Take them out for the ball games on video


Let's take as our proposition the following: You've bitten into this All-Star Game stuff totally, you can't wait for the game, and, in the meantime, you want more baseball, baseball, baseball, baseball. So off you go to the local vid parlor. What to rent?

Try one of these.

"The Natural," Baltimorean Barry Levinson's upbeat rendering of Bernard Malamud's luminous and tragic first novel that drew its inspiration from Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" and "Casey at the Bat." But . . . do you think Hollywood is going to let mighty Redford strike out? Let me tell you what a tragic dimension gets you in Hollywood: the door, and don't let it hit you on the way out. The material has been recast as a typical story of triumph, filmed gorgeously in Caleb Deschanel's rich, dark, "classical" tones so that it looks like George Bellows's "Stag at Sharkey's" reimagined as a baseball movie. Not as good as Levinson's Baltimore films (but what is?), "The Natural" still gets in enough pure baseball sentimentalized mythology to make it worthwhile.

"Field of Dreams" always gets me in trouble, because I was one of seven people in America who thought it was phony as a fourteen-dollar bill. But, since this is a period of celebration and good feeling, I'm going to be a grown-up and lie about it. I'm going to grit my teeth and think good thoughts and try and tell myself that . . . I . . . really . . . love . . . this$*!! . . . movie. It's a wonderful, sentimental, sensitive story about an Iowa farmer (the great Kevin Costner) who gets a vision, and plows under the west 40 to con- struct a ball field. Out of the corn come the 1919 Black Sox led by the great Southern country hardball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, played by the great Southern country actor, Ray Liotta. Loved the touch of the Jersey accent. Anyway . . . rounding up various people, including irascible '60s novelist, Costner manages somehow to reach through baseball nostalgia and confront the game's Oedipal roots, because of course everyone knows the pitcher is the father and the batter is the son (I believe, oh, I believe) and ultimately he has a catch with his own dead dad, healing the rift between the generations. I love this movie and if I say it 100 times, maybe I'll begin to believe it.

Sassier by far is "A League of Their Own," which reclaims baseball's obscured feminist offshoot. During the war -- the Big One -- when Ted Williams was off gunning for Zeros in the Pacific, some wise guys got the idea of starting a woman's professional league to offer as a substitute. They thought it would be a good joke, sort of like lady mud wrestling. Except the women who played it didn't get the joke; what they got was a chance to step out of their nylons and play a half-decade's worth of country hardball. This probably isn't where feminism began, but it didn't hurt it either. The film, featuring enchanting performances by both Geena Davis as a terrific ballplayer and Tom Hanks as a drunken ex-Major League manager who comes to respect the guts and talent of his players, is terrific, if a bit sentimentalized.

"The Babe" isn't a great movie, being marooned halfway between old-time sentimental pap and new-age edge and unable to commit to either, but John Goodman still manages a touching interpretation of the best boy of baseball. His Babe -- George Herman Ruth, thank you, of Baltimore, Md., thank you again -- is a man of mighty appetites and mighty talents and a mighty empty cranium. Goodman alone gives the movie its source of pleasure -- he's a man-boy with a career bosun's flabby body and the small eyes of a pig who, by some incredible whirl of the genetic roulette wheel, was granted the hand-eye coordination and fast-twitch muscle fiber of a god. He was a god, as the movie makes clear.

Alas, the bio-pic conventions of the film tend not to work: it's a cavalcade of high and low points that are never evoked with much emotion and that don't build into much.

The baseball player as jerk, a relatively new cultural interpretation (though not new to history: viz, Ty Cobb), gets a nice treatment in "Mr. Baseball," though at the time critics didn't think much of it. Tom Selleck plays a conceited, self-centered baseball bullyboy long past his years of homer-hitting greatness. He signs up for a year of easy money and curve balls that hang in Japan. Of course what he meets there is a different culture entirely, one that values team play, discipline and sacrifice, as well as work. Work? He's never heard of it! He hasn't busted TC sweat since the last time somebody said "No" to him, which was sometime in the '70s. The movie is sentimentalized to some degree but Selleck gets his character's grouchy vanity and fundamental laziness down nicely. He even learns . . . to bunt!

Oh yes, and death. Sports and death trace their legendary entwining as far back as A.E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young," because the perishability of life seems so much more poignant and memorable in a youth blessed with natural and heroic grace. It shouldn't, but it does. The Lear of this tragic theme was Lou Gehrig, beautifully played in the otherwise conventional "Pride ofthe Yankees" by Gary Cooper. And in "The Natural" and even in "Casey at the Bat" there are whispers of bitter mortality. But it took novelist Mark Harris to give this treatment the best shot in "Bang the Drum Slowly," which was turned into a movie in the early '70s with Michael Moriarty and some new guy named Robert De Niro. De Niro plays a third string catcher and team donkey boy who, as Parkinson's Disease closes his systems down, achieves through the serenity and manliness of his dying a kind of grace that had evaded him in life. It's a sad, wonderful movie, which juxtaposes the juices of youth with the intractability of death.

Finally, the one baseball-themed movie that brushes up against actual excellence: "Bull Durham," if only because it understood baseball in a way that true baseball people do and found used-up but smart and tough old catchers more interesting than callow jerks with 100 mph fastballs. (Only an ex-minor leaguer like Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed, would get this.) The age/experience vs. youth/talent thing got a wonderful examination, as Kevin Costner played Crash Davis, a catcher with a lot of miles on his wheels, charged with developing a young prospect, played by Tim Robbins. Problem: he doesn't like him. Problem two: he does like his girlfriend. The scene isn't The Show, where the ball is always white, but the scruffy, stale-sweat world of the small-city minors. The prize isn't really a stay in the Bigs but a stay in Annie Savoy's bed, as the two men are also competing for the hand of Annie, earth mother to the Durham (N.C.) Bulls, as played by Susan Sarandon. Of course in life Robbins ended up with Sarandon, but that's what's so good about baseball and about "Bull Durham": it isn't life and sometime the old pros do win all the marbles.

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