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February 28, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Oscar Gambles

by Christina Kahrl

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So, last night was Oscar time, and no doubt many of you watched intently. Maybe it's because we're in the opening weeks of spring training, and maybe it's because we've come up short on the great baseball movie front for several years now, but my mind immediately turned to the films we'd like to see, not the ones that are getting made.

We already know that the concept of doing a movie about Mike Kekich, Fritz Peterson, and baseball's most infamous challenge trade is a concept already associated with names like Affleck and Damon—not Johnny—in an attempt to try and beat the story into shape. Somehow, I expect there won't be a lot of baseball in what's supposed to be a baseball movie—not least because Kekich's career didn't have a lot longer to go by the time the two men swapped wives and lives. To my way of thinking, that's exactly what I don't want from a sports movie—a film short on actual sports, because without that, why shoot it?

Keeping that standard in mind, that we want sports in our sports, here's a quick top 10 list of the baseball movies I'd like to see get made:

10. Jane Leavy's Squeeze Play. What's wrong with a romantic comedy where, beyond the question of how a woman in the locker room adapts to life around the game, we find that the love that lasts is for the game itself? Yes, there would almost certainly have to be a lot of early shock-value nudity, but that's part of capturing the protagonist's initial discomfort in what will necessarily be an adult comedy—and c'mon, after Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I think the market can cope. I doubt we'd see the Nationals cooperate in what's supposed to be the story of covering a 119-loss Washington ballclub, but more's the pity—Leavy's story is a valentine to the sport and to a dying brand of journalism, as well as an artifact of a period when women in the locker room were fairly thinly spread. Cast it into some fictional past from the '80s, featuring a fictional ballclub, keep the core messages, and it still works, because the humor and the message endure.

9. Jim Thorpe's arrival as perhaps the first mass-media international sports celebrity a century ago. Admittedly, this isn't truly a baseball-only story, but at a time when those of us of a certain age are busily reminding ourselves of the multi-sport greatness (or adequacy) we saw from Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, I can't help but think that there's a movie to be made of the American Indian who for generations afterward was considered by some to be the greatest athlete in American history. He wasn't a great pro baseball player, but between playing for Pop Warner's 1912 college football champs at Carlisle, dominating at the 1912 Olympics (winning gold in the pentathlon and decathlon), and then making it to the major leagues playing for John McGraw's Giants in 1913, he almost instantly became the world's first international sports celebrity. He would go on to play pro football, but if anything, that became a symptom of his increasing desperation to make a buck, as he would later wind up broke and alcoholic, struggling to hold down jobs digging ditches or graves. Treat it as a story of fleeting fame, and of escape from reservation life at a time when that was far from easy... there are a lot of places you can take the story, but nobody's done anything with Jim Thorpe's life since Burt Lancaster played Thorpe in Jim Thorpe—All-American 60 years ago, and somehow, that doesn't seem quite right.

8. The 1890s Orioles. A big part of what I loved about John Sayles' Eight Men Out is its compelling portrayal of on-field action, which was in no small part a product of Sayles' pointedly trying to make sure that he cast actors who could play the game. So I'll admit, I'd love to see a movie made about the '90s Orioles made for the sheer spectacle of watching the practice of “inside baseball” taken to a degree that some historians wonder if even the Orioles themselves could have lived up to. Me, I'll settle for seeing something that gives us live-action homages to the careers of Hugh Jennings, Wee Willie Keeler, John McGraw, and the rest tearing around the diamond, intimidating umps and opponents, and basically challenging us to recognize the same game we know and love today. Add in the drama of folding up the team a year after stripping it of several stars plus Ned Hanlon to stock the Dodgers, and you've got an allegory of the perils of being too good for the rest of the league.

7. Give 'Em the Bird: The Semi-True Life and Times of the San Diego Chicken. This isn't something to take remotely seriously as subject matter, so rather than make this into a prosaic retelling of the life of Ted Giannoulas, this is more the sort of thing where we want to see an over-the-top comic spin, taking something sort of silly—mascots as in-game entertainment—and bizarrely winding up with one particular mascot becoming a national celebrity. Admittedly, it was the '70s, when strange and wonderful and ridiculous things were possible, but why not take the material and head all the way into the territory of farce? Everybody but Don Schulze was laughing most of the time, true, but there's something about an era's zeitgeist that the Chicken seems to symbolize, so I say go over the top.

