Friday, April 1, 2011

Take Me Out to the Ballgame ... On Netflixs

In past years, during the run-up to opening day, at least one of our local TV stations would run a virtual marathon of baseball movies. All the old standards would be trotted out, and it would be a real nostalgia-fest.

I didn't see much of an effort to go that this year. Perhaps that's because they all ended up in the "On Demand" file. But even so, scanning through those in the wee hours of the morning the other day, I only saw three: "Major Leagues I and II"; and "Field of Dreams."

No "A League of their Own," which is generally ubiquitous, or "Bull Durham," which is one flick I'd LIKE to be ubiquitous ... but isn't.

"Bull Durham" is to baseball what "Caddyshack" is to golf. Its best moments aren't the "lump-in-your-throat" types that you might find in "the Natural" of "Field of Dreams." Rather, they celebrate the true "characters" as opposed to the "character" of their sports. They depict instances that perhaps could never happen in a real-life clubhouse, but the parody is dead-on just the same.

We've all known our Nuke LaLushes, just as we've all met our share of stuffy country club members. And as someone who used to caddy, I could really relate to those scenes in "Caddyshack."

Anyway, here are my 10 favorites. Your input would be welcome too.


10 -- Cobb. I like just about anything with Robert Wuhl in it, including his "Assume the Positions" on HBO. His best line comes when he tell his buddies that Ty Cobb will agree to meet him, and they warn him about what a real jerk he is. Says Wuhl, "he's 70 years old. What's he going to do? Gum me?

Roger Clemens has a pretty good part in this too, as a pitcher who challenges Cobb. And from the looks of things, his steroids were kicking in too.


9 -- Fear Strikes Out. I met Jimmy Piersall once, about 25 years ago. He came to Lynn, MA, (of all places) to sign autographs at a baseball card show. I went down to do a feature on him, and wound up taking him to the Tides in Nahant for lunch. A VERY weird day (well, I drove ... he paid). My car (as it usually is) was a bit on the cluttered side. Piersall and his wife got in the car, and the first thing he said to me was, "you have a messy car."

He didn't like the movie, even though some of it was based on his writings. He claimed (and Wiki backs this up) that it over-dramatized his relationship with his father ... and places unfair blame on him. But just the same, the movie -- I thought -- tackled a sensitive subject (bipolar disorder) pretty well for its time. I also think that if Piersall played today, with the knowledge we have about such conditions (as opposed to in the 1950s), he might be a Hall of Fame candidate. What people forget is that the guy could flat-out PLAY.


8 -- Angels in the Outfield. I'm talking about the 1951 version, not that god-awful one with Danny Glover. The original, which came out in 1951, with Paul Douglas and Janet Leigh (pre-Psycho) was tremendous. Douglas plays Aloysius "Guffy" McGovern, a Billy Martin-type manager (somewhat clairvoyant since, even in 1951, Billy Martin hadn't yet totally become Billy Martin). He's such a foul-mouthed jerk that God intervenes and sends an angel to make him clean up his act (kind of odd homage to "It's A Wonderful Life," I guess.

Only one person sees the angel ... other than Guffy (who can only hear him): A little girl from an orphanage named Bridget. Janet Leigh plays the newspaperwoman who is assigned to do a story on the girl. And off we go.

The kicker ... just as "Major Leagues" used the Cleveland Indians, arguably the worst franchise in baseball from the late '60s through the 80s, as an example of walking ineptitude, "Angels" uses the Pittsburgh Pirates, another franchise with a long run of irrelevancy. And in both cases, after their teams won on paper, they won in real life, too.

Kicker No. 2: There's a scene where the Guffster gets into a barroom brawl with the sportscaster who publicly vilifies him every chance he gets. At the end of the scene, there's a hat check girl appears on screen ... very briefly. The woman who plays her is Barbara Billingsly ... that's right. June Cleaver.


7 -- Eight Men Out. From everything I've read, this movie remains fairly loyal to what actually happened. I recall reading about the Black Sox scandal when I was a kid, and even then wondered how such a plot that seemed so huge at the time could ever be pulled off. This movie kind of fills in the shades of gray.

You can't beat the cast, and -- of course -- you could get into a good barroom debate over who played a better Shoeless Joe Jackson, D.B. Sweeney or Ray Liotta (my money goes with Sweeney for the simple reason that Shoeless Joe was a lefty, and Ray plays him as a righty in "Field of Dreams."

