Spring training has begun, Ted Leitner is on the radio calling the games and my Padres have a new manager… I’m thinking Wild Card for my Padres this season. I’m thrilled with the idea of Jon Jay putting on a San Diego uniform; no, he’s not a superstar, but he is what this team needs plenty more of if it ever wants to win. He’s a guy that can hit in Petco Park, knows how to field his position and helps make others around him better. I’m convinced that Melvin Upton can finally emerge from his brother Justin’s shadow and earn his huge contract. Then again, last season I was sure we were going to win the National League West when we signed James Shields.
With pitching like Shields, Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy throwing and Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers knocking the ball all over the field and into the cheap seats, I was confident the Padres would win 90 games. I knew the defense would be weak, but the pitching and hitting would keep things interesting. Well, it turns out I was only off by about a dozen games. Manager Bud Black got fired and the Padres went through Dave Roberts for a game and Pat Murphy for the rest of the year. Shortstop was a vacant hole for the Padres where division title hopes went to die and Andrew Cashner looked lost on the mound.
Full disclosure time: I was also confident that Mike Pagliarulo was the blue collar, hard-nosed player the Pads needed and that Brian Lawrence had the stuff to win 20 games. I got all sorts of giddy when the Padres signed Willie McCovey (granted, I was just a kid and he was a Hall of Famer) and brought up guys like Andy Benes and Tucker Ashford. I love baseball. I have a ceaseless dedication to my Padres and every year during Spring Training, I’m convinced this is the Padres’ year. I’ve been thinking that since I was six years-old and Nate Colbert held down first base. I’ll be right one of these years.
I’ve been watching baseball movies my whole life too. Here’s a bunch worth watching.
The Natural (1984)
The Odyssey redone as a dark book and a much happier movie. They both work. Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, a child phenom whose career is sidetracked when a woman tries to shoot him and jumps to her death. Years later, her gets his chance at the big leagues and leads the lowly New York Knights to success. Along the way he meets gamblers, dangerous women and is re-united with his true love. Call it sappy if you have to, but there are few movies that have such a satisfying pay-off.
Damn Yankees (1958)
The Washington Senators stink on the field. Their lone fan makes a deal with the devil. Musical numbers ensue. Great fun, amazing choreography and an underdog story all tied into a neat package.
Eight Men Out (1988)
John Cusack is awesome as Buck Weaver, D.B. Sweeney is flawlessly cast as Shoeless Joe Jackson in a brilliant film by John Sayles. The story about the team that threw the 1919 World Series with the most heartbreaking line ever uttered. As the team leaves the courtroom, a young fan with a dirty face looks up from the crowd and says, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” My heart broke just typing that.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
A documentary of the little-remembered Portland Mavericks, a minor league team owned by Hollywood veteran Bing Russell. Back in 1973, they were the only independant minor league team operating. With no Major League affiliation and playing in a city that many felt was a wasteland for pro baseball, the Mavericks future looked bleak at best. Interviews with former Mavericks, most of whom were rejects and outcast from every other team, provide insight into the team’s success. They shattered attendance records, hired the first female general manager in organized baseball and signed Bing’s son, actor Kurt Russell to play the infield. They also resurrected the career of “Ball Four” author Jim Bouton.
Sadly, they also did not last long. Which is a shame, because baseball is a sport full of traditionalists and statistics-minded people pouring over WHIP, RBI, WAR and other acronyms. Every once in awhile, you need a group of dudes in filthy uniforms who just want to play the game and have fun.
The Oakland A’s were a dynasty in the early 70s. Names like Catfish Hunter, Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando made headlines for their on field heroics almost as often as their off-field fights. Owner Charlie O. Finley paid them to grow facial hair and wear hideous colored uniforms. He also paid them to win. And they did that a lot. But the reality of baseball and free agency caught up with the A’s. Finley sold the team after the great athletes had moved on to greener pastures and the A’s devolved into a team that won sometimes and lost in new and unique ways.
By the time he took over as general manager, Billy Beane figured out that he had to think different to succeed. So, he compiled players that other teams did not want, the guys who were under-valued. With the aid of computer-generated analysis to acquire new players on a limited budget. Brad Pitt stars as Beane in a well-made version of a very math-heavy book about baseball.