6. Roberto Clemente's life and death. Let's go where David Maraniss' outstanding biography has already taken us, and recognize a tremendous player who also happened to be an admirable human being. If this gives us the opportunity to show off something we never see any more—Pirates pennants—as well as an athlete who risked and lost everything because of his compassion, there's nothing wrong with that. If some of the other tragedies on this list are a matter of self-destructive waste, this is one where the tragedy was in our losing a player who truly fulfilled the expectations so often projected onto players. Wherever you might be on whether or not athletes are role models or should be, it's worth talking about a man who took the proposition seriously.

5. Sticking with the Steel City, how about a movie about the Pittsburgh cocaine scandals of the 1980s? This deserves to be treated as a story reflecting a major cultural change in our society, and who was victimized by it. The sensibilities of the '70s, when recreational use and abuse of cocaine came with next to no social stigma, leading up to the active prosecution and suspension of ballplayers for cocaine use in the '80s, makes for a fascinating moment in cultural history. The drug trials themselves were symbolic of the way much of the war on drugs has been waged: no matter who does the crime, it's usually the nobodies who end up doing the time. We'd get courtroom drama, a reasonable discussion of situational ethics and changing normative pressures, and an important reminder that the game's original drug scandal wasn't necessarily handled with the sort of adaptiveness we wanted this time around either.

4. Veeck As in Wreck. You'll want to use the title, if not stick with the book itself, but this is a great American story. Whether or not you want to cast this as the little guy going up against the corporate stooges and the unimaginative plutocrats who were to become known as the Lords of the Game, a biopic on Veeck would make for a nice reminder that innovation isn't antithetical to the great game, it's just frowned upon. Between Veeck's brands of in-game and live-action entertainment—not just Disco Demolition or the legendary attempt to acquire the Phillies and integrate them five years before Jackie Robinson, but also Eddie Gaedel and “Grandstand Manager's Day”—there's plenty of hijinks, wrapping with the sad conclusion that the days of the free-wheeling owner/operator were doomed to history's dustbin before Veeck was ready to be consigned to it.

3. Pete Rose. To make a point of distinguishing this from the next film idea, I wonder if this isn't something that deserves something less documentary or prosaic in its treatment, and instead needs to be an extended conversation between the Rose and the Devil in a Price Hill dive bar over shots of Jack, on whether or not Rose was cheated in their bargain, or whether Rose's failures are indeed entirely self-inflicted and beyond redemption. Perhaps a two-man drama featuring a lying Hit King and the King of Lies would be more Mamet than Seventh Seal, giving us something on the subject beyond the squalor that will stick with us.

2. Billyball. If Rose's story is one of self-destruction and willfully misleading a forgiving public in a quest for unearned martyrdom, Billy Martin's story is one part Goodfellas, another part Raging Bull, and a whole bunch of 61* besides. The themes border on operatic when it comes to one man's gifts balanced against his complete incapacity to succeed anywhere or at anything for long. Sex? Maybe it's sort of missing from the rest of this slate of stories, but we've got that here in spades, because unlikely enough as it may seem in retrospect, Martin was a ladies' man. Violence? There's no part of the Martin story that wouldn't be punctuated with fighting or bullying, from his rough East Bay youth to the Copa to his later run-ins, inside the ballpark and out.

All of that makes for easy camera-chewing action, but the way this movie works as something more than just a story of dissolution is that it would have to capture Martin's skill as a terrifying motivator and his relentlessly aggressive feats as a tactician. If you don't get that in there, you can't adequately explain why Martin keeps getting opportunity after opportunity—it has to be a baseball movie, and not just Caligula in cleats.

1. Jackie Robinson. I don't care whether Spike Lee ever gets this off the ground or if someone else takes the ball and runs with it. I also don't care if this is a story about 1947 alone, or his entire career. It could even widen the scope to talk about why Jackie and not someone else. My hope is that it would focus on the overt racism he had to fight against within the industry and especially on the diamond, while giving due credit to those who lined up with him. But most of all, there is no more important figure in American sports history, ever, let alone the 20th century. This needed doing a decade ago, but the story is still there, waiting to be done.

With all of that said, those are just my ideas—what about yours? What stories would you like to see produced?

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

30 comments have been left for this article.

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