No, But I Saw the Game

No, But I Saw the Game

On Film / Essays — Jul 16, 2018

Our release of Bull Durham features the following excerpts from a classic New Yorker column by Roger Angell, originally published July 31, 1989. For more on Angell, read Criterion managing editor Anna Thorngate’s interview with the writer, who reflects on the film and the way it undercuts the “national dream” of baseball.

B

aseball movies make baseball fans feel good for the wrong reasons. Watching actors taking their Aunt Hattie cuts at the plate, turning the twelve-second double play (was that slo-mo, or what?), or striking out the side with high-parabola fastballs, we smile unpleasantly in the dark, smug in the knowledge that our sport and its practitioners are beyond imitation. This tingle of superiority isn’t particularly satisfying, since we fans of the game are there in another capacity, as moviegoers; more than anyone else in the audience, we want the baseball on the screen to work, to sweep us up and make us care about the story, so we can forget how badly these guys on the screen play ball. Sometimes that happens, but more often we can feel the old Susp.-of-Disb. gears creaking and groaning inside, particularly during baseball movies in which the plot depends heavily on stuff that happens on the field. Real baseball drama takes its time, as we know, and its thrilling or melodramatic resolutions tend to be minor events—a misplayed grounder, a little flare that drops in behind second, a hit-and-run bouncer that finds its way through the created aperture in the infield defense—which feel gigantic or explosive because they release us from a debilitating anxiety. All the accumulating and seemingly eventless previous innings have been crammed with news and notices and gnawing concerns for the fan in the stands. Does our pitcher have his good breaking ball today, and (a few mi­nutes later) what’s he doing nibbling away at this no. 8 hitter? . . . Why is Straw playing so deep? . . . Why does Davey have Keith guarding the line like that, now that Randy’s out there firing? . . . Hey, look at this—there’s two up-pitches from Browning, he’s beginning to lose it for sure, but let’s get him before they can bring in Franco, okay? . . . Come on now, you guys. C’mon . . .

Not much of this is translatable into movie language, of course, since it is silent and lengthily ongoing, and since the focus of our concern—the difference of a foot or two in the placement of the infield defense, or of millimeters in or out as the pitched ball flashes across the plate—is daunting for the cinematographer and invisible to the inexpert moviegoer. Movies have to keep moving, and thus can’t wait around for the slow, hourglass slippage of baseball time, in a game or in a summer. Baseball is mostly low­lights, but baseball movies must suggest otherwise, often by edited, close-up snatches of bats meeting balls, gloves gobbling up grounders, spiked feet toeing a base, and so on, or by the opposite distortion—the super-slow-motion shot of the batter waiting and tensing as the ball spins in from the mound with all stitches showing, and then, after a flurry of intercut batter movements and gri­maces, operatically soars up and away and, most of the time, into the bleachers. On-screen baseball action leans toward the grotesque: swinging strikes that miss by a mile; wild pitches that hit the screen on the fly or comically nail some bystander on the noggin; and that game- and series- and movie-winning homer into the upper deck, accompanied by rainbow lights, music up, and fan feelings down. Movie baseball is inexorably entertaining, while real baseball, as every fan knows, is too serious, most of the time, to be fun at all.

“It’s the first baseball movie that gets things right without trying: there isn’t a line in it that feels reverent or fake-tough or hurriedly explanatory.”

There have been so many new baseball movies in the past couple of years that it has seemed at times that filmmakers were taking on the form as a kind of penance. Some of the results have been pretty good, or partly good, and some god-awful; one of the movies is just about perfect, to my way of thinking. (It’s Bull Durham, which offers almost the first evidence that the phrase “baseball movie” is not an oxymoron.) As must be clear by now, I put in a lot of time this spring and early summer catching up on the new stuff in the theaters and also hunting down oldies in the video stores and playing them at home. My purpose, I hope, was something more than snickering about movie baseball. I am a fan of both of the celebrated indigenous art forms, and I wanted to try to figure out for myself why they have had such a famously hard time getting together. It also occurred to me that by thinking about the most popular of the recent offerings I might have a fresh notion of what it is that American audiences look for or long for in the sport—catch a glimpse of our baseball unconscious, so to speak, which may affect the game and its future in ways we don’t always understand. More than once, I was tempted to abandon this lightsome task, because the glaring technical drawbacks—the flubs and misplays I have just mentioned—seemed to be telling me to leave the two national pastimes alone, safely tucked away in separate quarters in my head. I hung in there, though.


Now and then when I emerged from the dark this spring, I asked some baseball people and some players which baseball movies they preferred, and it came as a shock to me that some of them disliked Bull Durham. They thought that there was too much sex in it, and that it was bad for the image of the game. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I always have to keep reminding myself that there is as much variety of opinion and taste and private preference among sports people as there is in any other profession; we fans must give the players the last word about baseball authenticity, to be sure, but an opinion poll of their favorite baseball movies wouldn’t tell us much. One doesn’t need Bat Masterson to make up one’s mind about Red River or Shane. But I don’t care what anyone else says about Bull Durham, which is a comic delight and maybe a miracle. It’s the first baseball movie that gets things right without trying: there isn’t a line in it that feels reverent or fake-tough or hurriedly explanatory, or that tries to fill in the uninitiated about what’s going on out there. It assumes you’re going to stay with the game, even in its dreariest, dusty middle innings, when the handful of folks in the stands are slumped down on their spines waiting for something to happen, even a base on balls. It’s an adult homage to the game (“There’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring,” Susan Sarandon says in her now celebrated “Church of Baseball” voice-over), and it’s about people who have been around and have come back to baseball as grown-ups, willing to strip away the clichés and the uplift and the mystical crap to find how strong and funny and rich the sport remains at its center. Its characters talk about the game lightly but with avid pleasure, and they back away a little after they’ve said something sharp or freshly appreciative about it, as if they were asking themselves if it’s really true—is baseball really this great? This is the way a few friends of mine talk about baseball at times—not idle sometime fans, or macho males who are simply sustaining their year-round sports guff, but men and women who have suddenly or slowly attached themselves to the game, usually through some particular team, and then can’t quite believe how wonderful baseball can be, how baffling and heart­breaking, and how rewarding.

