Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Bull Durham

(1988)

If there is a better baseball movie than this I don’t know what it would be, and I’m looking at a list of 31 of them, culled from the IMDb. Like most of the best sports movies it doesn’t concern itself with the Big Game, but with the game itself. In this case it is minor league ball, the AAA team known as the Durham Bulls. There really is such a team. Baseball is different from the other two of the Big Three American team sports, basketball and football, in that they seldom get their players directly from colleges, which function like free farm teams for the NBA and the NFL. College baseball is not a big sport. I don’t know why. So this elaborate system has evolved over the years where all the Major League teams have lesser ball clubs in smaller cities where talent is developed. There is Triple-A, Double-A, Class A, Rookie League, and others, each with divisions like the International League, Pacific Coast League, Texas League, etc. It used to be even more complicated; Lee used to watch games of the North Bend Lumberjacks, a team so obscure we can’t even find it on Wikipedia. Who knows what league they were in? This system seems old-fashioned, but it’s still surprisingly vital. Games for the Eugene Emeralds (Class A) and the Portland Beavers (AAA) were well-attended when I lived in those cities, frequently sold out.
These teams play a game with somewhat less pressure than the Major Leagues, and they’re fun to watch. Frankly, I have always had a little trouble getting really excited over which team of multi-millionaires will beat another team of multi-millionaires, though I still root for the Dodgers. Minor league players are hungry, usually poorly paid. They play ball for the same reason a dancer dances: They have to. They love the game, and of course they dream of one day being called up to The Show, as they call it in this movie. There is a great scene where players are gathered around Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who once spent 21 days in the Majors. They want to know what it was like. “In the Show, they take batting practice with white balls.” Oooooooh! You know these guys are used to playing with balls that might have been in play when DiMaggio was in the minors.
No other film is as wise about baseball as this one is. We never see a complete game, but we see a lot of plays, a lot of pitches, a lot of at-bats. Usually we hear the pitcher or hitter talking to himself or thinking, and it is fascinating. The writer/director, Ron Shelton, was a minor league player for a while, so I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about. The story is that Crash, a man nearing the end of his playing career but with vast reserves of smarts, has been summoned to catch for “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins; Nuke picked his own nickname), a rather dim kid, full of himself, who happens to have a 95-mph fastball. But it’s about an even proposition as to whether he’ll throw it over the plate or into the dugout. Even if he can throw strikes, in pitching it’s not just a matter of throwing strikes, it’s very complicated strategy, mixing pitches. He just wants to throw heat, so Crash has to educate him as to just how helpless a pitcher is if he refuses to throw what the catcher wants. Crash does this by telling a few batters which pitch is coming next. Whack! Outta the park! Nuke eventually gets it.
We see the players in the locker room, on the bus on road trips, in bars. We get an excellent feel for what the life-style is like, and what ballplayers are like. Many are intensely superstitious. Even Crash says “Never fuck with a streak.” He has an ulterior motive, but he also believes it. If you haven’t shaved during your ten games with an RBI, then don’t shave! If you haven’t had sex with your girlfriend, then don’t have sex with her! And by golly, if tapping voodoo bones on your bat to drive away the strike demons seems to help your hitting, then tap away.
If the movie was just about baseball it would still be a damn good movie. But it is much more. Susan Sarandon plays Annie (an “Annie” is what ballplayers call baseball groupies), who picks a player every season to shack up with. Crash decides not to play her game so she chooses Nuke … and Crash comes to regret it. She is as smart as he is, though considerably goofier in a delightful way. Sarandon is just wonderful in this film, and so are Costner and Robbins, and all the supporting players. The only reason I can see that someone would not like this movie is because they hate baseball.