Director: Ron Shelton
Writer: Ron Shelton
Producer: Thom Mount and Mark Burg
Cinematographer: Bobby Byrne
by Jon Cvack
I’ve been revisiting many of the most famous baseball movies, realizing upon Googling the "Best Baseball Movie" list that I had completely forgotten about Little Big League ('94), with still a handful of other films I’ve never seen - most famously Eight Men Out ('88). I had first seen Bull Durham back in college whilst trying to make my through AFI’s Micro Lists (in this case 10 Best Sports Movies). I had loved the film, admiring its abandonment of the Major Leagues in order to focus on the Minors and what making it to The Show means to tens of thousands of players. Counter to Field of Dreams ('89) or The Natural ('84) and their ability to focus on the game’s mythology and nostalgia, Bull Durham is much more focused on the game’s stark reality; namely, that 99.999% of aspiring players will fail.
The film opens with a narration from baseball fanatic and groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) who explains how at the top of each season she will shack up with the best player in the hopes of getting them to the major leagues, then moving on to the next year’s star. This year, it's an ace pitcher (when he can throw correctly) Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLooshs (Tim Robbins) whose first seen having sex in the shower with another fangirl moments before his debut, with Manager Joe Riggins (in an incredible role from Trey Wilson), perfectly matched up by his Bench Coach Larry Hockett (Robert Wuhl), who's enraged about Nuke’s complete disregard for the game. Sure enough, too caught up in his head, the Nuke pitches terribly, having the speed but no control whatsoever, sending balls flying in all directions. Hockett and Riggins decide to bring the 12 year ailing veteran “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner) in as a catcher to help coach Nuke, while simultaneously realizing it’s also his last shot to get into the majors.
One of the most fascinating elements of baseball is its farm system. Unlike most other sports, baseball players often have to work their way up through a system ranging from A to AAA ball. Most of these are owned by the Major League teams, which are thus farming new talent. As usual with baseball movies, knowing how this works helps you to appreciate Crash’s character all the more. He was good enough to play in AAA for twelve years, a few shy of having the minor league record, and yet he never got to the next level beyond a few games. While Nuke doesn’t have the same passion or focus, Crash knows that Nuke has what it takes. Having watched The Player a week or so after Bull Durham, it was incredible to see the range in which Robbins had been able to extend himself, maintaining a layer of ignorance where you’re never sure if it’s all part of some ruse, or actually who he is.
Annie is a bizarre character, floating between bizarre and sexist, yet always affirming her femininity and knowledge. She’s not a stupid bimbo like the character so easily could have so easily been (especially during the 80s). She likes to talk about science, philosophy, and religion, even when it bores the players. She’s a deeply sad character, and my main gripe is that we never find out what makes her want to sleep with so many men. Some might say there is no point, and it was simply a queer lifestyle she desired. Perhaps she simply loved the game so much knowing that she had a role in contributing to its greatest stars.
She joins Crash in coaching Nuke, mixing sex and psychology to try and get the best performance out of him, eventually forcing Nuke to wear her black silk panties to help relax his mind. And yet there’s also Crash, both his attraction to Annie and her to him. Robbins was thirty at the time, but the movie makes him seem (and might have said) he was in his early 20s, making it odd that while Annie has a much more suitable man in front of her that is Crash, she still chooses the young Nuke. It felt as though there was some type of Greek myth I was missing, but the Oedipal dynamic is fascinating, as Annie seems to serve as a type of mother figure, rejoining the father after her son has grown into the man that she hoped he’d be.
The film shows the hope these players have, determined to use any and all opportunity to make it to The Show. More and more, I see that this lesson applies to so many other endeavors - film, music, writing, politics. There are so few slots and so many wanting to fill them that the margin for error is minuscule between those who fail versus those who succeed. In a brilliant scene, Crash breaks down how a hitter hitting just one more or one less ball per week in a season could make or break their shot at the majors; equally about one extra hit per 20 at bats. At its core, baseball is a game about statistics. There is a probability for an event. The real world doesn’t work with such strict, quantifiable numbers; there are more subtle moments that result in an ailing number. Not taking a meeting, not showing up to a party, not having the discipline, not knowing the right person - to think of how many small things can go wrong that could blow anyone’s shot at their Show. Bull Durham is about accepting that fate, and coming to terms that it may never happen. It’s a funny and somber film, abandoning the thrilling allure of the Majors and instead looking at the reality of those trying to get there.
BELOW: What makes baseball great: its ability to serve as a metaphor for most things in life
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