Friday, October 19, 2012

For Love of the Game: The Costner Baseball Movie Trilogy

Just a quick celebration. In 1999 the Tigers beat the Yankees in this fine movie, yesterday they swept them for real in the ACLS!!!

Kevin Costner has made three fine baseball movies. The movies create an accidental but powerful arc covering baseball’s myths and narratives. The trilogy also reinforces a basic truth about the power and limits of sport as a way of life. The collective movies are not only enjoyable—especially Field of Dreams and Bull Durham—but they create a counter-narrative about the personal lived reality of a professional athlete. The movies’ dissection of how a professional athlete’s love of sport threatens their capacity for intimate connection and humanity.

For Love of the Game joins an aging pitching star Billy Chapel in the autumn of his career. The aging vet has just learned that his team, the Detroit Tigers, will be sold, and part of the deal includes his being traded to San Francisco. Billy does not satisfy a cost/benefit analysis for the new owners. Billy has spent his entire career and earned his fame and fortune in Detroit. The night before Billy also learn that his estranged girlfriend Jane Aubrey played by Kelly Preston will not reconcile. Recalling an earlier point she made, “You're perfect. You, and the ball, and the diamond, you're this perfectly beautiful thing…You don't need me.”

The next morning dejected and hung over Chapel heads for the ballpark to pitch and must decide about the trade before the game is over. The movie braids his nine innings with his troubled relationship with Jane. The movie unfolds one inning at a time playing in a raucous and hostile Yankee Stadium building to an improbably perfect game opportunity as the scuffed and awkward story of Billy’s adult personal life plaits between innings.

The movie moves slowly. It possesses neither the self-conscious mythologizing of Field of Dreams not the iconoclasm or humor of Bull Durham. Its stately progression led some reviewers to find it boring, and it remains the least favorite of the trilogy. I believe it is undervalued and feels true to baseball and the themes of the first two movies.
The first them unfolds touching  on the the harsh reality and discipline of an aging athlete, an aging star  facing mortality. In one conceit Costner starts each pitch with a mental imperative “clear the mechanism." When he does this the jeering Yankee fans (is there any other kind?), the scoreboard, even his own teammates recede, and he channels his presence and skill. The moment captures the experience athletes or any high achieving professional recount when they arrive at “flow.” Their practice, focus and situational awareness allow them to deploy their skills where the conscious and unconscious blend into a smooth inner consistency and quality. When it fails him in the movie, we know that he has reached his own limits.
The second theme unfolds in the awkward, tenuous and sometimes touching relationship between Billy and a cautious and burned single mother Jane Aubrey and her daughter Jena Malone as Heather. They meet when Billy saves her from a flat tire and ends up taking her to a baseball game against her will.
She points out, “I need a regular guy, not the guy in the Old Spice commercial.” Missing her irony and metaphor completely, Billy reminds her he was in the Right Guard commercial. Jane usually feels like a fish out of water being with a star athlete of a game she knows nothing about among wives and groupies she shares little with. Yet Costner and she stumble into a kind of intimacy and mutual joy. Costner passes the test so many men fail when they meet single moms. He actually enjoys the “family” feeling and likes being a clumsy, almost, sometimes dad.
Chapel grows to enjoy their world together. But both sides remain so wounded and protected that they agree to a “man’s deal” where they can see other people. Of course Jane does not see anyone else, but Costner reminding us of the man-child (a grown up Nuke LaLoosh from Bull Durham?) lurking in so many athletes sleeps with his masseuse. “What about the deal!” he asks when Jane surprises him only to be be shocked by seeing a scrambling nubile half dressed masseuse.
Jane wants more from the relationships, more than Billy has given to anything except baseball. When she asks him “have you ever had your heart broken?” “Yeah, he replies, “when we lost the pennant in ‘87.” She comes to believe he can never commit to love because he is perfect with his ball and game. Perfect on the perfect baseball diamond so enshrined in Field of Dreams. Billy resembles many athletes and high performing professionals. They feel so in command and at home in their professional world that this lures them into a belief in its own moral and emotional self-sufficiency.
The movie’s turning point occurs when Billy badly cuts his hand and is told by doctors and the team he is finished. His entire career is in jeopardy. He dreads the loss purpose and withdraws from the relationship to focus obsessively on rehabilitation.
Jane realizes that his identity and love lie with the game, not with her. Losing the game shatters his sense of worth and willingness to love. The love of the game undermines his love of her.
His terror at the loss lies not just in its threat to his self-worth but it reminds him that a professional athlete remains a depreciating asset and no more despite the headlines and hero worship. As long as his skill returns a reasonable benefit for its cost, he will be retained. Bull Durham and Love of the Game, however, make clear, every player lives pursued by younger, hotter and better players seeking to take his place. Every athlete is replaceable.
Billy’s friend and mentor, the old owner of the Tigers, sees the trade to the Giants as a chance to leave with dignity. Billy can retire before the trade occurs at the end of the game. The owner does not want Billy traded and devalued into a painful eclipse that so many fading stars experience. At the end Billy takes the owners advice after reflecting on his life and writes on a baseball that he is leaving "for love of the game."
The three movies unite in their insistence upon the priority of humanity to the allure of sport.
At the end of Field of Dreams, Moonbeam Graham achieves his dream of playing with the greatest players of his time. He loves and glories in it, but when a little girl’s life is threatened by choking on a hot dog, he steps back across the line to rejoin his life as a country doctor. He saves the girl and looks back at his moment with the players with satisfaction but not regret. In Bull Durham Crash Davis plays out his minor league career and sets the minor league home run record. He ends his playing career to begin as a coach. But he returns to Annie where two shopworn but authentic people try to create a life together.
Billy Chapel pitches a perfect game to cap his career. Jane has seen it while waiting for a delayed flight at the airport. He beats the New York Yankees. The game makes clear as all “perfect” games do how critical his teammates are to the achievement. He achieves the pinnacle and at this moment retires.For an ancient Greek this would be the moment to die, at the perfect peak, the moment from which his career can only be downhill. But alone at night, alone at night in his luxurious hotel suite, he cries. He meets Jane at the airport before she leaves and reveals the key truth any professional athlete faces when they sacrifice their personal life for their professional life,
I believe that if you give something your all it doesn't matter if you win or lose, as long as you've risked everything put everything out there…I did it my entire life. I did it with the game. But I never did it with you, I never gave you that….well last night should've been the biggest night of my life, and it wasn't. It wasn't because you weren't there.
Baseball, achievement, sport, profession, even perfection in all its cold beauty cannot maintain intimacy, connection or purpose. The magnificence of achievement and a perfect moment linger but a second. For Love of the Game completes the theme of Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. Sports can be a great and hard profession, even a way of life, but in the end, athletics will not complete a person’s humanity.
The trilogy insists that sports, even baseball, remains a game, just a game. While sport, like all professions, tempts people to confuse it with life, life involves more and wise people learn this.


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