Saturday, June 15, 2013

Worshipping in the Church of Baseball

"I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology."

Annie (Susan Sarandon)

It's been 25 years since "Bull Durham" premiered in America's theaters, but I can still remember when I first saw it.

I was working at the Arkansas Gazette on the sports copy desk, which required me to work nights and weekends. I had been doing that for nearly 4½ years, and at this time in 1988, I was making plans to move to Texas to pursue my master's degree.

In hindsight, it wasn't the best time to be starting a new relationship. Nevertheless, that is what I was doing.

On one of my nights off, I took a girl named Mary to see "Bull Durham" at a theater in Little Rock. She had seen it before, but she didn't mind seeing it again. She liked it. I hadn't seen it.

It was a delightful movie. The sports genre is rather crowded, but "Bull Durham" brought a fresh quality to its subject, perhaps because it managed to combine sports, drama/romance and comedy almost seamlessly.

Mary was already a baseball fan — the topic accounted for the vast majority of our conversation on our first date — but even if she had no interest in the sport, I think the drama/romance and comedy would have kept her interested in the movie.

The love story part was pretty easy to grasp (and, I must say, Mary was a sucker for a love story). Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) and young hotshot pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) were vying for the affections of Annie, the team's groupie who made a habit of picking one player each season as her personal project. I always thought it was interesting that the on–screen fireworks were strongest between Sarandon and Costner — but, off screen, it was Sarandon and Robbins who had a long–term relationship.

Actually, I suppose, the movie was really about life and love and relationships. It just happened to be set against a sports backdrop. Personally, I found it to be a rather routine kind of love story — albeit with better writing than most — but, like any story, it needed a good hook, and sports provided the hook.

In spite of some marketers' attempts to present it in a different light, "Bull Durham" wasn't really a sports movie. That was a shortcoming that some moviegoers may have found unforgivable. It didn't really bother me at the time because I understood what it was.

Still, it helped to have some knowledge of the game in order to fully appreciate the often–crackling byplay between Crash and Nuke. As any baseball fan will tell you, pitchers and catchers often hold brief conferences on the pitcher's mound, usually to discuss strategy. But the mound conferences in "Bull Durham" were a little different.

Like when Crash and Nuke met on the mound to discuss Nuke's burning desire to "bring the heater" — i.e., throw a fastball. Crash, who had been signed to tutor Nuke, resented his attitude — and told the opposing batter to expect a fastball. The batter, of course, crushed it.

When they met on the mound while the batter was rounding the bases, Nuke muttered in wonder, "That sucker teed off on that like he knew I was gonna throw a fastball!"

"He did," Crash replied.

"How?" wondered a bewildered Nuke.

"I told him," Crash confided to Nuke.

Another time, after Crash told a batter what to expect and the batter drilled the ball over the fence to ruin Nuke's shutout, Crash remarked, "Anything that travels that far ought to have a damn stewardess on it."

But the funniest mound conference probably came when virtually the entire lineup was gathered at the mound, each player with his own crisis to resolve. Nuke thought his eyelids were jammed, one player wanted a live rooster to take the curse off his glove, and no one knew what to give a teammate for his upcoming wedding.

"We're dealing with a lot of shit," Crash told the assistant coach ...

Who replied, "Well, candlesticks always make a nice gift, and maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place setting or maybe a silverware pattern."

I'm quite sure that mound conferences aren't like that in the majors, but in the minors, who knows?