Diamonds Are Forever

For the faithful, great baseball movies offer sweeping mythology, real-life stories and windows on open-ended possibilities

April 01, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

It's a long season, and you got to trust it. 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.

SO SAYS ANNIE SAVOY, THE hyper-literate and earthy muse of the minor league Durham Bulls, played by Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, writer / director Ron Shelton's classic baseball film.

Beginning this week, millions will join Annie's congregation, as they do each year, in cathedrals from Camden Yards to Fenway Park.

And when the sun goes down in a city where there's no night-ball action, fans of the summer game will satisfy their baseball jones with one of those rare pictures that can turn a rep theater or a living room into a chapel -- or even a jumping revival.

At one end of baseball's big tent, The Natural, directed by Baltimore-born Barry Levinson, epitomizes the sport's legendry. The film centers on a damaged hero, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), who replenishes his soul on a team called the New York Knights with a manager called Pop Fisher -- yes, Fisher as in the Fisher King.

At the other end, Bull Durham, written and directed by a former infielder in the Orioles farm system, Ron Shelton, provides the fullest portrait of baseball as it is lived. Its players, Shelton says, are less apt to jaw about records and sports posterity than about "injuries or girls or money problems."

Mark Johnson, who produced both The Natural and The Rookie, goes so far as to theorize that "anyone who loves The Natural probably doesn't love Bull Durham, and vice versa."

But together, these two films represent everything the game can mean to fans and movie artists alike. Along with the fresh air and physical euphoria that any good sports movie gives off, a crack baseball film can awaken you to the open-ended possibilities that still exist in American life.

The sheer stretch and span of the sport is part of its appeal. Annie Savoy can use it to illustrate quantum physics. But Bull Durham's hero, veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), sees it as a way to live by a Hemingwayesque code of solid craft and honorable behavior, albeit with a lot more laughs than you get reading Hemingway.

For Levinson, baseball offers a living, breathing Everyman mythology full of heroic exploits and hilarious grousing and psychological foibles writ simultaneously small and large. His enthusiasm fueled The Natural, the 1984 adaptation of Bernard Malamud's 1952 debut novel that kick-started the modern run of baseball movies.

The director wanted The Natural to be anything but inside-baseball. In his view, it was about "all the games that had ever been played." He aimed to treat the heroism and beauty of the national pastime as a glorious American tall tale. He hoped to replicate the feelings of horsehide-bound fans who routinely measure ballgames against "every game in history."

He struck a stadium-organ-sized chord -- and studio executives took notice. After The Natural came Bull Durham (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989) and three Major Leagues (1989, 1994, 1998) and Mr. Baseball (1992) and The Rookie (2002) and Mr. 3000 (2004).

The Natural comes to the fore again this Tuesday, this time on a director's cut DVD. Now that it and Bull Durham have entered movie history --Bull Durham placed No. 1 on Sports Illustrated's 2001 list of great sports movies; The Natural clocked in at No. 12 -- even the genuine dichotomy between The Natural's homegrown magic realism and Bull Durham's juicy naturalism seems less rigid.

Frank Robinson loves The Natural because it's "realistic" -- and maybe Hobbs smashing homers into one stadium's clock and into another's floodlights would seem realistic to anyone able to pound homers out of Memorial Stadium.

And Bull Durham is full of reality-based magic, whether it's Annie Savoy's unusual methods of inspiring rookies such as hothead pitcher Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), including forcing him to wear a garter belt to keep his brain off-center and creative, and the various forms of superstitions that engage his team. As Crash explains to pitching coach Larry Hockett (Robert Wuhl) during one inspired enclave on the mound, "Nuke's scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here, we need a live ... is it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove, and nobody knows what to get Jimmie and Millie for their wedding present -- there's a whole lotta (stuff) we're trying to deal with."

Fandom to filmdom

To Levinson, the mixture of fantasy and grit in these movies demonstrates what makes the game so captivating. "It is always ordinary and everyday and constantly improbable."

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