Thursday, April 28, 2011

Baseball movies greatest hits

With baseball season getting into full swing, the time has come to look back on baseball movies. There are so many great baseball films, too many to mention in one article, but here are some highlights.

The Kevin Costner trilogy

Kevin Costner starred in three unrelated, but worthy baseball movies, 1988's “Bull Durham,” 1989's “Field of Dreams” and 2000's “For the Love of the Game.” “Bull Durham” is a very funny and observant look at minor league baseball. Costner starred as a minor league veteran saddled with trying to help a young, unfocused pitcher (Tim Robbins) make it to the majors. Susan Sarandon is a groupie who picks one player a year to live with and help make great. Writer and director Ron Shelton actually was a minor league player from 1967 to 1971 and he brings an authenticity to the film and understanding of how the players think.

“Field of Dreams” is a movie that transcends mere sports movie conventions to be about the mystique, the history and the very reason we watch baseball. James Earl Jones delivers a monologue about the timelessness and magic of baseball that is absolutely perfect. And even the toughest guy is likely to shed a tear when the he of “if you build it he will come” finally arrives.

“For Love of the Game” is a lesser film and came in a time in Costner's career where it seemed like he went back to the baseball well looking for a hit. Even so, despite a distracting story structure of Costner's aging pitcher flashing back to the last few years of a failed relationship while pitching a perfect game, the film is entertaining. There are nice touches like Costner's ability as a pitcher to turn off all the noise of the ballpark and a well-written dynamic with his catcher played by John C. Reilly.

Based on true events and bio-pics

Some of the best baseball movies take their stories from reality. No matter what you think of the Yankees, it is hard not to be touched by 1943's “The Pride of the Yankees,” the story of Lou Gehrig, the baseball hero whose life was cut short by the disease that to this day still bears his name. Made only two years after Gehrig’s death, he was already a legend in his own time and in an era of war was an example of strength and grace in the face of adversity. The recreation by Gary Cooper of Gehrig’s farewell speech is a guaranteed tearjerker.

“Eight Men Out,” John Sayles dramatization of the infamous Black Sox scandal in which players took bribes to throw the 1919 World Series, is a compelling piece of drama. It doesn’t paint the players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, as innately crooked people. Instead Sayles shows how each player is slowly, and in some cases reluctantly, convinced to take the fall. The dream cast is packed with raising stars and veterans of the 1980s including Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, David Strathairn, Christopher Lloyd, John Mahoney, Michael Rooker and D.B. Sweeney.

“A League of Their Own” took a look at the women’s league that was formed to fill the void left behind by the men who went to fight in World War II. Rich, well-written characters are ideally cast from top to bottom from the league’s star player Geena Davis to the league tramp Madonna to talent scout Jon Lovitz to coach Tom Hanks. This earns a place in baseball and movie history if only for the classic line “There’s no crying in baseball.”

“Bull Durham” director Shelton returned to baseball in 1994 for “Cobb,” a bio-pic about Ty Cobb, one the greatest and most reviled players to ever play the game. Brilliant portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, this is a film that isn't afraid to show its subject in an unflattering light and it is all the better for it. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for 1992's “The Babe” a lackluster look at the Babe Ruth story. It isn't bad, but it lacks substance. It is worth a look, though, for a solid performance by John Goodman.

Kids movies

In 1976, “The Bad News Bears” set the template for underdog kid’s sports movie. Crotchety drunk Walter Matthau reluctantly becomes the coach of a team of misfit little leaguers. The team starts to win when he brings in daughter Tatum O’Neal as a ringer. These sort of movies would later become pure formula, but “Bad News Bears” played by its own rules. It is foul mouthed, political incorrect and wonderful for it.

Other films that followed in the wake of “The Bad News Bears” often had a bad case of the cutes, but some were better than others. In “Rookie of the Year,” from 1993, a kid (Thomas Ian Nicholas) gets to play in the major leagues after a broken arm gives him an amazing pitch. It is basically “Major League” for kids right down to John Candy in the Bob Uecker role as a color commentator.

Perhaps the best movie about kids and baseball is 1993's “The Sandlot.” This is a sweet, good-natured movie about a group of kids playing ball in the 1950s that proves to be equally enjoyable for kids and adults alike. The new kid on a backyard team doesn’t know much about baseball; he knows so little, in fact, that when the team needs a ball he swaps his step-dad’s ball signed by Babe Ruth. When the ball is hit over a fence, the film becomes a riotous battle to get it back from a supposedly man-eating dog called The Beast. A fine young cast makes this an utterly charming piece of nostalgia.

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