The Crack of the Bat on the Big Screen

EVER since I was a kid, every spectator sport struck me as a colossal waste of time. Mind you, I liked movies about sports; Hollywood had a way of making tiresome activity look engaging and meaningful. But the reality of thousands of people filing into a football stadium to watch their heroes line up on either side of a ball and then fall on it seemed pretty silly.

I could see that basketball was exciting, if you happened to be there, but in the end it, too, seemed a waste of time, money, and ingenuity. And then baseball was so slow. When I watched the World Series on TV with my husband (for the sake of fellowship), I felt that at least it wasn't a violent sport, but neither did it seem very interesting. Grown men stand idly in a sunny field and throw a small ball, or hit it with a stick, or catch it as it comes down. No matter how much I had loved "The Pride of th e Yankees" (1942), "The Natural" (1984), or "Field of Dreams" (1989), baseball seemed senseless.

Until last summer.

Something happened one hot night last summer as I sat in the bleachers of Mile High Stadium for a minor-league game. I sat between my husband and a close buddy, and the two guys patiently answered every one of my 5,000 questions about the rules and the strategy of baseball.

It was an exciting game, especially since our team won. But better than that, it was deeply restful, like going on vacation. I'd been to all kinds of games over the years, but this was the first time I ever got the point. All those athletes, so highly skilled, graceful, lively, earnest. The clean lines of the field and the cool look of the grass made up a different world. The terrible music sounded wonderful. The thrill of sharing victory with strangers was the thrill of community - however momentary.

All the terrific movies ever made about baseball suddenly made new sense, though none of them really tried to capture the real event as experienced from the stands. As film critic Robert Denerstein pointed out in Denver's Rocky Mountain News, baseball movies don't have much to do with baseball. But, I would add, they are always about what baseball means - its significance as a cultural icon, as a symbol of "all that was best in America," as one character put it in "Field of Dreams."

These films are often nostalgic and idealized views of baseball. "Man, I did love this game," says Shoeless Joe Jackson in "Field of Dreams." "I would have played for nothing." And I understand that, too. Because however expensive major-league baseball has become, however exasperating the politics and the economics, there is something indefinably American and wholesome still left in the game.

Nine men stand alone, individuals, spaced far apart. Yet they must operate as a single unit too. The myth of rugged individualism built so solidly into the socio-political persona of the nation retains within itself the community that is able to act as a unit when necessary. And so the heroes of many baseball films must learn self-discipline and concentration, cooperation and fraternal care, building a team out of diverse (often antagonistic) personalities. "Major League" (1989), "A League of Their Own" (1992), "The Natural," "Mr. Baseball" (1992), and even the new kid-flick "Sandlot" build super teams out of fractured players.

In fact, "Sandlot," a modest, overwritten little picture, takes up several of the prominent themes of baseball movies. The protagonist, Scotty, is a lonely little boy who makes friends with the neighborhood kids when he learns to throw and to catch a baseball. His hero, Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez, the leader of the group, lives for baseball. Rodriguez will face "the beast," a large, angry guard dog who lives behind the sandlot where the boys play everyday - just as the knights of yore had to face monste rs and dragons.

The hero's journey - a valorous quest undertaken for the good of others or for the hero's own evolution as a warrior - is likewise an important recurring theme in baseball movies. There are tests of strength, courage, endurance, and sometimes tests of good sense cropping up in films like "Pride of the Yankees," "The Natural," "Mr. Baseball," "Major League," and "Field of Dreams."

Baseball is a liberator for the young boy with no friends in "Sandlot," as it is for Lou Gehrig in "Pride of the Yankees" and Babe Ruth in last year's "Babe." And in "Sandlot," baseball is the occasion for reconciliation between the boy and his stepfather. Fathers and sons figure heavily in baseball movies. A father-son reconciliation is the prime impetus for the hero's journey of "Field of Dreams." In "Fear Strikes Out" (1957) and "Babe," hard-hearted fathers drive their sons away - into mental illness in "Fear Strikes Out" and into fame, fortune, and poor self-esteem in "Babe." The father's benign presence is felt at the beginning and at the end of "The Natural," my favorite of all baseball films.

