By John H. Foote
Growing up, the years eight through twenty I loved hockey. My brothers and I played winter through spring, following our teams. Mine was Boston because of their goalie Gerry Cheevers, who ironically I met later in life.
As a goalie, I loved the sensation of pulling on the thick pads and slipping down my mask. It was said I was decent, sometimes good, hell, sometimes even great, but only sporadically. What I lacked in talent, I made up in brains. I had a very quick glove, was a good skater and fast to get up. But there are some guys you just cannot stop. I memorized each shooter, their strengths, weaknesses, where they like to shoot.
My youngest brother had a cannon of a shot that usually sally hit me or the crossbar, I never saw it. A guy we called Jimmy Joint was worse, he shot from centre and you just never saw it until it hit you or went in. I played in Bush leagues until I was thirty-two, then hung up the pads. My highlight was playing against some Oldtimers from the NHL and winning 6-2, was kind of cool, but man those shots hurt and came fast.
I loved everything about hockey, the smell of the rink, the chilly blast that hits your face when you step on the ice, the sight of a player bearing down on me, skating over the blue line, winding up and firing that puck right at me…loved it. To really love a sport I think you have to have played it. It gets into your soul, the smells, the sound of the puck hitting the boards, the sharp blades cutting into the ice, and that sensation when you make an impossible save.
The love becomes an obsession.
In Bull Durham (1988) the sport is baseball and the love of the game is etched on the weary face of catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), but also on the fans who loyally show up to watch their boys lose. A career minor leaguer who played three weeks in the major, Davis is a fine player, but not as gifted as those he watches head up to “the show”. It turns out he is a great mentor, a brainy player who understands what it takes to be a pro, though he was in the show a short time.
There are athletes across North America who toil in the minors all their lives, never making the big leagues, but they never stop playing. These are the men in Bull Durham, career ball players looking for a chance to be called up to “the show”, the majors, the big deal. The call might never come, but then again it might, and when it does they know their lives will mean something.
Crash tells the team the twenty-one days he spent in the show were the greatest of his life. You can see he means it, but baseball is his religion.
Taking LaRoosh (Tim Robbins), a gifted but undisciplined and wild young pitcher he teaches the kid about the game, about life and how the two merge for a ballplayer. The kid is major league material when he is on his game, the team hopes Crash can bring him along to consistency.
And then there is Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) a beautiful fan of the game who each season takes a player into her bed, teaches him about poetry, literature, baseball and sure, women and sex. Crash adores her but it is LaRoosh she chooses. The two, Crash and Annie become surrogate parents in a twisted way until their obvious attraction for one another overwhelms them. Oh, and the kid develops into a lethal pitcher and gets the call to the show, due to the mentoring from Crash.
This lovely lived-in film feels good from the opening frame, one of those fine films you just know is going to be something very special.
Director/ screenwriter Ron Shelton played minor league baseball, so his astute screenplay is beautifully written, perfectly capturing the very essence of the sport. Small stands surround the immaculate field, but the field is where the luxuries stop. The team does not fly but moves from town to town in a rundown bus, the players carry their own gear, no TV the games are broadcast on radio and followed closely by the loyal fans. They are regular joes, stars in the small towns, a heartbeat away from the show, but most will never get there.
Costner is superb as Crash Davis! Why was this actor not nominated for an Oscar for this? A wise player as much as a wise-ass, when Nuke will not listen to him, blowing off the signals Crash boldly tells the hitter what is coming and watches him pound it over the fence. Gradually Nuke learns to listen, becoming a great pitcher under the mentoring of Crash. The actor eases into the role as comfortably as a well-worn baseball mitt fits a catcher.
Tim Robbins is hilarious as the wild man Nuke, throwing balls at incredible speeds, sometimes over the plate! Watching him unwind his six-five frame into a powerful pitch, his eyes looking skyward, you would swear he has been a Major League ballplayer. When he gets the call to the show, he does not boast, he quietly realizes the staggering impact Crash had on him, and he thanks the older player.
Susan Sarandon has always suggested sex. Her gorgeous eyes, her slim shape, her walk, the woman is the very picture of eroticism. Here she gives one of her best performances as Annie, who takes Nuke to her bed but slowly realizes she loves Crash.
An excellent love story, baseball film, and character study, one of the eighties very best films.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.