From the book “Top of the Order,” edited by Sean Manning.
I believe in the chick flick and the dick flick and that both are better when in the same movie. I believe in unprocessed bran, single-malt Scotch, and Jersey tomatoes. I believe that Field of Dreams and The Natural are such shmaltzfests they could elevate cholesterol to risky levels. I believe that the dramas of Kevin Costner are self-indulgent dreck. I believe in Title IX, ninth-inning hustle, and that catcher Crash Davis, although fictional, is as motivational a figure as Lou Gehrig.
Of course, when I invoke baseball’s Iron Horse I am really comparing Costner, Crash’s charismatic screen interpreter, to Gary Cooper, who essayed Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. On-screen, they are unassuming guys, consummate professionals, men who demonstrate that work ethic equals play ethic. They are ballplayers who come to the field and feel lucky for the opportunity to do what they love. They play not for the awards or the monetary rewards but, as the title of another Costner flick has it, for the love of the game.
Naturally, it’s the contrasts between the movie slugger heroes that I find more telling. When Gehrig, ravaged by ALS, gave his “luckiest man on earth” farewell at Yankee Stadium, he thanked the crowd with the celebrated lines, “I have been in ballparks for seventeen years, and I’ve never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans:’ With a nod to his fellow players-who included Joe DiMaggio, Frank Crosetti, and Lefty Gomez-he asked the assembled, “Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?”
Whenever I watch Bull Durham-and I watch it often- I see Crash Davis as Gehrig’s minor-league kindred spirit. A veteran catcher, Crash has Signaled, soldiered, and dinged through twelve years in the minors and never received anything like kindness or encouragement from unruly fans or arbitrary managers. Some of his fellow players would be a trial to associate with for even a minute, let alone an entire season. Case in point: Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins as a loose-jointed goof ball), the rookie pitcher with a $1 million arm and 5¢ brain that suggests his slow-wittedness is in inverse velocity to his fastball.
Still, Crash shows up ready to play. He parks his ego in the locker room, recognizing that his job this season is to season Nuke, that raw side of meat, and prepare the kid for The Show. An unapologetically minor-league talent, Crash has a major-league heart. (And intellect, too. Max Patkin, the “Clown Prince of Baseball,” who plays himself in the movie, says approvingly, “I saw him read a book without pictures once.”)
Celebrate Gehrig’s stamina and record-setting performance. Mourn his untimely death. But when you factor Crash’s achievements, recognize his greater degree of difficulty. Crash has no one rooting for him. When he says good-bye to the game-and in the process breaks the minors’ home-run record-the crowd could care less. His accomplishment doesn’t merit so much as a brief in the Sporting News.
As most everyone knows, Crash Davis is the namesake of Lawrence “Crash” Davis, Durham Bulls stalwart of the 1940S. But the character, played by an appealingly irreverent Costner, is a composite of the unsung players screenwriter/director/onetime Orioles prospect Ron Shelton consorted and cavorted with in the minors during the late 1960s and early ’70S. (“Don’t think” is Crash’s advice to Nuke on the mound and to himself at the plate. It seems also to have been Shelton’s direction to Costner, who gives a refreshingly unmannered and manly performance – and who is one of the few movie stars with a major league swing.)
Crash is decidedly not the heroic fantasy of the fan in the bleachers. He may well be the only movie ballplayer seen from the perspective o fan actual player on the field. Which is why he’s relatable in ways that slugger figures like Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs, the haloed hero of The Natural, never can be.
Here is the essential difference between The Natural and Bull Durham. In the climactic moment of the former, Hobbs shoots a pregnant look at the batboy, accepts “Wonderboy,” his Excalibur-like stick, and proceeds to swat the ball not just out of the park but to the stars. In the anticlimactic moment of Bull Durham, a batboy derails Crash’s train of thought by earnestly wishing him a hit. “Shut up,’ Crash snaps, and proceeds to strike out.
As with baseball, a movie involves us when it mirrors our own personal scenario or invites us to project our own personal drama onto it. Bull Durham takes me back to my primal baseball experience. That would be the summer of’63, a Dodgers/Cardinals game at Chavez Ravine. As with so many ten-year-olds before and since, once at the stadium the cheese- and chili- and chocolate-slathered food forbidden in our health-conscious household held far more fascination for me than the game. Besides; so much was going on down there in the diamond. No close-ups to clarify the action, like in a movie.