Field of Dreams (1989)
A guy (Kevin Costner) hears voices telling him to make a baseball diamond in his cornfield. The ghosts of major leaguers past come to play. The townspeople think he’s crazy, but he finds answers to questions in his life he was not aware he was searching for. After this movie, I had to go see my dad.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
A low-key but powerful movie with Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarity star as a not-too-bright dying catcher and a star pitcher. Moriarty is Henry “Author” Wiggen and De Niro is Bruce Pearson, the two play off each other in subtle, interesting ways. The only time the disease is alluded to is when someone mentions “it’s named after some guy named Hodgkin.” Other than that, there is the touching moment when Pearson’s dad came to see him and sums up the mood perfectly. “My son got one shit deal,” he says to Author in the tunnel under the stadium. As the season goes along and the catcher gets sicker, the star pitcher learns to think of more than himself.
A version of the story was first produced as an hour-long live TV drama in 1956 on the United States Steel Hour. It featured a young Paul Newman as Wiggen and Albert Salmi as Pearson. I rented it years ago at a Video Library and always thought it was superior to the very good version mentioned above. Some stories can be successful, and very different, in multiple retellings.
Take Me Out To The Ballgame (1949)
It’s a musical about turn of the (previous) century baseball with Frank Sinatra. Esther Williams is as lovely and talented as always.
Angels In The Outfield (1951)
A female reporter blames the Pittsburgh Pirates’ brutal losing streak on the abrasive manager who leads a bad team. When the manager hears the voice of an angel, he tries to mend his ways. An orphan girl who is a Pirates fan prays for her team to get better. She starts to see angels on the ball field aiding the hapless Pirates. Remade without nearly as much success.
Mr. Baseball (1992)
Tom Selleck is Jack Elliot, an aging big leaguer who ends up playing in Japan. There is something funny about Selleck facing the culture shock of a new country, a new league, and new rules. He falls in love, has some success and some failure along the way and gets to keep playing the game he loves.
The Kid From Left Field (1979)
Gary Coleman manages the San Diego Padres. Okay, this movie is horrible. But I had to include it because it has my Padres. There really is no other reason to watch it, other than those gorgeous mustard and chocolate uniforms.
The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
Bingo Long is a star Negro League who takes to the road with a talented band of barnstormers through the small towns of the Midwest in the 1930’s challenging white teams along the way. Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor star in a movie with some of the most realistic on the field action of any baseball movie.
Long Gone (1987)
The Tampico Stogies are a low minor-league baseball team that does not do a whole lot of winning. There’s the cheap owners who constantly bump heads with its star player and manager, Cecil ‘Stud’ Cantrell (William Peterson). Cantrell’s fortunes improve when he finds an all glove, no hit second baseman Jamie Weeks (Dermot Mulroney) and a hard-hitting catcher Joe Brown with skills to burn. The only problem is, he’s black and this is the south in the 1950’s. So, they come up with a plan to fool everyone into thinking he’s Jose Brown and does not speak English. Virginia Madsen looks amazing and Teller gets a rare speaking role.
The Rookie (2002)
The true story of a Texas baseball coach who makes the major league after agreeing to try out if his high school team made the playoffs. Dennis Quaid looks the part and there is believable on field action.
Roy Dean Bream (William Russ) plays a veteran minor league hurler who is barely hanging on in 1957. The new kid on the team is shy but talented Tyrone Debray (Glenn Plummer). The two forge a friendship, partly because neither one is terribly popular with their teammates. A has-been and a young African American in the south… it’s no wonder. Bream teaches Debray his secret pitch, “the Bream Dream” and imparts his knowledge to the rookie. Bream is the personification of every kid who dreams of being a big leaguer one day when the one day never happens. He made, but just for a cup of coffee and a reality check. The clock is running out on the aging Bream, and he sees the potential for success in Debray, even in the face of racism and small-minded teammates. Deirdre O’Connell is delightful as Inez Brice, a kind woman in an unkind town.
Filthy rich, eccentric owner, T.J. Banner, adopts a feral cat who becomes an affectionate pet. Then T.J. dies, leaving the Brooklyn Loons and most of his riches to the cat. A solid screwball comedy with Ray Milland and Orangey in the title role. Before the internet was filled with videos of cats playing pianos, there was an entire movie of a cat who plays baseball.
The Comrades of Summer (1992)
Joe Mantegna is Sparky Smith, a recently fired big league manager, hired to teach Russians to play baseball. The Olympics are coming, and the Russians need a baseball team to compete. Mantegna pulls off the role of a fish out of water and a gruff manager and the outcome may not be a surprise, but it’s a baseball movie and it features awkward people trying to forge a team. What’s not to love?
