Monday, June 7, 2010

Baseball Season

It’s June 7. I have been absent from this space for some time now. Quite a bit of the reason has been the start of the 2010 Major League Baseball season. My Atlanta Braves have surged in the last couple of weeks and currently hold a two-game lead over the reining National League Champion Phillies.

Additionally, I’ve been immersed in reading a wonderful volume by Robert Gorman and David Weeks, “Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities 1862-2007.” It’s morbid but fascinating material-- a hundred and forty-five years of baseball deaths.

Mercifully, professional basketball is coming to a close for the season. Hockey is soon to finish, and football won’t begin for some time now. Of course, I realize that this is a World Cup year, but living in America, that tends not to interfere with my sports watching. Soccer just doesn’t cut it.

What I’m getting at is that the next several months are a baseball fan’s dream. The season is well under way, division races are starting to take shape, and there are no other pesky sports battling for air time.

But, this is a film blog, the goal of which is to promote a love of cinema. Luckily, the movies have a rich tradition of depicting sports and the trials of athletes. Some might say the sports film sub-genre has turned into a cliché-ridden mess.

Looking at some of the muck that come packaged as sports films, I might be inclined to agree. If, however, we are being honest, most genres these days are paper-mâché cutouts of time worn plots and characters.

As with any genre, though, the sports film can rise above the dregs and prove great. One need look no further than Raging Bull for proof that the sports genre can produce a masterpiece just as easily as (or with as much difficulty as) the western, the romance, or the noir.

So, in the spirit of the baseball season, I thought I’d share with you some of the baseball films that I cherish. These may not be “classic” films in the canonical sense of the word, but they are movies that are dear to me. They are movies that in one way or another made me who I am today, and that is the spirit in which I recommend these films.

Eight Men Out

Featuring a dream ensemble cast, the movie lays out plainly (albeit with a flare for the dramatic detail here and there) the case of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, more commonly known as the Black Sox. It is a story of average men put in an extraordinary situation that they hadn’t the faculties to handle.

No one is soft sold-- the players, the gamblers, the management, the owners-- and while it’s tempting to sympathize with the players as victims of circumstance, overwhelming evidence suggests the contrary. They knew what they were doing, though that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their reasons.

Everything is made all the more sad because of the tragic inevitability of the proceedings. As you watch, it’s hard not to hope for a different outcome, but the pieces all fall into place for the worst scandal in baseball up to the steroid era.

The 1919 World Series may be one of the only professional sports championships wherein more people are familiar with who lost rather than who won (the Cincinnati Reds, if you were curious). But, as this film makes clear, it was more than just the White Sox who lost. It was the fans, it was the league, and it was the sport, itself. But, in a more natural fashion, history forgot those others who lost.

For the Love of the Game

Kevin Costner has starred in a number of baseball-themed movies, most notably the best picture-nominated Field of Dreams. That’s a movie I like, but Sam Raimi’s romance about a washed-up pitcher playing in the last game of his career is the one that always stuck with me.

Admittedly, the story is largely sensational and the plot device of the perfect game is a little too predictable, but it honestly doesn’t matter. The love story is the driving element of this movie, but when I watch, it’s not the love story between Costner’s over-the-hill ballplayer and Kelly Preston’s career woman. It’s the love story between the player and the game.

In a morbid aside, this is the kind of movie that explains the high suicide rates among retired athletes. Their lives are dedicated to the game. They play seven months out of the year and train the other five. When it’s over, what do they do? Sadly, some don’t know the answer to that question. The game was life; without it, there is nothing.

In a sometimes saccharine (not a word I ever thought I’d use to describe a Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi film) and overtly sentimental way, For the Love of the Game explores that connection that a player has to the game, and in a deeper way, it explores the connection a man has to his work, be he a professional athlete or a professional carpenter.

The Sandlot

It’s basically canon for any kid who grew up playing little league baseball in the 90s, a demographic in which I can be included. The movie features great supporting work from Karen Allen, James Earl Jones, and Dennis Leary, but it mostly belongs to the kids.

The plot, such as it is, centers around a bunch of young friends who get together and play baseball during the long, hot summer days. Mostly episodic in nature, the only story point that really carries all the way through the movie is that of “The Beast,” a neighborhood guard dog feared by all who have heard the stories.

If we’re being honest, the movie, which is set in 1962, sidesteps a few of the more pressing social issues of the time (for example: racial and gender equality) and opts instead for grudging political correctness. But, it’s a children’s movie from the Clinton era. People were feeling too good to want to feel bad.

And, ultimately, this is a feel good movie. It’s about remembering that baseball is game and the pure joy that playing the game can bring.

The Babe

No, not the movie about the pig. Though, depending on your viewing of the film, this Babe Ruth biopic makes a good case the Great Bambino as swine. It is an unflattering look at the greatest hitter to ever play the game, a statement which may be among the most inarguable in sports.

Yet, while the film portrays Ruth as an uncouth, loutish oaf, John Goodman, in one of his early starring film roles, finds humanity in the slugger. The shame is that the movie was not a greater success with the public because Goodman deserved more opportunities like this one to show what he can do. His underrated performance in the title role is one of great depth and sadness.

Ruth was a man abandoned by his father at an early age, raised by borderline-abusive Catholic priests, and nearly saved by his great talent. Unfortunately, with his great talent came the hangers-on who sought to exploit Ruth for their own gain.

The film does a wonderful job of showing how his success was undermined at every turn by business men, scam artists, and tragically, all too often himself. His ultimate downfall came from the fact that he could not distinguish between those who cared about him and those who cared about themselves.

The Scout

This isn’t one of Albert Brooks’ best films. Those would be Real Life and Lost in America. But, it is his best (read: only) sports film. Brooks plays a scout for the New York Yankees who finds a dream pitching prospect on the day he is fired. It’s an irony from which Alanis Morissette could learn a thing or two.

Brooks brings the pitcher, who has no family and who had been living in Mexico, back to America to live with him. The pitcher is played by a lovably dim-witted Brendan Fraser in a role that seems like a warm-up for George of the Jungle. As the back of the DVD box might say, things go comically awry when Brooks gets more than he bargained for from their living arrangement.

In all seriousness, the movie goes some dark places with the Fraser character, certainly darker than you would expect to find in a traditional sports comedy.

Though the ending falls into certain genre traps, the majority of the film is full of Brooks’ trademark dry wit and sardonic humor, which make it well worth a viewing. There are also a couple of really funny moments featuring Tony Bennett, so it’s got that, too.

A League of Their Own

A baseball movie by women, about women, and for everyone, A League of Their Own contains what may be the greatest line ever spoken in a sports movie.

Poor little Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram, of Monk fame), the Peaches’ petite right fielder, runs off the field after her throwing error allowed the opposing team to score the tying run. Her manager, Jimmy Dugan (a wonderful Tom Hanks), greets her at the top step of the dugout. After a chewing out for the ages, the player breaks down in tears, at which point her coach informs her of a simple fact: “There’s no crying in baseball.”

But, then, you probably already knew that.

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