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September 21, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Worst Baseball on Film

by Sam Miller

Movies about baseball don’t do a very good job showing what baseball players look like. With some exceptions, the pitchers usually have slow windups and lollipop fastballs, the batters swing like they’re chopping wood, and the defenders are filmed in short segments that disguise their lack of agility. But those guys are all Royce-Clayton-in-Moneyball good compared to the baseball players in movies and TV shows that aren’t about baseball.

This came up recently when a reader named Tom sent me a YouTube clip from the movie Hook, in which Bob Hoskins throws a pitch and the kid who played the nerd in Can’t Hardly Wait swings and misses. “I stumbled upon it tonight, and was floored that Spielberg would allow that,” Tom told me. But of course Spielberg would allow it, because Hook is not a baseball movie. There are no baseball consultants hired. Everybody just phones it in.

Hoskins’ performance deserves a closer look. And, in fact, everybody famous who has tried to look like a baseball player deserves a closer look. Here are three closer looks.

1. Bob Hoskins playing baseball, in Hook.
Acting bona fides: “Hoskins is one of the very best new British actors, and this is a great performance - it won him the best-actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival,” wrote Roger Ebert about Hoskins’ performance in Mona Lisa.
But also: Played “Geri Halliwell’s disguise” in Spice World.
Full video:

To the GIFs:

Hoskins’ mechanics: Very little hip-shoulder separation. Short arm action. Inefficient motion, with lots of wasted effort. Will struggle to repeat arm slot. Velocity unlikely to top 40. Telegraphs his off-speed pitches. Batter gets a good look at his release. Takes running start. Is four-foot-tall Pirate in his late 40s. Likely has scurvy. Jumps in the air.

Comp: Brian Fuentes

Small details they got wrong:

  • Catcher wearing a mask, not on his face.
  • Large crowd at a Pirates game.

Meta problem: Film can't decide whether to make Hoskins and his teammates competent (he gets Jack to swing and miss, for instance) or bumbling baffoons (wacky windup, callous murder of baserunner attempting to steal a base). As a result, the narrative of the scene is muddled.

Bonus points: For the dead-eyed look of disappointment Robin Williams gives after his own wacky pirate impression..

Balk? Yes.

2. Fergie, of Black Eyed Peas, age 10 or so, playing baseball on Kids Incorporated.
Acting bona fides: Boston Herald: "Though 'Nine' boasts a cast of Oscar winners—Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz and Marion Cotillard—it’s Black Eyed Peas vocalist Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson who steals the movie musical. As the prostitute Saraghina, Fergie’s solo 'Be Italian' is a showstopper."
But also: Peed herself.
Full video, which you absolutely don't want to watch; skip ahead almost five minutes for the baseball.

To the GIFs:

Fergie’s Mechanics: Swings the bat backward sometimes. Bars her arms. Poor bat speed. Unstable back foot. No control of the strike zone. Is awful. Jumps in the air.

Comp: Marvin Benard

Details they got wrong:

  • Announcer says Fergie’s character, Mary, is “the first woman to play in the World Series and on top of that she'll be on the way to Rookie of the Year if she can rap this one out of here.” Announcer shows little familiarity with voting schedule for end-of-season awards.
  • Announcer also describes Mary’s “towering swing,” which is not a baseball phrase, though it is, in this case, accurate.
  • Mary plays for the Giants and wears jersey no. 3, which, of course, is retired in honor of Bill Terry. I mean c’mon.

Meta problem: It is impossible to be happy for a person who swings at this pitch. This is a show that is supposed to teach children lessons about self-esteem, etc., yet we can't ignore what this scene tells us from the pitcher's perspective: "Your story is already written, and in the end stupid Fergie gets to succeed at your expense. Even if you throw a perfect pitch and stupid Fergie takes a stupid swing at it. You should have been born prettier."

Bonus: Mr. T blowing a bubble

like it's the alien bursting out of J.E. Freeman's chest in "Alien: Resurrection"

Bonus Bonus:

Balk? No balks.

3. Lucas Grabeel (famous person), playing baseball in High School Musical 2.
Acting bona fides: “Lucas Grabeel does accent like Shakespear actor.”
But also: Who cares.

Full video:

To the GIFs:

Grabeel's mechanics: No fluidity. Starts his motion with a jerk, then slows down and decelerates as he drives toward the mound. Stiff lower body. Weak leg kick. Comes straight over the top, and his fastball is too straight. Sings while he's pitching. A bit too emotional on the mound. Does not own cleats, or baseball cap. Is French paperboy from 1950s. Jumps in the air.

Comp: Jose Valverde

Small details they got wrong:

  • Pitcher believed to actually be cricket bowler
  • Catcher tags baserunner at home despite force being on
  • YouTube description identifies sport incorrectly:

Meta problem: Because baseball is a sport that is mostly static, with players spending a large portion of the time standing still, and with almost zero physical interaction with each other, it does not lend itself to dance routines the way that, say, basketball or even football would.

Balk? Yes, balk.

The lesson? It is very difficult to show competent baseball on film. Just ask the producers of the Houston Astros. Hey-oh!

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

Related Content:  Hook,  High School Musical 2,  Fergie

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Baseball Therapy: Wild... (09/21)
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Premium Article Pebble Hunting: Ryan H... (09/19)
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Premium Article Pebble Hunting: A Clos... (09/26)
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