Fortunately, my dad framed the game for me as a psychological drama: “Watch how Johnny Roseboro Signals to Sandy Koufax;’ he told me as Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood stepped up to the plate. “A lot of the game is in how the catcher and pitcher conspire to outwit the opposing batter:’ Dad’s prompt helped me see and understand the game as something tastier than peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Thanks,
Papacito – and gracias, too, to Vin Scully, that most lyrical of baseball exegetes – for sparing me the fate of the stats slut, the kind off an more preoccupied with the numbers a ballplayer (or a movie) racks up than in what happens on the field (or on the screen).
Of all the baseball movies I’ve seen (and honey, I’ve seen ’em all, from the sunshine of Take Me Out to the Ball Game to the rain delay of Mr. 3,000 to the rainout Fear’Strikes Out), Bull Durham is one of the few to capture fully that catcher/pitcher conspiracy. Bang the Drum Slowly and A League of Their Own are others, but they’re not so much about what happens on the field as about what happens in the heart. Bull Durham is about what happens in both places – and why both places matter.
Furthermore, I’m reasonably sure it’s the only movie to suggest that baseball has a High Priestess. (That would be Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, a spiritual commissioner and carnal umpire.) Further-most, it’s the only baseball movie that ever made me rethink the game.
Before Bull Durham, baseball as I understood it in all my youthful (K)oufax worship was the strikeout as the pitcher’s primary objective and the no-hitter as his Holy Grail. Crash’s admonition to Nuke – “Strikeouts are boring! Besides, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls, it’s more democratic”- was a revelation.
Now, it would have been obvious to any guy who played Little League that a pitch resulting in a grounder upped the chances of an out or double play and had the collateral benefit of bringing glory to someone other than the hurler. But I grew up before girls played Little League. When I mentioned my “revelation” to dad, he said that if this hadn’t been patently obvious to me when I was ten then he had been negligent in my baseball education.
Excluding A League of Their Own and The Bad News Bears, women in baseball movies tend to be adoring ‘Wives or that succubus Lola of Damn Yankees. Thus Annie Savoy is Bull Durham’s second revelation. Here is a woman who knows as much about the game as Crash. Here is a woman for whom baseball is a religion, who sees the ballplayer” who loves the game more than it does in return, and who loves him in a way that finally puts Crash’s life into balance. And he’s evolved enough not to be intimidated by her.
Crash, Annie, and Nuke are a trinity: the father, mother, and unholy son of baseball. Crash and Annie are the parents who teach Nuke, that promising but wild rookie, control and consistency, and who ultimately vault him to the majors. (Despite Sarandon’s and Costner’s ex plosive on-screen chemistry, off-screen it was she and Robbins who hooked up, going the, distance for twenty-three years and two children. Was it those sessions on consistency?) While Annie’s tutorials help Nuke respect the game’s mystique, Crash’s example helps him respect the game.
So when Nuke shakes off his signals, Crash alerts the batter what the knucklehead-without-a-knuckleball is about to throw. Even on the receiving end of a fight, Crash can extract a life lesson for his pupil/assailant. Floored by Nuke’s fist, Crash has the presence of mind to immediately demand, “Didja hit me with your right hand or didja hit me with your left?” Informed it was Nuke’s glove side, Crash says, “That’s good. When you get in a fight with a drunk, don’t hit ‘im with your pitching hand.”
From hygiene to humility, Crash is a deep well of wisdom, and as a dispenser of sage advice he ranks up there with Vito Corleone.
“You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes,” Crash instructs Nuke. “Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win twenty in The Show, you .can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you’re colorful.”
Crash’s sermon on how to handle sportswriters is an evergreen. His pupil’s ego so inflated that it couldn’t fit in a stadium, let alone a locker room, he right-sizes it by introducing Nuke to the homilies of humbleness and helpfulness. “Learn your cliches,” Crash says, aware that inside these moldering chestnuts are kernels of truth about the game. “Study them. Know them. They’re your friends:’
- We gotta play’em one day at a time.
- I’m just happy to be here and hope I can help the club.
- I just wanta give it my best shot and Good Lord willing, things’ll workout.
Chief among Crash’s many admirable traits is the switch-hitter’s ability to digest, process, and adjust. When first we meet him, he strolls into the Bulls’ front office introducing himself as “the player to be named later:’ Advised that his job is to polish Nuke, that diamond in the rough, Crash rounds the bases of grief in about a minute, entirely skipping bargaining and depression. Denial: “My Triple-A contract gets bought out so I can hold some flavor-of-the-month’s dick in the bus leagues?” Anger: “I quit! I fuckin’ quit!” Acceptance: “Who we play tomorrow?”
Here is a guy who knows, in the words of everyone’s high school coach, that there is no ‘T’ in “team:’ For this, and for so many other reasons, isn’t it time Crash got some love from Cooperstown?