"The Natural" is an updated Arthurian tale, a hero's quest picture that follows the protagonist from boyhood on a farm where his loving father instructs him in the finer points of the game (like an ancient knight instructed by his lord). When the father dies suddenly, the boy carves a bat from a tree struck by lightening on the same day. The bat, like Excalibur or any other magic weapon, has special significance. The team the hero plays for is called "the New York Knights." And along the path, the hero m eets an archetypal "dark lady" who halts him in his quest temporarily. Later, another lady of darkness traps him in a destructive relationship, from which the "lady of light" will help him free himself in the end. The trials will be stern and dangerous. He will fail some of them. Yet, though he is slow to see the traps laid for him, he cannot be seduced by evil once he recognizes it.

The hero, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), speaks with such passion of his love for baseball, just as Shoeless Joe, Doc Graham, and Terrence Mann do in "Field of Dreams." The passion for the sport is felt in most of the films, but in different degrees. "Bull Durham" (1988), a depressingly sexist comedy about minor-league ball, offered a hero who never rises out of his bad fortune.

Yet he, too, carries his passion for the game around like a talisman.

A character in "Mr. Baseball" keeps telling his stern Japanese coach, "It's a game. It's supposed to be fun." This awkward picture is really about culture clash. A New York Yankee is sold to a Japanese ball club when he hits a slump: He has actually sunk into laziness and apathy. In the end, what he has to learn is team spirit, cooperation, and respect for the game.

There are plenty of locker-room sequences in oddball movies like "Major League" and "Mr. Baseball." Even "The Natural" follows the guys into their private haven in victory and defeat. Camaraderie is a big part of most sports pictures, and in baseball movies, camaraderie is always one of the most important aspects of the film. What we see is male bonding. The one exception is "A League of Their Own."

"A League of Their Own" may not be historically accurate, but it has its charms. The story follows the women's baseball teams of the 1940s when the men were off to war and public morale needed a boost. Baseball, as the super-American sport, had to be kept alive by order of the president.

The themes are a little different - there's no hero's journey, no real problems with parents to be exorcised. But self-esteem is an issue, as is team spirit, and sheer love of the sport. The conflict lies primarily between two sisters, though the chauvinism of the society is one giant the women have to keep striking out.

Several baseball films have veered into the darker recesses of human consciousness - "Fear Strikes Out," "Babe," and "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1973), for example. The last film was a naturalistic tale about a dying catcher and his faithful friend and pitcher. Once the team learns of the catcher's imminent death, they rally around him and give him a great last season. Surprisingly unsentimental, given the subject matter, "Bang the Drum" featured Robert De Niro as the stunningly sweet, if somewhat dim, catch er.

Perhaps the most uplifting baseball film remains "Field of Dreams." Working out in his cornfield one evening, Ray Kinsella hears a voice telling him, "If you build it, he will come." Ray eventually figures out the voice is requesting a baseball field. But this is no ordinary field. Here the lost Chicago "Black Sox," the men who had thrown the World Series 60 years earlier, show up to play ball. The baseball field and Ray's subsequent hero's journey represent clear symbols for something rather transcenden t. Ray makes a place in his life, his daily economic well-being for something good intuitively discerned. Having made that place for good, good does indeed arrive. And baseball is the symbol for "all that was good in America and could be again."

I understand all these films differently now - now that I love baseball, too. I never played it. I never will. But from the bleachers at Mile High Stadium all this season, I will watch "the boys of summer" throw, hit, catch, and run, remembering how different the real thing is from the Hollywood version. Yet I will also remember that the best of those films really did enrich baseball for me and many others - that their metaphors for heroic action and grace carry well into real life.

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