The Stratton Story (1949)
The true story of Major League pitcher Monty Stratton (Jimmy Stewart) who loses a leg in a hunting accident. Kind of tear-jerking, sort of a triumph of will. A movie worth watching.
It is defined as a slow pitch that has virtually no spin and moves erratically, typically made by releasing the ball from between the thumb and the knuckles of the first joints of the index and middle finger. It is the toughest pitch to hit, throw or catch. It is the knuckleball and it is a tricky thing. It’s also the subject of this documentary. The knuckleball is a pitch kept alive by Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox and R.A. Dickey of the Mets during the 2011 Major League Baseball season. There’s also a bounty of great interviews and insights from Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, and Jim Bouton. Knuckleballers are a small, fiercely proud fraternity who pass the finer points of the pitch down to the next generation of those willing to learn. It’s the pitch that moves around and flutters its way up to homeplate.
Fear Strikes Out (1957)
True story of the life of Jimmy Piersall, who battled mental illness to achieve stardom in the bigs. Played by Anthony Perkins, a very talented actor who has absolutely no baseball playing abilities, “Fear” works if you ignore Perkins’ clumsy attempts to look comfortable on a baseball diamond. Watch it for the great acting. Try and ignore the baseball.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)
The life and career of Hank Greenberg, the first major Jewish baseball star in the Major Leagues. It’s a tale told with archival film footage and plenty of interviews with Jewish and non-Jewish fans, Greenberg’s former teammates, friends, and family. Greenberg endured anti-semitism while playing firstbase for the Detroit Tigers. His hitting and fielding made him a hero and source of inspiration throughout a Jewish community starved for sports idols. Greenberg lead the Tigers to dominance in the 30’s, even against the vaunted Yankees.
American Pastime (2007)
There were heroes everywhere during World War II. Many came from the seas, the skies and the battlefields. Some came from internment camps in the middle of America. Japanese families were uprooted from their daily lives and relocated into camps and forced to prove their loyalty. Inside their lives was an enduring joy: baseball. What is more American than baseball? Not much, especially not in the 40’s. The story is basic, the acting is solid but not spectacular, but “American Pastime” tells the small story of a part of our history that too often gets forgotten.
Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues after Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday were forced out back in the late 1800’s. A color barrier existed and Robinson broke it. He faced racism, hatred and plenty of high inside pitches. Boseman is great, showing the anger he could not unleash and the undeniable desire and talent he had to play baseball at it’s highest level. Harrison Ford is Branch Rickey, the owner who signed Robinson and helped guide him to success. Alan Tudyk is amazing and appalling as Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. The racist rant unloaded on Robinson caused major embarrassment for his team, and followed him the rest of his life.
The only complaint I have is that there is no film for Larry Doby, a great player for the Cleveland Indians and the first African American in the American League. He came up the same year as Robinson, suffered the same hatred and barely gets a mention. Look him up, Larry Doby. A great man in his own right.
Million Dollar Arm (2014)
A Disney film based on a true story. Desperate and failing in his job as a sports agent, J.B.Bernstein is inspired by reality shows and cricket games on TV, he gets an idea. Jon Hamm is J.B. and the bold and crazy idea of scouring India in the hopes of finding cricket players and training them to become pro baseball players. His partner Aash is portrayed by Aasif Mandvi with great comic timing (as an aside, pick up a copy of Mandvi’s book, “No Land’s Man.” It is funny and insightful).
After a long, sometimes comical, search J.B. finds two talented, but non-cricket playing, youths, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. He takes his prospects to Los Angeles where they find mastering a new and complicated sport as strangers in a strange land a daunting challenge. It’s a Disney movie, so you know there will be a happy ending. It’s also based on a true story, so it also has to be an honest ending too. “Million Dollar Arm” is both. It’s also a fun movie to watch.
Trouble With the Curve (2012)
Amy Adams and Clint Eastwood are a father and daughter with a love of baseball and an emotional cavern between them. He’s a scout losing his vision, she’s the young lady that falls for the failed can’t-miss kid (Justin Timberlake, who was very believable). There’s the latest can’t-miss kid who hits tape-measure home runs and the only thing bigger than his biceps is his attitude. Then there’s the poor kid who works at a seedy motel and somehow catches the attention of Adams. There are better baseball movies, but this one is not bad. Also, if you want to see a film about baseball with John Goodman that doesn’t stink up the joint like, “The Babe,” this is pretty much your only choice.