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January 17, 2012

Wezen-Ball

Roger Ebert at the Baseball Movies

by Larry Granillo

In keeping with the theme of today's Lineup Card, I've gone back and updated a post I wrote over two years ago. How did America's premiere film critic see our favorite baseball movies when they were released?

The foremost movie critic of the last thirty-plus years has, of course, been Roger Ebert. He's been reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, and has been synonymous with film for nearly my entire life. Thanks to this wonderful internet-age that we all live in, his entire collection of movie reviews can be found online at his website, rogerebert.com. Using that as a resource, I went through and found Ebert's reviews of a few of the most popular baseball films of the last three decades. How did he see them at the time? Are our memories and feelings tinted with years of nostalgia, or were these movies just as good when they were new? What did people think of them with a "fresh" pair of eyes?

The Bad News Bears (1976)

It's been so long since The Bad New Bears was released, and so many movies, tv shows, etc. have tried to copy its formula, that it's hard to realize just how new and unique it was when it came out. This is what Ebert had to say about it:

The movie's about a team that's surely one of the worst ever assembled (although I once played right field for one that wasn't much better). The kids are uncoordinated and demoralized and afraid of the ball, and wouldn't be playing at all except that a liberal city councilman has made them a test case. The members include a black, a couple of Mexicans, various other minority group members and, eventually, a girl.
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All of this is pretty much as we'd expect it, and there are obligatory scenes in which the Bears finally get their uniforms, Matthau finally shaves, the boys say they won't wear their athletic supporters until Amanda wears one, too . . . and the team wins its first game. But beneath this entertaining surface stuff, there's something else going on. We begin to sense how important, how really crucial, Little League is to the adults involved in it. How much emphasis they place on winning.

The Sandlot (1993)

I would bet that, if baseball fans were asked to name the movie most similar to The Bad News Bears in spirit and subject, the most common response would be The Sandlot. The rambunctious, foul-mouthed kids who aren't that great at baseball - it seems like a pretty easy stand-in for The Bad News Bears. Ebert might not agree:

If you have ever been lucky enough to see "A Christmas Story," you will understand what I mean when I say "The Sandlot" is a summertime version of the same vision. Both movies are about gawky young adolescents trapped in a world they never made and doing their best to fit in while beset with the most amazing vicissitudes.
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All of these events are told in an original, quirky, off-center, deliberately exaggerated way. This is not your standard movie about kids and baseball. It's so unconventional, it doesn't even end with the sandlot team winning the Big Game. This movie doesn't even have a Big Game. (The one game they play is a pushover.) The movie isn't about winning and losing, it's about growing up and facing your fears, and as the kids try one goofy plan after another to get the ball back, the story gently leaves the realm of the possible and ventures into the exaggerations common to all childhood legends.

The Natural (1984)

There are a few key scenes that everyone remembers when they think of The Natural: Roy Hobbs getting shot, Roy building "Wonderboy", the blood on his jersey, and the exploding light-tower. Sure, there are a few other scenes that are pretty memorable, too, but it's these four scenes that highlight the "epic-ness" of  The Natural. They are the lasting impression of the movie and they help to frame our opinion of it. Either you can accept the unbelievability of some of this and enjoy the story of a near-mythological "natural" like Roy Hobbs, or you see the movie as much-too-blunt and cheapened by a very "Hollywood" ending. Roger Ebert was of the latter:

Why didn't they make a baseball picture? Why did THE NATURAL have to be turned into idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford? Why did a perfectly good story, filled with interesting people, have to be made into one man's ascension to the godlike, especially when no effort is made to give that ascension meaning? And were the most important people in the god-man's life kept mostly offscreen so they wouldn't upstage him?
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THE NATURAL could have been a decent movie. One reason that it is not: Of all its characters, the only one we don't want to know more about is Roy Hobbs. I'd love to get to know Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), the cynical, old team manager. Robert Duvall, as the evil sportswriter, Max Mercy, has had his part cut so badly that we only know he's evil because he practically tells us. Richard Farnsworth, as a kindly coach, has a smile that's more genuine than anything else in the movie. But you have to look quick.

Bull Durham (1988)

The posters for Bull Durham called it a "romantic comedy about America's other favorite pastime". So, is it a "chick flick", or just a movie about love, sex, and baseball? I know many people do consider it a "chick flick" these days, but I'd argue that that's because we've seen it so many times now that we ignore all of its subtlety and depth and just see it on a superficial level anymore. When seen with a fresh pair of eyes, it is certainly much more than that:

A lot of baseball is played along the way. "Bull Durham" was written and directed by Ron Shelton, who spent some time in the minor leagues, and this is a sports movie that knows what it is talking about. There are quiet little scenes that have the ring of absolute accuracy, as when a player is called into the office and told his contract is not being picked up, and the blow is softened by careful mention of a "possibility of a coaching job in the organization next season. . . ." And there probably isn't a coaching job, and nobody wants it anyway, but by such lies can sad truths be told.
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"Bull Durham" is a treasure of a movie because it knows so much about baseball and so little about love. The movie is a completely unrealistic romantic fantasy, and in the real world the delicate little balancing act of these three people would crash into pieces. But this is a movie, and so we want to believe in love, and we want to believe that once in a while lovers can get a break from fate. That's why the movie's ending is so perfect. Not because it seems just right, but because it seems wildly impossible, and we want to believe it anyway.

