Welcome to my series of reviews of baseball movies. Baseball is the sport that translates best to film – there’s ample pausing for dramatic effect, players are in distinct positions in the camera’s frame, and it has the grandest characters. It clearly has the best movies of any sport, and that’s what we’re gonna break down here. I’ll try my best to avoid cheesy puns like “Bull Durham hits it out of the park!” or “42 swings and misses!” – but no promises.
There are a lot of great lines in Bull Durham, a sharply written film. The “beliefs” monologue at the beginning, any of Annie’s speeches, or some quippers like, “You think Dwight Gooden leaves his socks on?” all stand out.
But there’s a repeated mantra in the film that always gets me:
“It’s a simple game. You throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”
I doubt that Bull Durham can take credit for this wisdom. It’s been attributed to old-timer Casey Stengel, which is certainly possible as some of the film’s musings clearly take inspiration from his witticisms, but it sorta just feels like an ethos that just exists.
And the reason that I love it so much, and the reason that I love Bull Durham so much, is because this baseball hymnal reminds us that the game really is just that simple. It’s a game. Throwing, catching, winning, losing – just like any other game.
We’ve turned baseball into a computation. Batting average wasn’t enough, wins and losses weren’t enough – we needed hard hit ball percentage, spin rate, barreled ball rate, ultimate zone rating, and the biggest lie of them all: xWOBA.
I’ve fallen into this trap. You’ve fallen into this trap. I try to claw my way out of it sometimes, and Bull Durham helps me do that.
It’s about the minor leagues, where baseball seems simpler. It’s about baseball as a way of life, a religion, and most importantly, a game.
You’ve probably seen Bull Durham. It’s an excellent sports movie because it gets the sporting right and it gets the movie-making right – Sports Illustrated and Rotten Tomatoes have both named it the best sports movie, showing that it gets love from both camps.
But, if you haven’t: It’s single-A ball and Ebby Calvin LaLoosh has a hell of an arm (he can throw a whopping 95 MPH), but, as the movie states over and over again, “He’s got a million dollar arm and a five cent head.” It’s rookie ball, and he’s the greenest of the bunch.
He’s mentored through his first professional season by ten-plus-year minor league veteran Crash Davis, a catcher who’s been tasked with keeping the rookie’s head above water, and Annie Savoy, a Durham Bulls groupie who takes it upon herself to service one player a year; as their lover and teacher. She’s the one that nicknames him “Nuke,” the perfect nickname for this disaster waiting to happen.
“I figured that if the tale was about a ménage à trois, it wouldn’t come across as a baseball story,” writes writer/director Ron Shelton in his 2022 behind-the-scenes book The Church of Baseball. “If the woman was sleeping with one of them and the other one was the right guy, well, you didn’t have to understand the infield-fly rule to connect with the drama.”
And yes, the romance aspect, the drama, and the plot-forwardness somehow manages to avoid being trite. Susan Sarandon plays Annie. In a career full of sexy performances, this is perhaps her sexiest. She connects well with both men, going kiss-or-kill a few times with baseball movie legend Kevin Costner as Crash, her equal in baseball dedication and understanding, while she steams up the camera lens with Tim Robbins as Nuke, her real-life future husband, for any indication of chemistry.
All that stuff works. It goes without saying that this film is on point with the movie part of the term baseball movie. “Making a good and successful movie is a minor miracle every time,” Shelton adds in The Church of Baseball’s introduction.
But I find it more impressive that the movie gets the baseball part right as well. Before making movies, Shelton was a minor league baseball player. He brings that authenticity of experience to the production. He nails the emotional aspects, such as the joy of being called up and the dejection of being sent down, while also paying homage to the idiosyncratic dogma of pre-game rituals and superstitions. “I’m not a superstitious person, but I’m a very superstitious ballplayer,” says Shelton on an extra feature included on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray.
What he really brings is a love of the game. It’s a movie about love in all regards – the passion, lust, and reverie that we see in the main trio for sure, but also the love of baseball. A different kind of love. A kind of love that doesn’t always love you back. The kind that will often reward your own love with punishing despair.
Apropos of the title of Shelton’s tell-all, Annie finds baseball a religious experience. She finds it spiritual, sexual, revitalizing, as necessary to her as the air she breathes. “I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones,” she explains in the film’s opening monologue, “and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball.”
Meanwhile, Crash finds the game to be his complete lifestyle. That’s partially because the game won’t let go of its grip on him, forcing him to play bus ball for so long that he sets minor league records that feel bittersweet. After a while, he knows it’s not gonna be about The Show (his cup of coffee was probably his only taste). It’s about the game. Doing it right, playing it right. Calling the right pitches and getting a hold of one. Passing on the game’s inherited wisdom.
He passes it on to Nuke, who learns to control his wild fastball and keep it out of the press box. He learns how to take care of himself; his body, his grooming, his routine. He learns how to be a ballplayer.
And when you cut out all of the numbers, the stats, the predictions, and the money lines, that’s what this is all about, right? Few people who love baseball found their way in through delta_home_win_exp. Those things are fine and have their place in the modern sport, but sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that it’s just a game of hitting and catching and throwing and winning and losing and getting rained out. That’s enough for the game to be beautiful, nourishing, eternal, and yes, romantic.