Starting Nine is the method a lineup nerd uses to rank his personal favorites. These are not necessarily the nine all-time best entries of the subject being covered. It’s an exercise in finding the entries that best fit the profile for each spot in the batting order.
I’m a lineup traditionalist: I like dependable table-setters in the 1 and 2 spots, world-beating franchise powerhouses 3rd and 4th, potent sluggers 5th and 6th, hard-nosed role players 7th and 8th, and an underrated, dirt-dog workhorse in the 9-hole.
Realism is big for me in movies. Don’t get me wrong; I love Star Wars, X-Men, Batman, Alien, and plenty of other fantasy, superhero, and sci-fi stuff, not to mention over-the-top nonsense like Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys (the first one only), and Under Siege. But when it comes to sports movies, I want to experience something that I feel I could plausibly experience while watching from the stands. Give me drama, give me action, but don’t give me a 10-run comeback with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
There are some popular selections that won’t make the cut. A single wooden bat that makes it through an entire season drilling home runs before finally breaking during the last game? A squad of gambling ghosts showing up to play ball in an Iowa cornfield decades after their deaths? A pre-pubescent kid breaking his collarbone, magically granting him the ability to throw 100-mph fastballs thereafter?
Don’t waste my time.
I want to get lost in a movie just as much as anyone else, but that doesn’t work for me if I can’t at least imagine existing in the world where that movie takes place. The movies on my list certainly take their share of liberties with plausibility, timing, and convenience, but none of them go far enough to make me cringe at the very existence of a certain scene, line, or result. They manage to be entertaining stories wound into sports without pouring on the clichés, superhuman acts, or tired old tropes that were worn out thirty years before I was born.
These movies are all interesting stories that are well shot and don’t lose us in the final sequence by turning the hero into Arnold Schwarzenegger in shoulder pads.
This is my Starting Nine of sports movies.
1. Rocky (1976)
This is probably the most unrealistic selection in the whole lineup, and it just happens to be the most renowned of the bunch. The heavyweight champion of the world loses his scheduled opponent to an injury, so he grants a title shot to some obscure ham and egger to give the fans a show and salvage a modest payday out of his busted prizefight. Only problem is the challenger “doesn’t know it’s a damn show. He thinks it’s a damn fight.” Rocky pulls off the Cinderella story thing without jamming the impossible dream stuff down our throats too much. It comes really close to doing so, but my favorite thing about the film is that Rocky loses at the end. He didn’t have to win the fight in order to overcome his obstacle. He went the distance with the champ, became a star, and built a profitable legacy that he can use to carve out a decent life with his new girl. Do the sequels shred the whole believability aspect of things? Ya damn right. But I’m not gonna blame that on the original film.
2. North Dallas Forty (1979)
Perhaps the most underrated sports movie of all time, it’s a pseudo-documentation of the hard partying, wild west days of the 1960s Dallas Cowboys. The main character is Phil Elliot, aging wide receiver for the fictitious North Dallas Bulls. Played by the magnificent Nick Nolte, Elliot’s career relies as much on pain pills and cortisone shots as it does on his soft hands and crisp routes. The quarterback feels a lot like “Dandy” Don Meredith, the head coach feels a lot like Tom Landry, and the atmosphere feels a lot like a livery stable that pumps its stock with as many hormones and cattle prods as it takes to keep its thoroughbreds on the racetrack. It points an accusatory finger at the culture of pro football, to the extent that the NFL would not allow any of its likenesses to be used during filming. North Dallas Forty does so many things right. It’s a great docu-drama, a fun buddy movie, and an eye-opening expose of a billion-dollar national institution. Every sports fan should see this, and I don’t say that because everyone needs to know what a dirty business pro football is (who the hell doesn’t know that already?) You have to see this because it’s an incredibly entertaining sports movie.
3. Major League (1989)
I’m a baseball nut, and I’ll meet anybody who claims that this is not the best baseball movie of all time in the parking lot. It’s not cheesy like The Natural or Field of Dreams, and it doesn’t glorify past icons like 61 or 42. Why? Because it’s a baseball movie!!! This sh!t isn’t rocket science or the Peace Corps. It’s a kid’s game that a handful of juvenile jocks are lucky enough to play for a living. This movie is nothing more than a fun romp through a crazy season where the owner of the Cleveland Indians (a few decades away from becoming the Guardians) intentionally assembles a wretched team of nobodies to lose as many games as possible. Major League is the perfect storm of a quirky plot, an incredibly witty screenplay, and an impeccable cast that knows exactly what to do with this type of subject matter. It’s hilarious, it has heart, and it embodies all that is fun and goofy about baseball. But this is no slapstick comedy. By the final half hour, you are fully invested in the outcome of this Indians season and desperately want to see Jake Taylor, Ricky Vaughn, Willie Mays Hayes, and the rest of the boys knock off the hated Yankees (always the perfect villain). This flick knows when to go for the laughs, it knows when to tug at your heartstrings, and it knows when to quit screwing around. When Roger Dorn growls “Strike this mutherf***er out!”, you feel it deep inside your gullet.