Field of Dreams (1989)

And then there's my favorite (and I know I'm not alone). Field of Dreams worked on a lot of levels - Ray and Annie at the PTA meeting, the conversation with Doc Graham, Ray trying to kidnap Terrance Mann - but what we all connected with was its magic. And I'm not talking about the magic of great characters or dialog or anything, I mean the good old fashioned magic that brought Shoeless Joe to Ray and Ray to his dad. The kind of magic that lists "The Voice" as "HIMSELF" in the credits. It's blatant and unforgiving, and very rare in movies these days, and we all loved Field of Dreams because of it. Including Roger Ebert:

As "Field of Dreams" developed this fantasy, I found myself being willingly drawn into it. Movies are often so timid these days, so afraid to take flights of the imagination, that there is something grand and brave about a movie where a voice tells a farmer to build a baseball diamond so that Shoeless Joe Jackson can materialize out of the cornfield and hit a few fly balls. This is the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed, and James Stewart might have starred in -- a movie about dreams.
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"Field of Dreams" will not appeal to grinches and grouches and realists. It is a delicate movie, a fragile construction of one goofy fantasy after another. But it has the courage to be about exactly what it promises. "If you build it, he will come." And he does.

A League of Their Own (1992)

Is this movie really 20 years old? Tom Hanks and Geena Davis are the stars of this movie and, needless to say, they knock it out of the park. Dottie's all-around excellence and Dugan's drunken oafishness could be cliche with lesser actors, but Davis and Hanks make their characters worth watching. But it's the ensemble cast that elevates the movie. I mean, when Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell can be made into likable characters, you know you're doing something right. The best of these is Lori Petty, as Dottie's little sister Kit. It's her attitude - her (one-sided) competition with her sister and her overall feistiness - that carries the drama of the story. The fact that all of this happens by showing us, the audience, a piece of American history that we probably didn't know about is what makes the movie great.

Until seeing Penny Marshall's "A League of Their Own," I had no idea that an organization named the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League ever flourished in this country, even though I was 12 when it closed up shop, and therefore of an age to collect Bob Feller and Robin Roberts baseball cards and listen to the Cardinals on the radio. The league was founded in 1943, when it briefly appeared that men's baseball would be a casualty of the war, and once the men came marching home it's a wonder the league survived until 1954. Then it was consigned to oblivion; history is written by the victors.
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The movie has a real bittersweet charm. The baseball sequences, we've seen before. What's fresh are the personalities of the players, the gradual unfolding of their coach and the way this early chapter of women's liberation fit into the hidebound traditions of professional baseball. By the end, when the women get together again for their reunion, it's touching, the way they have to admit that, whaddaya know, they really were pioneers.

Sugar (2009)

One of the best serious baseball movies to have come out in the last 20 or 30 years. You go into the film expecting a coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water type of film, and that's what you get at first. But Sugar is too thoughtful of a movie for that, and it takes quite a turn halfway through. Not everyone will appreciate that kind change, but it's what takes the movie beyond your standard ballpark flick.

I thought I could guess the story. But I couldn't. There isn't a single scene in this film where it really matters which side wins a game, and it doesn't end with a no-hitter. It looks with care at Sugar, and there are a thousand Sugars for every Sammy Sosa. Probably more. Baseball players have become an important export for the Dominican Republic, and poor families like Miguel's dream of the day when sons will be sending home paychecks. A minor league salary represents wealth.
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"Sugar" isn't filled with melodramatic developments and a hard landing on U.S. soil. Baseball seems, in fact, a friendly if realistic destination, an income where there was none before. If very few players ever make it into a Major League starting lineup, well, they know that going in. What's special about the film -- and this is a very special film -- is how closely it observes the emotional uncertainties of a stranger in a strange land, not speaking the language, not knowing the customs, beset with homesickness and the dread of disappointing his family.

Moneyball (2011)

I only finally saw Moneyball this past weekend, when it was released on DVD. The big screen story is very different than Michael Lewis' book - it's about the A's 2002 season and not their 2002 draft - and it obviously takes some liberties with its depictions of baseball operations, but I really enjoyed the story. The core of the Billy Beane/"Peter Brand" real-life story is told well and most of the scenes involving the actual game look great (who knew a Scott Hatteberg home run could look so beautiful?). Some of us too close to the game and too close to the story might have had a hard time liking the film, but it seemed to work for outsiders.

The director is Bennett Miller, who also directed Hoffman in the title role of the radically different "Capote." "Moneyball" is not a traditional sports movie, and indeed should be just as gripping for non-sports fans. It's not a series of Big Games. When it goes to the field, it's for well-chosen crucial moments. Its essence is in terse, brainy dialogue by the two accomplished screenwriters Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") and Steven Zaillian ("Gangs of New York"). As in "The Social Network," abstract discussions reflect deep emotional conflicts. There are a lot of laughs, but only one or two are inspired by lines intended to be funny. Instead, our laughter comes from recognition, an awareness of irony, an appreciation of perfect zingers — and, best of all, insights into human nature.

8 comments have been left for this article.

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