One of the things that came out of this movie (that doesn't come out of a lot of sports movies) is that Shoeless Joe was illiterate. And you have to wonder how sharp a lot of these guys were -- at least when it comes to the way gamblers could eat them alive. Just an all-around GREAT movie.


6 -- A League of Their Own. This one always seems to be on TV. There is such a thing as TOO MUCH! But despite the fact that a lot of us could probably recite the whole script by heart, it IS a damn good movie. For one thing, the cast is superb. John Lovitz comes close to stealing the show as the crusty, profane scout in the beginning: "gonna go home, give the wife a little pickle tickle..." Tom Hanks, of course, was tremendous as Jimmy "Double-G" Duggan, a character based on Jimmie "Double-X" Foxx. Just about every scene has at least one memorable moment ... the bus driver who just walks out because "Stilwell Angel" is out of control; the house-mother getting violently ill ... Marla drunk and singing like a chanteuse at the club (what did you do? Nothing ... we just gave her a dress ... and a little liquor) ... hell, even Rosie O'Donnell was good in it ... and I cannot STAND Rosie O'Donnell.

It's hard to remember that with all that comedy going on, Gina Davis could be eligible for the straight-woman Hall of Fame. She didn't have many funny lines (actually, she might not have had any) but she was definitely the glue that held the whole thing together.


5 -- The Sandlot. If it weren't for the fact that Nos. 4 through 1 are -- to me -- baseball Hall of Famers, this one might be No. 1. I never heard of it until I saw it on HBO one night. Now, every time it gets into rotation, I have to watch it. It's interesting how the same people keep cropping up in some of these films. Kevin Costner seems to be in a lot of baseball movies, and so does James Earl Jones. He has a part here as a blind man with a great, big, fierce dog, who lives on the edge of the sandlot on which the kids play endless games of baseball.

Every time someone hits the ball over the fence, the game ends because the dog kicks up a fuss, growling and barking, when the kids try to retrieve it. Some of the non-baseball scenes make this movie even better, such as when the kids decide to chew tobacco while they're at an amusement park, get sick on the rides and honk all over everyone. For reasons I can't figure out, it's funny.

The era depicted in this movie runs parallel to the era in which I grew up ... early-to-mid 1960s, when just about all you could do in the summer was find a place to play baseball. And I'm old enough to remember those head-guards (as opposed to helmets) they wore. We wore them in Little League practice. LOVE this movie.


4 -- Major Leagues I and II. I put them as a tandem because it's hard for me to figure out which one I liked more. Both have great scenes, and great lines. Nothing, to me, was funnier than in ML II when -- after Harry Doyle passes out from too much whiskey -- Monty, his inept sidekick, describes a tremendous, leaping catch in the outfield this way ... "fly ball ... caught."

The only letdown from ML I to II was the change in cast, where Omar Epps played Willie Mays Hayes in the second one. Obviously, Wesley Snipes did it much better ... but by II Snipes had clearly surpassed being cast as Hollywood's version of Mickey Rivers.

Besides Rivers, there were a couple of other not-to-subtle references. Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen's part) was obviously modeled after Wade Boggs ... third baseman ... prima donna ... womanizer ... do the math. Loved Pedro Cerano in both movies, and especially liked the by-play between Pedro and Tanaka in II. "You ... have ... no ... MARBLES."

Charlie Sheen got good practice for the way he is today by portraying Rick Vaughn, a refugee from the California Penal League. Tom Berenger and James Gammon (Jake Taylor and Lou Browne) were the straight men. But, by far, the funniest bits in I came from Bob Uecker, as Harry Doyle; and in II from Randy Quaid, who had an uncredited role as a crazed fan. He was perfect ... and it was great when, at the end, all the fans around him pummeled him when he got negative one time too often.


3 -- Field of Dreams. These last three are probably entirely predictable. It's just a question of which order you put them in. I won't argue with anyone who has them in any different order than I do.

I find this movie difficult to watch, but not because I doubt its quality, but because it hits too close to home with me. I haven't watched it since my father died four years ago, and I'm not anxious to watch it anytime soon either. I had a difficult time with that final scene even when he was alive.

