Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bull Durham—the Costner Baseball Movie Trilogy

Well the baseball season has reached the 30.9% mark. Interleague play has begun and the Mariners are on their way to another 90 game loss season. I thought I would celebrate by reminding myself of another great baseball movie and the middle movie of the Costner baseball trilogy—Bull Durham.

Baseball is a discipline of failure. The greatest hitters fail two-thirds of the time, and the greatest pitchers fail to throw strikes half the time. Succeeding in a world saturated by failure takes self-mastery and resilience. The protagonist Crash Davis of Bull Durham, one of my absolute favorite moves, embodies the stoic dignity of failure.
Kevin Costner as Crash Davis, a little thicker, still carries his lanky handsome athletic build and grace (he actually hit two home runs in the making of the movie) plays a professional minor league player. Crash has earned his skill as an accomplished catcher and manager of pitchers who could not quite master major league hitting. He’s grizzled, cynical, self-educated and droll. Unlike the Costner character in Field of Dreams, but similar to his character in For Love of the Game, Crash lives alone with baseball as his path and profession. He has been known to “howl at the moon.”

Crash lives in the shadows of the glory of the major leagues in the grubby perpetual minors. Annie (Susan Sarandan), the movie’s narrator and muse, upholds upholds baseball’s mythical status. As part time community college lecturer in Durham, she introduces the movie with a reminder, “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. …I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball...You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring…It's a long season and you gotta trust it. I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

At this Triple A graveyard for perpetual veterans and launch pad for hotshots, Annie picks one player each year to initiate into the church through reading poetry and love-making. In Bull Durham she has adopted to mother and play with Eby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) an immensely talented fire-balling air-head with the focus of an amoeba.
Crash Davis is approaching the end of his baseball career having once been blessed 21 wondrous days in the show, the Major Leagues.  By a fluke of longevity and talent he needs only 1 home run to achieve the minor league record of 247 home runs. The Durham Bulls bought his AAA contract to tutor the incredibly talented picture and Annie’s protégé “Nuke” LaLoosh. Nuke has just pitched a game in which he walked 18, hit, stuck out 18 as well as hitting the sportscaster, public address announcer and the mascot bull—he has “serious shit.” More to the point Crash announces he has “a million dollar arm with a five cent head.”

As the “player to be named later,” Crash enters just as the manager of the Bulls tells a young player “the organization has decided to make a change,” and a very young player’s dreams end. The movie highlights how genuinely young all the players are and how many will fall by the wayside trying to gain the holy grail, the Bigs, the Show, the Majors.

The cold ruthless culling of all elite sports looms in the background just as the incredibly fine difference between making it and failing. Yet the players are playing a game that flows from joy, fun and intense competitiveness. A desperate player points out it beats selling appliances at Sears. Crash recognizes the man-child in them all. He can still sneak out with the very young players one night to flood the field, slide in the mud and create a rain day. When the manager complains that the team is not paying attention, Crash reminds him, “they’re kids, scare’em.”
The manager follows his advice with one of the greatest explanations of sport in movie history. Throwing bats on the floor in the shower and cowering the team in the shower stall, the manager screams,

“it’s a simple game, you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball .”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is baseball, pure and clean. I mean how hard can it be hit a rotating 2.78 inches ball at 97 mph with a 2.75 inch piece of ash?

You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.

The movie reminds us that at the core of sport is simple, based upon natural human actions. Yet like great baroque music, these singular themes permit infinite variations that demand high skill from players and induces joy and satisfaction in the spectators.

Crash reluctantly becomes big brother to the young players. With Nuke, Crash has to break Nuke of the habit of relying on talent with no discipline and teach him how to learn. In one memorable incident, Nuke repeatedly shakes off his catcher to throw his “heater.” Crash smiles and lets Nuke throw, of course Crash tells the batter what is coming and the batter hits it a mile, a country mile. Crash gloats over how far the home run travelled and alerts Nuke that Crash let the hitter know to prove to Nuke who is boss. Nuke will have to relearn the lesson constantly.
Despite his callow flakiness, Nuke does not have a bad heart but is spoiled by a world that has value his talent and never asked that he grow up or mature. When Nuke tells Crash “you don’t like me.” And Crash lays out a professional’s credo, “Because you don't respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don't respect the game, and that's my problem. You got a gift….When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall-of-Fame arm, but you're pissing it away.”

Slowly, with pain and wit, Nuke learns these lessons, sort of. He even learns Crash’s famous critique of strike-outs and defense of off speed pitches, Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic.”

The slow comic arc of learning to grow up and take a child’s game seriously is held together by a fun and sexy romance. The movies draws us into the world of aspiring dreams and uneven talent. Not everyone we meet will make the major leagues, in face most will fail. Crash and the movie teach about about resilience and about failure while reminding us, like Field of Dreams, that beneath the game lies the reality and importance of love.

Costner provides a tired lonely dignity to a man who has found his path. He purused it with passion, skill and dignity only to just miss. He scored a “cup of coffee” in the majors and remembers it as a shining moment he can share with the rookies whom will never see the promised land,  “yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once - the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”

The movie reminds us that desire, effort and practice are NOT enough. A player needs a gift, a talent from the gods. Even that is not enough, you need the talent and the discipline and respect to make it all come together. This becomes the lesson that Crash must hand on to Nuke. In the end Nuke does get called up with his gift and the seeds of maturity that Crash has planted, he may have a chance.

At the end the depth of Costner’s own loss and failure are revealed. After Nuke’s call up, Crash ends up at a bar—alone, drinking, ruing his loss. Nuke comes by to thank him, and Costner explodes in fury at the merciless statistical cruelty of baseball. His monologue spits out that the difference between 250 and 300 is 25 hits. 25 dying quails, flares. 25 hits that’s all kept him from the promised land, and he can only stare with awe and anger at the world Nuke will enter with his gift, a world Nuke neither understands or appreciates.

Throughout the movie the triangle among Nuke, Annie and Crash has unfolded with Annie and Crash realizing they belong together in a relation of mature equals, but they can’t act on it during the season to protect Nuke's own fragile ego and burgeoning success.

In the end Crash experiences what we saw at the beginning, “management has decided to make a change,” his manager tells him as he is released. But the manager also tells Crash that he will recommend Crash to be a coach next season, a perfect fit for Crash and baseball. Crash leaves, picks up with the Ashville Tourists and breaks the record, only Annie notices. The movie ends with Crash returning to Annie to begin a real relationship with a woman he can love.

The movie accepts the mythical sense of baseball’s uniqueness and inner joy but does not fall in bloated allegory like The Natural or reverence like The Lou Gehrig Story. Instead it weaves the joy and beauty of the game with the flawed, loopy and intense folks who inhabit its reality. Crash Davis learns and so does Annie that baseball can sustain you but it cannot fulfill you. 

Crash still loves the game and respects its incredible difficulty. He can hand this wisdom on to the next generation and others have seen this. His manager recommends him for a coaching job even as he must cut him. But baseball will be woven into the texture of his life, not be his life, as he move sin with Annie.

As Annie reminds us, “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job.”

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