New York -- At the beginning of "For Love of the Game," Kevin Costner's new movie about a baseball pitcher facing the end of his career, the star is shown in actual home movies as a boy, pitching to his father.
As an actor and director, he's been returning to baseball ever since.
Costner first gained industry clout as Crash Davis, the minor-league lifer at the center of the raunchy 1988 hit, "Bull Durham." He kept the momentum going as an Iowa farmer who harvested the mythology of our national pastime in "Field of Dreams."
Now, as "For Love of the Game" reaches screens this month (Sept. 17), Costner says he never intended to make a baseball film trilogy. Instead, he says, the story, adapted by Dana Stevens from Michel Shaara's novel, simply had the same "gold dust" as his previous diamond outings.
A star's poise
Sitting in a Park Avenue hotel suite, Costner, 44, displays the same poise as the pitcher he plays in "For Love of the Game." His California tan is set off by a white golf shirt and gray sweater vest.
He looks his 44 years, but we're talking Kevin Costner here. Crow's feet on his matinee-idol mug give him character, often used to great advantage in closeups on his screen alter-ego Billy Chapel. Chapel, a Hall of Fame-bound pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, ponders retirement and a broken love affair as he pitches what could be his last game.
Costner says "For Love of the Game" is the most autobiographical of the baseball movies he's made. Chapel is about the same age, and struggles with public perception and relationships.
"I'll just talk for men," he says. "We have an ability to give everything to our work -- our thinking, our time -- and we don't give the same energy to our partners.'
There is one fundamental difference between Costner and Chapel, however. Chapel's career arc seems to have climbed steadily upward, while Costner's plummeted at one point. He makes no apologies for 1995's "Waterworld," an apocalyptic tale that nearly drowned in reported $200 million production costs under his direction, and grossed just $88 million at the domestic box office. And he believes "The Postman," which made just $16 million in theaters, will be regarded as a good film eventually.
An ability to let go
"I work really hard on what I'm going to make while I'm making it, and work it to the point where I like it and respect it as a piece of work, and then I let it go," Costner says. "The measure of movies is how well they do at the box office or how well critics receive it or don't, and I think those are false gods."
Still, after "Waterworld," a lesser ego might have packed up his bat and glove and stormed off the Hollywood sandlot forever. Then again, a lesser ego might not have received best director and best picture Oscars, as Costner did for 1990's "Dances With Wolves." Weathering the bad buzz before the movie's release, then standing the film world on its ear gave him a sense of empowerment that wavers but never crumbles.
"When I came out of 'Waterworld,' I didn't know if I was going to make it emotionally," he says. "Given everything that was going on, I just thought, 'Are you going to be a baby?' I said don't be a baby. You can cry all you want thinking people have invaded your privacy, but you created the situations in life and you need to deal with them. You need to go to work."
Says "Game" co-star Kelly Preston, better known as Mrs. John Travolta: "Kevin has great integrity as a man. He has strong convictions. He's a good ol' boy. When things happen to him, he'll retreat into that strength.'
And things do happen -- partly because Costner is an easy target. He's rich (he made $41 million in 1998, according to Forbes magazine). He's handsome. He's accomplished. All those attributes only grease the grist mill when his All-American image takes a pounding over his reputed womanizing.
"He's misunderstood," said Armyan Bernstein, a friend and co-producer of "Game." "Some events in his life have painted him in the wrong color."
But nobody will dispute the guy looks great in doubleknits. Costner did not play organized baseball past high school, but he has no trouble pulling off the role of a big-league pitcher. Watching him throw an 80-mile-an-hour fastball is a lot less painful than watching Gary Cooper attempt to swing a bat as Lou Gehrig.
It's off the field where his Billy Chapel can't find the zone -- a predicament Costner can identify with since an $18 million divorce in 1994 from Cindy Silva, his wife of 16 years and the mother of three of his four children. Asked to name three events that shaped his life, the breakup of his marriage quickly rolls off his tongue. "It marks you and everyone around you," he says.
Bernstein said that because Costner is a movie star, fans and colleagues assumed the split was his fault. In the past year, Costner has been linked in published reports with model Elle Macpherson and an 18-year-old aspiring model, Satya Arteau.
He says he is not seeing anyone at the moment. His schedule might not allow it anyway. On Sept. 27, he returns to J.F.K. territory in "13 Days," playing Chief of Staff Kenny O'Donnell during the Cuban missile crisis. Again Costner will just act, leaving the directing and the focus groups he loathes to someone else. Clearly, he is still smarting from his past few efforts at the helm.
"I'll direct again when it's time for another beating," he says, smiling.
As much a fan of movies as baseball, Costner recalls a scene in "Giant" in which Rock Hudson is beaten up by a fellow Marine over Hudson's Mexican grandson. Elizabeth Taylor looks down at Hudson and tells him he never stood taller.
"It's a moment that you would live for to have somebody tell you, and yet it was in defeat," Costner says. "I believe in those ideas."