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The sharpest diamond of baseball films

The Baltimore Sun

Bull Durham contains so much pungent dialogue you'd never guess its greatest speech wound up on the cutting-room floor.

In the script to the first film written and directed by Ron Shelton, a former second baseman in the Baltimore Orioles' farm system, veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) asks baseball muse and groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), "Why baseball?"

Annie explains: "If you know where home plate is, then you know where first base is, and second, and everything else - 'cause they're always in the same place in relation to home. Don't you see? If you know where home plate is, then you know where everything else in the universe is."

Savoy's home plate becomes the colloquial equivalent of poet T.S. Eliot's "still point in a turning world" - and this movie's ability to contain all the humor and eros of the cosmos in the whirling of a horsehide have made it not just one of the best-loved baseball movies, but also the rare comic romance of the last quarter-century that ranks with The Shop Around the Corner or The Lady Eve.

Yet Annie's answer to "Why baseball?" never made it into the movie - even though Shelton believes it would have won Sarandon an Oscar nomination. On the phone from Ojai, Calif., Shelton explains, "When she gave the speech, the movie seemed to stop. There was so much intimacy between Crash and Annie in this scene that when they finally went to bed together, it was anti-climactic."

Bull Durham celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. A new DVD edition appeared Tuesday; it next airs on AMC on tomorrow and Tuesday. If Shelton had made Bull Durham in the age of DVDs, he would have saved Annie's defining moment and put it on a slate of deleted or alternate scenes. But when it comes to Bull Durham, we must use our imaginations to conjure lost bits and cut sequences. And that's just right for this film. It has never ceased being popular, partly because it's so old school.

Shelton wanted to tell the movie from the dual perspectives of a wily player like Crash and a zealous "baseball Annie" like Annie. And the way he did it, Bull Durham didn't just bring viewers closer than ever to the interplay of catchers, pitchers, coaches and umps that spectators can only guess at when watching from the bleachers or on TV. It captured the sport's uniquely American mixture of energy and drawl, of rock 'n' roll and country, of individual and team skills. Bull Durham is still one of a kind: a pastoral vision for hipsters.

Crash Davis says he believes in "the soul ... the small of a woman's back, the hangin' curveball, high fiber, good Scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf ... and I believe in long, slow, deep, wet kisses that last three days."

Shelton looks back on the speech with some embarrassment as an artificial crowd-pleaser meant to hook hot actors like Costner.

But that speech only makes explicit what's wonderfully implicit in the rest of the movie. Bull Durham is a dazzlingly adult romantic-triangle and baseball comedy because its characters develop their own codes and stick by them. Except for Annie's chosen lover for a season, rookie pitcher Nuke LaLoosh, this isn't a coming-of-age movie. It's an unapologetic I-came-of-age-long-ago movie.

"I thought of Crash as a gunfighter," Shelton says. "I modeled him after the gunfighter who would go from town to town, wherever anyone was willing to give him a job. Crash wants to do honorable work, but for him the work is drying up. You could say he loves baseball more than it loves him. And I think we all have a little Crash in us."

But everything distinctive about Bull Durham derives from baseball, including Crash's funniest romantic ploy: He advises Nuke that if the pitcher sleeps with Annie, he may sabotage his first winning streak. So I ask Shelton, as Crash did Annie, "Why baseball?"

"Unlike every other sport," he says, "it's a game you play every day. As a professional, you play football once a week for 16weeks out of the year, and each game is gearing up for a war. But baseball is daily life - 162 games, not counting spring training and playoffs. And it's the verbal game - that's why it produces characters. You'll be at second base and you start chatting with the short-stop about where to eat in town or where the girls are; you might have been on the same team last year, so you swap shared experiences.

"I didn't like sports movies when I was growing up. They were always from a [boy] fan's point of view. I wanted two different points of view for Bull Durham: an athlete's and a woman's. I've read nasty blogs from guys who said they'd been tricked into a chick flick, but having Annie as a baseball guide makes this movie different, and she doesn't have a male or female point-of-view - she's all about the Durham Bulls and how they're doing."

Annie's own hard-won individuality brings her match with Crash the equality that Tracy and Hepburn had in their sports comedy (and best movie), Pat and Mike (1952).

Bull Durham breaks hoary sports-film formulae with confidence and a seasoned, rueful joy. "It starts after the baseball season has started and ends before the season ended; you have no idea of how the Durham Bulls did that year. Most every baseball movie ends with a game-winning home run. But the big things in life or baseball usually don't end with a home run: They end with a ground ball, short to first."

Some Shelton films have had more immediate or recognizable influences. His street-basketball movie, White Men Can't Jump (1992), has provided editors with the jumping-off point for a slew of headlines about the relationship of white male voters to the Obama campaign. The title of Tin Cup (1988), about a gloriously self-destructive golfer, has become shorthand for suicidally grandiose behavior on the links.

Bull Durham has entered the general culture in more mysterious ways, as a film that offers a wised-up yet still innocent pocket of American life. It views the minors as a realm untainted by big money and hypocrisy. It's the opposite of Shelton's current project, an HBO film based on Game of Shadows, the pioneering expose of steroids in the major leagues.

"I like movies to take audiences to places they might not otherwise have gone," Shelton says. "In Bull Durham, it's a place where an elite athlete like Crash, who made it out of high school and college and turned professional, will do his own ironing in a boarding house in his shorts, while sipping from a glass of Scotch."

Shelton played in the Orioles farm system from 1967 to 1971, moving up from the Appalachian League to Rochester, N.Y., in Triple A. "In my last three at-bats in the regular season, I got base hits - one to left, one to center, and one to right. And that's what you want to do: Hit to all fields. But in my last bat in the playoffs, a guy jammed me with an inside fast ball, and I want that back! We remember our failures as athletes and filmmakers. They stick with you because of the pain."

But Shelton says when he watched Crash rise and fall in Bull Durham a few months ago, "I smiled the whole time."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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