Bull Durham came out last year, but it feels like a classic already, and probably needs little recapitulation here. The story—Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), an experienced but beaten-down catcher, a career minor leaguer, is brought down to the Class A Durham Bulls in order to educate and smooth up a great young scatter-arm pitching prospect, Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), who’s headed for the majors if he can only get his stuff and his head together—has a nice balance to it, because it allows its veteran hero to show us, along with Nuke, how the game should be approached and held in mind as well as how it should be played. “Don’t hold the ball so hard,” Crash says to his crazily impatient kid battery­mate. “It’s an egg.” In a later scene, Crash says, “You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance”; Nuke murmurs, “Fear and ignorance,” and of course Crash loses his temper again. But Nuke isn’t really dumb—just careless and in a hurry. He doesn’t have a clue when Crash tells him that strikeouts are fascist and to throw ground balls because they’re more democratic, but in time he begins to pitch better, and slowly he begins to get it, too. Near the end, he listens with sad affection when Crash drunkenly expatiates about the trifling one extra hit per week—a flare, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail—that separates a major-league hitter from a lifelong minor leaguer: the edge of talent that he will never possess.

The movie’s writer and director, Ron Shelton, played minor-league ball for five years, so none of this feels worked up or literary. He’s found actors who can run and throw a little, and who can go through the movements of a double play, but he doesn’t keep cutting away from them in an attempt to jack up the look of the baseball. The pegs and pitches here are probably only a hair above half speed by pro standards (although Nuke does let fly with one fastball that seems to have some pop to it), but the flow is there, and that’s good enough. Shelton’s skills aren’t limited to the diamond. He’s drawn exceptional performances from his three leads, of which the most surprising is Tim Robbins as Nuke (he’s ridiculous and charming on the mound, with his overconfident stare and a hot dog, Valenzuela roll of his eyes in mid-windup), who actually does seem a little smarter and more thoughtful, against all odds, by the time he’s called up to the big show. As Annie, Susan Sarandon is a grown-up, too—beautiful and sexual and sure of herself, kooky and literate at the same time. She picks out Nuke as her summer bedmate, but you know that Crash will get there in the end, because he and Annie are so alike; they’re old enough to know there’s no big hurry. Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis is worn down and beat up but always in charge of things, an old catcher if ever there was one. He looks right not just throwing and swinging the bat but in the way he trudges out to the mound, carrying his mask in his hand and wondering how the hell he got here and what he can say to this boob to make him pay attention, so we can all get back in the shade again. He wants things done right, as they should be in baseball—and everywhere else. Nuke, strumming a guitar on the team bus, sings “She may get woolly, young girls, they do get woolly, because of all the stress” to the tune of “Try a Little Tenderness,” and Crash goes bonkers and grabs the instrument and tells him how to sing the old lyrics properly. “I hate people who get the words wrong,” he says.

Bull Durham is as fresh and funny and surprising about sex as it is about baseball, which is saying a lot. It’s certainly the first movie that ever suggested (and enjoyed) the fact that ballplayers are sexual animals, objects of vivid interest to women. They do beautiful things with their bodies, it says, and we watch them not just to see who’s going to win. This is the ongoing joke about the movie, and of course it holds up. It’s a funny picture, and not only because of its now famous set pieces, like the mound co­n­ference during which the players discuss whether to buy silver candle­­sticks for a teammate who’s about to get married (this wasn’t in the original script), or Crash teach­ing Nuke the clichés he’s going to need when he deals with the big-city media. A friend of mine went to the picture with a man from Israel who thought he knew baseball and knew America but who was startled by the ongoing flood of light laughs from the audience. “What are they laughing at?” he’d whisper in the dark. “What’s funny about that?” Some of those jokes are little jabs at orthodoxy and at the family-value glop of other baseball movies. When Nuke gets the word that he’s going up to the show, his down-home dad, who’s there on a visit, suggests that they all join in a little prayer of thanks, but Annie says, “Oh, let’s not.” And when Crash needs the pine-tar rag during an at bat, the smiling young batboy whispers, “Get a hit,” but Wonderboy isn’t wanted this time. “Shut up,” Crash says, and he goes out to take his hacks.

Bull Durham moves along and takes its time, too, just like baseball. There are nicely extended midgame scenes—Crash muttering to him­­self in voice-over as he works out an at bat against an enemy pitcher, or worrying about Nuke’s head when the busher seems to be closing in on a shutout. Most plans and hopes fail, just as they do in the real game, and when Crash does hit a homer (he’s called it in advance) he makes a mock bow and a “woo woo” gesture to his laughing team­mates in the dugout as he heads on down to first. He knows how lucky he’s been, and so do we. 

Excerpts from “No, But I Saw the Game” copyright © 1991 by Roger Angell. Reprinted in our edition of Bull Durham courtesy of ICM Partners.