Tattered fields with advert covered fences and uncomfortable metal bleachers still exist and you can still get a ticket for a few bucks to see professional baseball in any one of four or five dozen towns and small cities across the country. Sure there have been some tweaks, some changes, but the world of BULL DURHAM could still be out there — another Nuke with a head filled with air and an arm filled with potential, another Crash offering sage advice, stoically standing in against some kid whose already fantasizing about what kind of sportscar he’s going to buy when he gets to the show. Hell, there might even be another Annie somewhere — might be, but I doubt it.
Fact is, while Major League Baseball has embraced gloss and spectacle, Minor League Baseball remains time-locked, family friendly, and romantic in its transience and minimalism. Players aren’t, in most cases, millionaires, and many of them are hungry and easily interact with fans, not over-fat from the excesses of stardom and churlish — hell, some of those fans are their neighbors, or the people that run the deli where they get their morning coffee, because in the minors, a city doesn’t have a team, a team has a city and a part in the community.
Really, the portrait of Minor League Baseball that I’ve seen first hand, with ample visits to towns like Augusta, Trenton, and Norwich seem a bit like the portrait of Major League Baseball from that long past era of purity that my grandfather told me about, that era and that tie between the Minors and the past that BULL DURHAM celebrates.
The best baseball movie of all time, by my estimation, DURHAM takes a snapshot of a season in the Carolina League, with the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team. Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (later dubbed Nuke) is a fresh call-up, a hot prospect, and an undisciplined mess in need of guidance. Enter Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, as always making it look effortless, and fun) as a veteran of 12 years who once got to spend the best 21 days of his life in the “show”, aka the Majors. Crash has been brought all the way down to A ball from Triple A, a world away from the show’s doorstop, to mentor and help LaLoosh. “You don’t want a ballplayer, you want a stable pony” says Davis when told of his new job before quitting. On his way out though, the game pulls him back and Davis takes on the task.
LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), meanwhile, has more swagger than brains and quickly gets into a scrape with his new catcher while fighting for the affections of Annie Savoy(Susan Sarandon), a unique woman who worships at the altar of baseball and dedicates her body, mind, and time to training one ballplayer a year for his life as a ballplayer and a man. Confident in LaLoosh’s lack of accuracy and discipline, Davis dares LaLoosh to throw a baseball right at his chest outside a bar, “I’d kill you” says LaLoosh, ”From what I hear, you couldn’t hit water if you fell out of a fucking boat.” responds Davis, who continues to goad LaLoosh until he throws a wide fastball nowhere near his chest.
Impressed by both players, Annie invites them back to her house. In LaLoosh she see’s another brash, young kid who might be blessed with the vigor of youth. With Davis though, she sees not an unformed ball of clay and a boy, but a man with bruises and sense. Put off by her undecided nature, Davis removes himself from the competition as he is unwilling to “audition”. On his way out the door though, Davis lets free one of the best streams of dialogue that I have ever seen, a poetic mini-monologue that feels like a credo we Y chromosome havers should all embrace.
Having won Annie’s attention by default, Nuke “studies” with his strict instructor who tries to broaden his horizons in and out of the bedroom. On the ballfield, Davis also tries to mentor the stubborn boy wonder.
The film is, in essence all about and not all about Robbins character who eventually becomes slightly deeper and more effortless on the mound, forgetting about everything but throwing the ball. Soon though, Nuke’s progress is noticed and the big club calls him up and out of Durham, where he is sure to never return.
Nuke is the embodiment of realized dreams and dumb luck. Someone whose God given talent takes them further than their 10 cent brain deserves. He’s benign enough so that we don’t hate him, but as Annie says following Nuke’s departure, ”The world is made for those who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”
Crash is, as writer/director Ron Shelton once said, a bit like William Holden in THE WILD BUNCH, and “everyone who loves something more than it loves him back. He’s also everyone who stays too long at the party, because he loves the party desperately.”
Unfortunately, that love isn’t enough though, and Crash gets released from the Bulls while the exhaust from Nuke’s car is still thick in the air — his protege gone, the club wants to go in a different direction but Skip, the Bulls manager, puts in a good word and tells Crash that there may be a manager job opening up in Visalia next summer.
His career possibly over, Crash shows up on Annie’s doorstep and the two spend a night together that is two parts sultry and one part sweet and fun, before he too leaves her bed for one last fling with the game of baseball, heading off to the Asheville Tourists in an effort to finish out the season and chase the dubious distinction of becoming minor league baseball’s all time home run leader.
We know, of course, that these two are meant for each other, so it’s no surprise that Annie finds Crash sitting on her porch in the rain during the films last moment, and that they both swear off those worlds and those dreams that they had been chasing for the whole of their adult lives. “I quit, hit my dinger and I hung em up.” Crash says while sitting next to Annie on her swing. “I’m quitting too, I mean boys not baseball.” she says with tears welling up in her eye as he tells her about that possible managerial opening in Visalia.
In the end, BULL DURHAM sort of begs us to wonder about the definition of “happiness”. Is Nuke pulling his Porsche into the parking lot of a big league stadium to find success as a baseball star and hit on everything with a pulse the definition of happiness, or is true bliss all about the simplicity of a shared laugh, a dance on a hot summer night, and white hot passion? When I was a kid, in my teens or my early 20s, I might have chosen the former, but as I get a little older and I realize that you need more than one pitch to make it through life, I may have evolved to a point of clarity, because I don’t even have to think about it — I believe in slow kisses, a good long dance, and the ability to just be.