That aside, though, it's just such a great film. I wasn't aware, until I saw a documentary on baseball movies, that Terence Mann (James Earl Jones' character) was modeled after J.D. Salinger, but there you go. According to the director (Phil Alden Robinson) he was. Another interesting correlation is that the movie is based on a short story by W.P. Kinsella called "Shoeless Joe Comes to Iowa." In the film, Kevin Costner's character is named Ray Kinsella.

This film, like the Natural, takes a lot from baseball's mythic Americana. And there's a lot of poignancy to it too. How many "Moonlight" Grahams do you suppose there have been in the history of the major leagues? Guys who came up for that proverbial "cup of coffee?"

Oddly enough, the fact that the directors didn't do their homework enough to know that Shoeless Joe was a lefty kind of bothered me. But Ray Liotta still has one of the better lines when he says, "Ty Cobb wanted to play, but nobody likes him so we told him to stick it."

And, of course, any movie that finds a way to include "Jessica" by the Allman Brothers in the soundtrack is A-OK with me.


2 -- The Natural. This was director Barry Levinson's paean to baseball circa the 1920s. I love everything about this movie. I love the hyperbole of Roy Hobbs literally tearing the cover off the ball. I even love the name Roy Hobbs. The only name more perfect for baseball in my memory was Mickey Mantle.

I love the train stop when Hobbs -- a young pitcher looking for his shot -- challenges "The Whammer" (gee, I wonder who that could have been) and beats him. I love the subplot (gambling) and I love Robert Duval's role as the skeptical sportswriter/cartoonist who knows he's seen Hobbs before ... but just can't place him (eventually he does).

Although I generally loathe Wilford Brimley and his diabetes commercials, I liked him in this, especially his reaction when he sees Hobbs -- who has done his best to blow off, feeling his owner forced him onto the team -- hit for the first time.

This movie reeks of Americana and casts the entire game in an otherworldly, ethereal glow. Lighting, as a matter of fact -- for you cinematography aficionados -- is a key element. When Glenn Close stands up near the end of the film, so Redford can see her, she's almost glowing as if she has a halo around her (this was Close's first real meaty part, by the way).

Another thing I never knew until I saw the same documentary mentioned above is that Randy Newman wrote the score. And Gee Whiz! Could there be a score that more vividly reflected the nature of a film? Ever?


1 -- Bull Durham. Like you couldn't figure this out already. It's the gold standard of all sports movies, if you ask me ... right up there with Caddyshack and a vicious spoof of college football called "Necessary Roughness" (a guilty pleasure, to be sure ... but watch it before you make fun of me).

Where do you begin? At the beginning of course, when Annie Savoy recites her soliloquy praising the healing powers of baseball. And you just keep going.

I actually covered Nuke LaLush when he was in high school. His name was Jeff Juden, he played for Salem High (as well as nine teams in a major league career that was very brief considering all the stops he made), and there isn't a THING about Nuke that I didn't see in Juden. Even now, when I watch Josh Beckett pitch, I can swear he has a little Nuke in him.

My guy Robert Wuhl has maybe the greatest scene in any baseball movie ever when he tries to calm the team down during a visit to the mound. I doubt there's any baseball fan alive who can't recite the bit verbatim. He says -- again in that same documentary -- that the "let's get two" part was ad-libbed on the spot.

Any real good movie has to have its share of one-liners, and this one has a ton of them. One of the funnier bits involves Crash Davis (Costner) teaching Nuke how to deal with the media ... running every vanilla cliche by him (he must have also taught Bill Belichick too).

I don't know if it's ever happened in a real game, but I can just see a catcher, running out of patience with his stubborn pitcher, tipping a batter off as to what's coming ... just to teach the kid a lesson, the way Crash did it twice in the movie.

And, of course, there's Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy, cougar, fan extraordinaire and teacher of all things bizarre in efforts to get Nuke -- her flavor of the summer -- to maximize his potential. Yeah, a lot of it might be exaggerated. But it's parody. It's supposed to be exaggerated.

It's such a great movie on so many levels. It really is a good study of how minor league baseball has actually undergone a renaissance in this country; it pays almost reverend homage to all the "flakes" that -- I think -- separate baseball from all the other major sports (I think only hockey comes close); and probably offers, even in its parody, a more accurate dynamic of what a professional baseball clubhouse is like than any other movie I've ever seen.

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