Players and catchers arriving at spring training facilities is a much more reliable omen that winter is slowly marching toward spring than Punxsutawney Phil, though Phil is cuter and doesn’t demand millions of dollars to perform.
I marked the start of the Grapefruit League season getting underway by watching one of my favorite baseball movies, Bull Durham.
The film revolves around Crash Davis, a catcher and minor-league lifer who has a chance to set the record for most home runs in the minors, a dubious distinction he would rather not acknowledge. Kevin Costner portrays Crash perfectly, a veteran who knows his dream of having a career in “the show” (the majors) will never come to reality. He is assigned to the Durham Bulls to help a promising young pitcher develop into a major leaguer.
That pitcher, Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), thinks he’s already made it because he’s bought a Porche with his signing bonus. He’s got a cannon for an arm, but has trouble getting the ball across the plate. It’s Crash’s job to help him reach his potential, while teaching him how to be a professional ball player.
But the two of them both long for Annie Savoy. You could call Annie a groupie, but it is clear she loves baseball, and has studied its nuances. Which doesn’t stop her from finding a young player to mentor in romance and the bedroom each year. This season she has chosen Nuke, but it’s clear she and Crash have a connection. Thus the film becomes a romcom, as well as a sports film.
Susan Sarandon is sparkling as Annie, who is telling the story through voice over narration. She and Costner have wonderful onscreen chemistry.
The film was written and directed by Ron Shelton, who was in the Baltimore Orioles minor-league system for five seasons. That intimate knowledge of life in the minors imbues Bull Durham with scenes on the field and in the locker room that feel utterly authentic. Costner played ball in high school, and it shows with how adroitly he handles a bat and glove. All the on-field extras from the Bulls and the teams they play were ball players. The movie was shot on location and one of the owners of the Durham Bulls was a producer, who helped get the minor league ambiance perfect, right down to the tobacco-juice squirting coaches.
In today’s sports sections (whether in papers or on line), baseball is reported mostly as a business, where players are judged by their salaries. Bull Durham reminds us that baseball is a game, played by real humans, most of whom just love the beauty of the sport.
This is what puts it at or very near the top of my list of favorite baseball movies.