By Erik Lundegaard
Special to MSN Movies
With the World Series upon us, this is the best time of year for baseball fans. And this is probably the best time ever for fans of baseball movies. Early versions of baseball flicks tended to be black-and-white hagiographies where the actors weren't athletic, the baseball wasn't exciting, and kids with names like Jimmy or Timmy were forever stricken with crippling diseases that could only be cured by home runs hit by big-name sluggers. After the publication of Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" in 1970, baseball heroes were finally allowed to appear less heroic, and usually seemed more so as a result.
But what makes a good baseball movie? After immersing myself in the genre, and seeing more than my share of called shots, key strikeouts and bottom-of-the-ninth-inning-on-the-last-day-of-the-season home runs, I've come up with the following guidelines:
1. It's better to focus on a season than a career. Probably because the rhythm of a season is closer to a dramatic arc than the rhythm of a life.
2. Employ actors who look like they can play. Please.
3. Be passionate about your subject. Check out Billy Crystal's "61*" and Aviva Kempner's "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" for an indication of what passion can do.
4. Yankees suck! (OK, not a guideline. Just fun to say.)
Now let's play some ball and look at the best baseball movies ever...
"Bull Durham" (1988)
The sexiest and wittiest baseball movie is also the most real, which is a nice triumvirate. It's less concerned with how a team matures than how people mature. Over the course of the film, one character gets married, another falls in love, and Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), a guy so hopeless he needs two teachers, becomes ... a little less hopeless. And the movie suffers when he leaves. I love Crash (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Susan Sarandon), but they're both teachers -- she at the local college, he at the local ballpark -- and when they get together, the best parts of her character are subsumed by the dullest parts of his (this could be every wife's lament). But this is just in the last five minutes of the movie. The first 103 are still brilliant.
Heroes: Sexy women and Walt Whitman.
Villains: That one extra hit per week (a flair, gork, a dying quail) that doesn't fall or get through, and that keeps the .250 hitter from becoming a .300 hitter.
Realism: Costner's swing is the prettiest of any actor in any baseball movie (Robert Redford and Tom Selleck come close). Robbins' motion ain't in the same class, but it's workable. But no A-ball pitcher -- I don't care how good -- leaps past AA and AAA for the majors. It just doesn't happen.
Baseball cameos: Max Patkin, the clown prince of baseball.
Awards: Best Screenplay from all the major film critic groups. The Academy gave the Oscar to "Rain Man."
Quote: "Oh my."
OK, so Billy Crystal is a spoiled little Yankee fan who, in Ken Burns' "Baseball," laments the Yankees' 1960 World Series loss with The Whine Heard 'Round the World: "I still hurt about it. I still feel bad about it." Billy, you grew up watching the most dominating team in sports history -- 14 pennants in 16 years -- and you still feel bad about this one season? Shut up already! ... Now his due: With a fantastic script from Hank Steinberg, the little S.O.B. has directed a great baseball movie. The realism is unparalleled, right down to those odd, fuzzy-looking batting helmets they wore in the '60s. His lead actors (Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane) are uncanny, and can act. He doesn't skimp on supporting cast either: Richard Masur; the always fascinating Bruce McGill; and Billy's daughter, the very sweet Jennifer Crystal. Best of all, there's dramatic tension. It's about an ordinary man under extraordinary pressure. It's about a decent man who's treated as a villain, and an often indecent man who's treated as a hero. It's about the friendship between the two. I hate the Yankees as much as Billy loves them, but I loved this movie.
Heroes: Maris and Mantle.
Villains: Ford Frick; sportswriters; punctuation.
Realism: You'd need a time machine to get a more exact rendition of the 1961 New York Yankees.
Awards: 12 Emmy nominations. Won two: casting and sound editing.
Quote: "We're chasing a ghost, Rog. You go into that clubhouse, he's there. At homeplate, he's there. In the outfield, he's there. The fat (expletive), he's everywhere! We're playing in his house!"
"The Natural" (1984)
Author Bernard Malamud condemned his characters for the slightest breach of morality (Roy Hobbs, for example, strikes out at the end), and his novel was an amalgam of real myths and baseball myths, so its transfer to a 1980s movie screen with requisite happy ending feels forced at times. I mean, the whole good luck/bad luck thing? Pop, the manager (Wilford Brimley), is jinxed but Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) overcomes his jinx. The sultry Memo (Kim Basinger) is bad luck, but Roy can't overcome her bad luck. Iris (Glenn Close), the girl-next-door, is good luck, so she counteracts Memo. Why? And why the gambler if there's no "Say is ain't so, Roy"? And enough shots with the kids in the stands already. So with all of these complaints, why is "The Natural" still in my Hall of Fame? Because every time I see the effin' thing I start to cry. It's our "An Affair to Remember."
Heroes: Roy Hobbs; golden light from the setting sun.
Villains: Sexy women and the dark. Which is odd because this combination is usually a plus in my life.
Realism: Redford is completely believable as a baseball star, but not as a teenager. I believe it was the last time he played one.
Awards: Four Academy Award nominations. It went 0 for 4.
Quote: "Some mistakes I guess we never stop paying for."
Also inducted: Ken Burns' "Baseball" (1994); "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" (2000)
"Major League" (1989)
The quintessential Hollywood baseball story concerns a team of misfit underdogs who, through some galvanizing force (and with or without spinning newspaper headlines), rise from the cellar and contend for the pennant on the last day of the season. This conceit describes everything from "Bang the Drum Slowly" to "Angels in the Outfield," but its purest example is "Major League." The misfits here are all colorful and memorable, each is given equal time, and the subplots are kept to a minimum. Best of all? It's funny.
Heroes: Misfits and underdogs.
Villains: Ex-showgirls and the New York Yankees.
Realism: Charlie Sheen's pitching motion is the best I've seen from an actor. The others look pretty good, too.
Ballplayer cameos: Pete Vukovich and Steve Yeager.
Quote: "Juuuust a bit outside."
"The Stratton Story" (1949)
This is a simple story simply told. It's about a country boy who makes the Bigs, suffers a horrible injury, and then begins to explore the limits of his new circumstances. What can he do now? How much of his former life can he reclaim? The film relies heavily upon the considerable charm of its star, Jimmy Stewart, and when his character turns bitter and quiet, the movie lags. But this is only temporary. Worth watching if for nothing more than the shot of Stratton's 1-year-old son learning to walk, with Stratton beside him, doing the same.
Heroes: Monte Stratton.
Villains: Shotguns and the New York Yankees.
Realism: A good pitching motion is probably the only area of acting where Charlie Sheen could've given Jimmy Stewart pointers.
Ballplayer cameos: Bill Dickey.
Awards: Academy Award for Best Story.
Quote: "A man's gotta know where he's going."
"The Bad News Bears" (1976)
Parts seem dated, the script is unfair to minorities (African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Iowans), and the journey of Coach Buttermaker (the lovely Walter Matthau) from thesis (doesn't care about winning) to antithesis (cares too much about winning) to synthesis (cares about the kids) is a little extreme. But it's still the movie for anyone who ever failed athletically, and that means most of us.
Heroes: Misfits and underdogs.
Villains: Businessmen and the North Valley League Yankees.
Realism: The Bears look like every kid who ever had trouble catching a pop fly; that's its charm.
Awards: Matthau was nominated for a British Academy Award.
Quote: "Hey Yankees, you can take your apology and your trophy and shove it straight up your ass!"
Also in the show: "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973); "Eight Men Out" (1988); "Field of Dreams" (1989); "Pastime" (1991); "A League of Their Own" (1992); "The Rookie" (2002)
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