Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sports Flicks: Bull Durham

Bull Durham is, in my humble opinion, one of the most under-appreciated films of the late 20th century. Oh sure, it enjoys cult-like worship among baseball fans and always does well on all-time best sports movies lists. But I believe run-of-the-mill film buffs should take it more seriously, too. Bull Durham has the one key element which I feel all truly great films must have: fantastic writing.

Image via Antonio Valente. No, really.

Bull Durham (BD) is not merely quotable, though there are surely those who can recite the screenplay line-by-line. The script is almost singable. Susan Sarandon's delivery, especially, is well-attuned to the natural rise and fall of each phrase. Indeed, the story itself is practically an opera libretto. Rivalry over a woman? Mental wit triumphs over brute strength? Confrontation with inner demons? Student vanquishes the master? Rossini would have had fun with this one.

As film heroes go, Crash Davis is one of my all-time favorites. What a fantastic character! He's a good player, just never quite good enough, save for the best 21 days of his life. In the age of expansion, he might indeed have found a home in the Majors. But his loss is our gain, not to mention Annie's and Nuke's. Whenever I watch an athlete with abundant talent but lack of discipline, I can't help thinking s/he could use some Crash Davis-style mentoring. Milos Raonic of Canada, for instance, is tennis's current Nuke Laloosh. In hockey, it's the Capitals' defenseman, Mike Green.

For me, BD is a film which has only improved with age. I first watched it as a teenager and to be honest, didn't really get it. I don't think I watched the movie in its entirety again until my mid-20s. At that point, knowing more about life, more about love and, frankly, more about baseball, the story had much stronger resonance for me. Since then, I have watched it many times, finding something new with nearly every viewing.

My favorite scene is the conference on the mound, as depicted in the image above. Nuke's disastrous interview near the end is a close second. Sadly, I do have a least favorite. The dialogue between Crash and Annie on the porch swing in the end always falls a bit flat for me. I realize you need to have something there. But after a whole film of elegant, clever dialogue, the penultimate sputter is awfully clunky. Sarandon's voice-over monologue at the very end helps to save the scene.

BD perfectly captures the charm of minor league baseball, one of America's most wonderful cultural institutions. Cheap tickets that bring you close to the action: you can't beat that. True, the players aren't as good as their major league counterparts but their flubs remind us of how difficult this game truly is.

The first live baseball game I ever went to was a minor league game: an Omaha Royals game with my grandfather. I won't claim that I was ever very close to my grandfather. He wasn't an easy man to get to know and he died when I was 12. But we did share a love of sports and it was fun going to a game with him. A former semi-pro pitcher himself, he really knew baseball and I learned plenty from him. Max Patkin, Clown Prince of Baseball himself as featured in BD, performed at the game.

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