July 25, 2014
The Battered Bastards of Baseball is Not Good
There’s a movie called Slap Shot. You’ve heard of it, you’ve seen it, you love it. It’s about a small-town minor-league hockey team that, faced with its recession-related shuttering, reinvents itself as a bunch of thugs on ice. The team’s new rebelliousness draws fans, and it leads to victories. It works as two movies: the scrappy underdog story, and the men behaving badly story.
There’s a new documentary out called The Battered Bastards of Baseball, released directly to Netflix streaming, which you probably know is no knock against it. (Netflix produces dynamite original stuff. And people seem to love this movie. All 10 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are positive.) It’s about a minor-league baseball team, an unaffiliated club that filled the void in Portland when the PCL abandoned the city (low attendance, regional disinterest) in the early 1970s. Kurt Russell’s dad, the actor Bing Russell, planted the Portland Mavericks there, joined the short-season Northwest League, and fielded a tremendously successful team that I suspect would have hit it off with the Slap Shot boys.
Consider the manager, Frank Peters. Peters was a former ballplayer (topping out at Triple-A; .269/.326/.377 in 10 seasons) and a heavy drinker who owned some local nightclubs and “was 86'ed from his own bar on at least three occasions.” He hired security guards to protect him—“from his own players,” including star Reggie Thomas, who punched him and threatened him with a shovel. A decade later, after he fell behind on his taxes, Peters “cranked up a marijuana operation that ultimately spanned five houses, each growing 150 plants he harvested six times a year.” The cops raided his place in 1989, by which point “Peters had slipped into a life of 24-hour debauchery. Police found homemade videos of underage girls having sex together. Peters ranted about Hitler. He eventually pleaded guilty to four counts of third-degree rape involving a 15-year-old girl, one count of contributing to the delinquency of a 16-year-old girl, and several counts of manufacturing and delivering a controlled substance.”
You can imagine the rollicking fun of a documentary about this outlaw managing a group of misfits; the joints, the girls, the fights, the nights in jail, the crimes of a difficult, dangerous man trying to hold his life together. The problem is that this documentary shows none of it. The quotes above come from a Willamette Week feature that was written about Peters in 2004. The Battered Bastards of Baseball doesn’t have an edge sharp enough to scuff a baseball. It's content to be the scrappy, inspiring underdog story; no men behave badly. This isn’t particularly shocking, when you realize the directors are Bing Russell’s grandkids. Their grandmother is in the movie. No homemade videos of [I don’t even want to repeat that phrase] in a documentary that Nana’s in.
So then the problem is the underdog story. These are, we’re told, all the guys organized baseball didn’t want. “I felt that there were ballplayers released too early, ballplayers not signed who could play at this level and we proved that they could,” Bing Russell tells a reporter. Nobody thought these guys belonged on a field with pros, and yet they hustled their way to winning records and almost league championships. The other teams came to fear them. Organizations sent in ringers to beat them late in the season. These are all things that we’re told, and it makes for a heck of a conflict.
But actually. The Portland Mavericks, in 1977, their best (and final) season, had an average hitter age of 24. They had an average pitcher age of 26. The average hitter in the league (including the Mavericks) was 21. The average pitcher was 22. We’re shown footage of the open tryouts early on, the out-of-shape losers kicking balls around, the implication being that this is the manure that the Mavericks grew out of. But even in their first year, most of the Mavericks regulars had played affiliated professional baseball previously, and most of them had played at levels higher than the Northwest League.
You know how this works. These guys were available not because “organized baseball” (the villain in the story, those two words repeated over and over) decided they weren’t good enough to play short-season rookie ball. They were available because “organized baseball” decided they weren’t ever going to be good enough to play major-league baseball. And they weren’t! None of these guys (except 38-year-old Jim Bouton) would ever play in the majors after playing in Portland. They were good enough to stomp a bunch of just-drafted high schoolers, like Mike Scioscia (17 years old) and Dave Stewart (18) and Pedro Guerrero (18) and Rick Sutcliffe (18) and Jeffrey Leonard (18). Meanwhile the Mavericks’ star, Reggie Thomas, was 28, 29 years old. It’s like bringing a bunch of college kids in to dominate high schoolers and saying they were the underdogs because “no high school would sign these guys.” No, man, it’s just that they graduated. This whole movie is like an 80-minute slow-motion remake of that Mitch Hedberg joke: “I wish I could play little league now. I’d kick some fucking ass. I’d be way better than before.”
You’re wondering, why so serious, Sam? The point of a movie is to have drama. Fine! Documentaries tell lies, got it. I don’t mind a dishonest documentary, in principle. But the movie puts so much weight on the underdog story, so strenuously avoids any good drink-and-fight stories, that if we don’t buy these guys as heroes we have nothing. And, ultimately, the record it presents is so transparently incomplete that we’ve got nothing.
Scioscia, Stewart, Guerrero, Sutcliffe—none is interviewed about what they thought of the Mavericks. To the best of my recollection, nobody who isn’t associated with the Mavericks is interviewed, other than a couple Portland sports journalists from that era. The whole enterprise depends on having these guys talking in awe about how much they shook the world up (a big mention is made about how, when Joe Garagiola came out to do a bright about them for his weekly pre-game show, “he had so much footage that they had to do two shows... which he'd never done before. And he was only here for a day!”), without one outsider confirming.
Anyway, there’s pretty pictures and nice music and it’s not long, so if you want to see what it looks like to see baseball played on what appears to be a soccer field, have fun. It’s just not very good, is the only thing.