “Moneyball” team Billy acquired and none the less is a monumental victory.
Overall: Had I chosen a runner up for Key Moment’s, Moneyball‘s certainly would have been when Peter walks Beane through his big board and computer models. It doubles as a mission statement for the movie – about abandoning prejudices and scout-driven group think when evaluating players and seeing – beyond appearance or excitement or entourage – who is a winner and why. It’s pure exposition straight at the viewer but, as Moneyball successfully argues, it’s necessary to be blunt in order to make your point.
Both movies take a much more sober, realistic approach to their mostly true story accounts. Maybe it’s the primary recency effect or that Eight Men Out seems a bit dated, but there’s just a very alive feeling to Moneyball that Eight, though smart and creative and interesting and well acted – doesn’t hit upon. Moneyball features a great deal of dejection and bitterness (do baseball people need hugs or what?!), but is also a rousing success story. There’s nothing Eight Men Out can really do about that, it’s a downbeat ending to a downbeat story, what are you going to do? If I have to watch one of these, though, it’s Moneyball.
Final: Bull Durham vs. Moneyball
At this point it pretty much comes down to feel – watchability, re-watchability, getting something new out of the experience with each viewing, things like that. Both movies offer up a great deal in that regard. When I come back to Bull Durham, I’ve actually probably read some Walt Whitman in between viewings or seen someone younger than me move up the ranks at work – in other words, the things I thought at the time of my first viewing which I thought were just purporting to be movie filler and beats in a story turn out to actually be real life concerns and issues people face, and they turn out to be the actual literature and culture and past times that people console themselves with and use to smooth the edges and decorate their lives. The first time I saw Bull Durham I was Nuke, in the coming decades I feel like I’ll appreciate Crash and Annie more and, time permitting, maybe I’ll watch the events unfold yet again with the sage contentment of the Clown Prince of Baseball.
As for Moneyball, not enough time has passed to comment on how it’s aging, and how the viewing experience changes. I can’t imagine it’s reputation will worsen over time – the facts of the movie are the facts, the numbers and the math aren’t wrong and will not be wrong, so the story is pretty airtight in that regard. Beane, as well, his past is his past – and no future success with the A’s or any other club will alter his difficult times as a player. Moneyball’s going to be remembered for featuring a number of actors at the top of their careers (Pitt, Hoffman, perhaps Hill), a strong director (Miller), a wonderful approach to the material (pseudo documentary intro, with the archival ALDS footage and pulsing strings lending the thing a very Errol Morris / Philip Glass vibe), and, in contrast to the vast majority of baseball and sports movies in general, a level-headed approach to the material. Beane was drafted and brought up because he looked the part – when things went south for him as a player, he could’ve went the Crash davis route and pondered why he was given an elite skill but not made exceptional at it, battling personal demons and afraid to confront his life’s next chapter. Beane didn’t do that, however – instead of wallowing in defeat because the Gods gave him some talent but not enough, he wanted to figure out why. He wanted to know why some teams and players and organizations are great. It’s because of this call to intelligence, creativity and alternate paths to truth that I pick Moneyball as my winner. While romanticism is nearly inseparable from a great baseball movie, one can inject thought and logic and consideration into the proceedings and watch as there remains plenty of mystery left to keep fans and moviegoers stupefied. So much of the sport and the way it burrows into people’s minds and hearts is either unknowable or inexpressible – more than enough to keep people operating even the most high powered microscopes fascinated – and so I’ll root for the folks who know they’re up against something that can’t be quantified but want to try anyways.
In fact, I’ll let Moneyball explain it, since it can much more eloquently:
“It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James and mathematics cut straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them.”
* Liable to change on any given day at any given hour.