Thursday, April 07, 2011

Playing Ball

A new baseball season has begun.

It is a time of new life — and of remembering when life was new. For many of us, those memories involve baseball, the smell of dirt and grass on a warm spring day, a light breeze in your face, a glove or a bat in your hand.

Some movies bring back memories like that. Such a movie made its debut on this day in 1976 — "The Bad News Bears" — and, while it didn't exactly mirror my childhood memories, it does bring back a specific memory to me.

I don't recall hearing much about the movie before I saw it at the theater. What I do remember about the day I saw it was that it was perhaps the last time my brother and I went to a movie with my grandmother — just three of us. If there was a later occasion when just the three of us went to a movie, I don't remember what it was.

My brother and I were both teenagers by that time, and we were getting a bit old to be going to movies with our grandmother, but she insisted that she wanted to take us to see this movie.

I must confess that I felt somewhat obligated. I remembered years earlier, when she and my grandfather had visited my family in our home in Arkansas, and my grandfather wanted to drive me to school one morning. But I was short–sighted. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to ride in the bus with my friends, as I did every day.

In the end, Grandpa relented, but I can still hear him complaining to my mother, "All my friends get to take their grandchildren to school."

In hindsight, I can see I denied him that pleasure. And it is a regret that has remained with me all these years.

I never had the chance to make it up to him. He died a month later.

In 1976, I decided that, if it would make my grandmother happy to take me to see a movie, it was worth a couple of hours of my time. But, after I saw it, I couldn't help wondering why she wanted to see it.

Maybe she was drawn in by the casting. My grandmother was a fan of Walter Matthau, who was the star of the film. As I have written here, her fondness for Matthau went back at least to his work in "The Odd Couple" — and might have gone back farther than that.

It is possible, I guess, that the only thing she knew about the movie before she saw it was that Matthau was in it. At least, that is what I assumed at the time.

She was an avid reader of movie reviews in the Dallas newspaper, but I don't remember her saying anything about what the critics said about that movie. If she had read a review of it, she might have been a bit put off by it. There was a lot of language in it that she almost certainly didn't like — and it's hard for me to imagine that, in the straight–laced city that Dallas was at that time, the reviewers didn't at least mention that children were using objectionable and offensive language throughout the film.

In fact, I remember stealing glances at her while we watched the movie on a warm early summer afternoon in Dallas. I wanted to see how she reacted to the vulgarity and the ethnic slurs that came from the mouths of several children, one in particular.

It was hard to tell much in that darkened theater, but she seemed to enjoy the movie and never mentioned the language to me — or anyone else (at least not within my hearing range). My memory is that, when the three of us returned from the movie, she was full of praise for the story and the acting and laughed as she recalled several scenes.

I don't know what she thought of Matthau's co–star, Tatum O'Neal — who had won an Oscar for her performance in "Paper Moon" a few years earlier. We never discussed O'Neal.

For his part, Matthau also was coming off an Oscar–winning performance. But the performance wasn't his, it was George Burns' in the film in which they co–starred, 1975's "The Sunshine Boys."

In a way, I guess Matthau's character was a precursor to Tom Hanks' in "A League of Their Own." Matthau was a drunken manager of a Little League team that was getting pulverized in every game — until he brought in a couple of "ringers." Then the team started winning and wound up facing its rival in the championship.

A couple of the other adults in the cast would have been familiar to audiences in 1976 — Vic Morrow was in it, and so was Joyce Van Patten — but none of the other children has gone on to do much in movies. Brandon Cruz appeared as Bill Bixby's son in the TV series The Courtship of Eddie's Father in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but, other than that ...

Not even O'Neal, whose career has been a bit sporadic in the last 35 years, did much after "The Bad News Bears." Yes, she's been in some movies. Yes, she's been on some TV shows. But her career seems to have fizzled as she got older.

The makers of the film knew how to set audiences up for sequels and remakes, though. "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training" came along the following year, and that was followed the next year by "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan," neither of which came close to matching the original.

Then, about a quarter of a century later, Hollywood issued a remake of the original starring Billy Bob Thornton. I've heard it wasn't bad, but I've only seen clips.

I guess I inherited my grandmother's appreciation for Matthau.

And I guess I figured that you can't improve on perfection.