Great baseball films can be cherished over decades. They are steak and eggs in a saloon located in the middle of the desert. All a person needs to fall in love with the sport and its cinematic glaze. However, there are a couple of films that if I turn on cable and see them, the next 45-90 minutes are spoken for.
Ingredient #1-Kevin Costner. The wicked Casanova of sports films. Costner stroked a 7 iron well in Tin Cup as Roy McAvoy, and played a great General Manager in Draft Day, but his sweet spot is baseball stories. Field of Dreams, Durham and For Love Of The Game. In Durham, playing the unforgettable Crash Davis, Costner got to really tear into a role and show something few other movies show. The tragic facade of a career minor league ballplayer, who is way too smart for the sport and knows his days of making it to the show are long gone. In Dreams, he was man searching for clues. Here, as the dynamic coach/catcher/master of great speeches Davis, he was a man searching for a shred of dignity and credit in a cutthroat area of the sport.
The minute he shows up at the bar challenging Tim Robbins’ clueless pitcher to throw a fastball at his chest or demanding him to be more “democratic”, Costner set the screen on fire. Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be on top of him. He was the coolest wisest man with a bat in his hands and a mask on his head. While Susan Sarandon and Robbins hold up their ends of the tripod, Costner is the heart and soul. His speech about what separates a hitter from a minor league graveyard (25 hits!!!) reverberates to this day about the common hustle of these guys making minimum wage. His speech about love, Lee Harvey Oswald, Christmas morning, and the sweet spot still plays well. Costner is an underrated actor in general and an award winning director, but he deserves a lifetime achievement award for his work in the world of sports films.
Ingredient #2-The honest depiction of the minor league struggle. I’ve always said if I had the time, I’d love to follow around a minor league team for a month. Talk to these guys waging their lives to play a game they love and get that shot. Live and die by the luck of a team need. The smells, the highs, the lows and the indie action at the ballparks. Well, Bull Durham was full of those moments. The low moments for a player on a cold streak making $15,000-$18,000 to play the game. The make shift radio broadcast. The factories behind the parks. The eccentric mascots. The big show a call away. Writer/Director Ron Shelton doesn’t pull punches with his sports films (the underrated college basketball film starring a never better Nick Nolte, Blue Chips) and here he didn’t bat an eye with his camera and direction of the Durham Bulls. Crash Davis was his muse and he sprayed the paint all over. The clothes, the depravity and the dialogue was all spot on. A film less known for its brutally honest portrayal of the minor leagues.
Ingredient #3-The Humor. The movie is full of one-liners about stewardesses, free steaks, hitting the bull, breathing through your eyelids and how to properly sing a classic rock song. Nobody handles it better than Costner. Whether he’s telling Nuke (Robbins) about not wearing disgusting flip-flops, telling him about not shaking him off and how “a ground ball with eyes” can help someone out. Oh yeah, and lollygagging. Bull Durham will make you laugh, cry and then laugh again. The script is full of different flavors but the humor is never forgotten.
Bull Durham makes me feel whole again. Watching it and listening to that saxophone powered number in the finale as Costner’s Davis drives to the next job because as Sarandon’s Annie says, “A baseball player is always looking to finish the season.” It’s such a rich experience every time. The film endures and has a quiet power that only grows more powerful as you get older and learn to appreciate the minor league part of baseball. Field of Dreams and The Natural are magical. For Love of The Game is a guilty pleasure. Eight Men Out and Cobb are brutally authentic. Major League is a riot. Bull Durham is a little of everything with Costner at his best.