Baseball movie is a surprise heavy hitter. `Bull Durham' touches several topical bases

``Bull Durham'' is a baseball movie that has more than sports on its mind. It's also a love story - a romantic triangle, in fact - and a buddy film. That may explain why critics and audiences are generally so enthusiastic about it. Even if baseball isn't your favorite sport, or if you don't like sports much at all, you'll find something to catch your attention in this smartly made (if unblushingly vulgar) new comedy.

The heroes of ``Bull Durham'' are two minor-league ball players who make a very odd couple. The catcher's name is Crash Davis, and he's been bouncing around the bush leagues so long he's given up hope of getting into the majors - even though he once played there for a very, very short time. The pitcher's name is Nuke Laloosh, and he's at the opposite end of his career: He's still a rookie, and the boys upstairs have high hopes for him.

They hire Crash onto their team, the Durham Bulls, not because they like his catching, but because they want him to season their promising young pitcher. It seems that Nuke has a terrific arm, but his control is bad - control of the ball, and also control of his brain, which doesn't function very efficiently. The fact is: He's a dummy. And seasoning him is likely to be a very hard job, especially for a burned-out guy like Crash, who's just about ready to chuck it all and take a job at Sears anyway.

To make matters more complicated, there's a woman in the picture: Annie Savoy, who picks a new lover every year from the Bulls lineup, and prides herself on being able to encourage any man into his best season ever. She likes Crash, but when he plays hard-to-get, she settles for Nuke - and decides to coach him in her own peculiar way.

The ``Bull Durham'' cast was assembled with obvious care. As Crash, the currently hot Kevin Costner manages to be cynical and lovable at the same time. As Nuke, an especially tricky character to play, Tim Robbins hits just the right balance between brash enthusiasm and exasperating dumbness. Susan Sarandon has a wacky kind of authority as Annie, the team groupie.

Ron Shelton wrote and directed the picture with loads of atmosphere that makes the scruffy minor-league setting come vividly alive - although there are rough spots in the story, and moviegoers should be warned that the occasional sex scenes are as explicit as the language in the Bulls' locker room.

The success of ``Bull Durham'' comes as something of a surprise. Despite exceptions like ``The Natural'' and a few others, it's long been Hollywood wisdom that baseball movies usually strike out at the box office.

Now that situation - or at least the wary attitude behind it - may be changing. ``Bull Durham'' has received a lot of favorable comment since its release, and there's a whole list of baseball pictures due on-screen in the near future. James Earl Jones and Ray Liotta will join Mr. Costner in ``Shoeless Joe.'' Mark Harmon, now visible in the thriller ``The Presidio,'' will star in ``Stealing Home.'' Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger, who starred together in ``Platoon,'' are teaming up again in ``Major League.'' And independent filmmaker John Sayles has written and directed ``Eight Men Out.''

If these pictures all bat as strongly as ``Bull Durham,'' sports fans - and movie fans - will be in for a good, long season.

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