4. Any Given Sunday (1999)
Oliver Stone’s football epic seems to have derived a lot of inspiration from North Dallas Forty, but is a lot less subtle in the way it points the finger at just about every aspect of the NFL. The coach is a gridiron junkie who has sacrificed everything in his life for pro football. The veteran team leader is as terrified of playing the game as he is of saying goodbye to it. The up-and-coming franchise player is too enamored with himself to care about the good of the team. The owner is too preoccupied with the business of football to show any respect for the sport of football. And everyone else is too busy getting loaded, getting paid, and getting laid to appreciate the fame and fortune that we all assume we’d enjoy every second of if we were privileged enough to be in their shoes. Any Given Sunday demonstrates just how much the sport of football has lost its way in this modern world of excess, commercialism, and idolatry. The only way to succeed is to look beyond the distractions and look at the game for what it is: 11 guys lining up, getting on the same page, and playing for each other.
5. Friday Night Lights (2004)
The players in this film are pushed to physical and mental hardships that many adults wouldn’t be able to comprehend, and they haven’t even been corrupted yet by the innumerable distractions of professional sports. These kids just want to play ball, but in small town Texas the Play Ball mantra has been replaced with the decree, Be Perfect. The citizens of Odessa, Texas want the boys on the high school football team to quit wasting time with all that book learnin’ and focus on winning games. Additionally, it’s been made clear to the head coach that he’ll be headed for the unemployment line if his team falls short of the state championship, even after the loss of his star running back. The greatest strength of Friday Night Lights is the in-game action, which keeps us riveted to our seats without pushing the envelope in any way. The creators stack the deck a bit too much against the Permian Panthers in the climax, with the dominant final opponent ridiculously portrayed as a squad of supersized killers that haven’t bothered to attempt a punt or field goal all season long. But these football scenes are probably the greatest representation of believable high school football that still manages to entertain a mass audience.
6. Creed (2015)
What a fantastic extension of my leadoff man’s story. In a film that very much mirrors Rocky’s journey while still delineating from it in a variety of other ways, the Italian Stallion passes the torch to Adonis Johnson, a much more nuanced and relatable character than the old southpaw. Whereas Rocky is a tough street hood with a heart of gold that just needed a break, Donnie is a brazen pugilist with a serious chip on his shoulder who seems to vacillate between idolizing and resenting Apollo Creed, the iconic father he never knew. He desperately wants to live up to Apollo’s image, yet begrudges having to change his name to Adonis Creed in order to secure his shot at the light heavyweight championship of the world. Donnie has to battle his opponents, his obstinate trainer, and his own emotional demons while enduring in-ring battles that give us a semblance of believability, an aspect that the Rocky movies abandoned from the get-go. As a film, Creed is every bit as uplifting and emotional as Rocky. As a character, however, Adonis “Hollywood” Creed is miles more interesting to observe than the Stallion.
7. Moneyball (2011)
I’m a baseball fanatic that digs realism, so it should come as no shock that the big screen rendition of Michael Lewis’ sabermetric Bible makes this list. For a decade or so, Billy Beane figured out how to stay on a level playing field in an unfair game where money factories like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox pushed around Mom and Pop shops like the Oakland Athletics. By adopting and adapting Bill James’ analytical tactics of obtaining undervalued players, Beane essentially changed the game amid sneers and eye-rolls from scouts and executives leaguewide who still coveted players with chiseled jawlines and hot girlfriends (“ugly girlfriend means no confidence”). On paper, this doesn’t sound like the elements that make an incredibly rewatchable film … not until you consider the Brad Pitt factor. I don’t know Billy Beane, but if he’s anywhere near as cool, shrewd, and fearless as the character Brad Pitt plays in this movie, I want to be his best friend. I could watch this guy ream out scouts, fleece rival GMs, and tip over water coolers all day.
8. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
I’m old enough to remember when Woody Harrelson was just the dopey bartender from Cheers. Then this movie came along and propelled him and Wesley Snipes into superstardom. White Men Can’t Jump brought trash talking to the main stream. Snipes owned the on-court scenes, dissing his opponents’ looks, their roundball skills, and (of course) their mamas in between no-look passes and rim-rocking dunks. Woody tears it up in his own way, contriving a goofy white boy façade before drilling outside shots to hustle L.A. street ballers out of their hard-earned cash. The film soon becomes a basketball version of 48 Hours, playing up interracial differences, hostilities between coworkers, and the past mistakes coming back to haunt us. I actually liken this movie a lot to my franchise player, Major League (and not just because of the Snipes connection). It develops fantastic chemistry among the main characters while delivering the perfect blend of laughs, excitement, and desperation.
9. Blue Chips (1994)
This is like Bill Mueller hitting in the nine-hole back in 2004. It’s a criminally underrated sports movie that combines masterful acting from Nick Nolte (his second appearance in the lineup), a hot topic of the time (shady NCAA recruiting practices), and the star power of a couple mid-90s basketball icons (Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway). Nolte’s character, college basketball coach Pete Bell, is a legend whose clean program has recently taken a backseat to universities that are willing to pay star players under the table in exchange for their services on the court. Bell hates corruption, but he absolutely despises losing. He soon finds himself reluctantly “playing ball” with the seedy alumni who arrange back-alley deals for the cash, houses, and tractors that are needed to procure Bell a freshman class stacked with blue chip talent that can compete with the top ranked teams in the country. It’s basically a one-man show tracking Bell’s path of justification and guilt, served with a side of killer cameos (Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, Rick Pitino, Bobby Knight, etc.) and garnished with a whole lot of thunderous Shaq dunks. It’s a fun, informative, exciting, and kind of tragic story that every sports fan should check out.
Side Note: I’m pretty sure I bought this in a VHS two-pack with The Program (1993) sometime at the end of last century and watched them back-to-back on a Saturday afternoon. Something tells me that combo was not endorsed by the NCAA.