Towards the end of Bull Durham, Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner, is playing pool when Nuke LaLoosh, the airheaded young pitcher he’s been mentoring, comes to tell him he’s been called up to the major leagues.
Portrayed with a note perfect artlessness by Tim Robbins, the kid is thrilled but his elevation merely reminds Davis, the greatest home run hitter in the minors, that he now will never make it back to the show himself. A realisation of his sporting mortality that prompts the drunken catcher to pour himself a large measure of Jim Beam and do some soul-searching.
“You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is?” says Davis, citing the holy grail batting average to which all professional players aspire. “It’s 25 hits. Twenty-five hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, OK? There’s six months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week, just one, a gork, a ground ball – a ground ball with eyes! – you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”
Maybe as evocative and poignant a soliloquy as was ever written about the chasm between good and great in sport, you don’t need to know the intricacies or jargon of baseball to grasp the raw data separating those who make it from those who don’t. The terrible minutiae of athletic failure.
The speech is all the more effective because, earlier in the film, Davis, the elder statesman on a roster of wannabes, paints a lyrical portrait for his teammates of the 21 days he once spent in the majors, an almost mythical land where, “Ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service and the women all have long legs and brains”.
Before fetching up in Hollywood, Ron Shelton toiled in the minors with the Baltimore Orioles affiliates in the late 1960s, an experience he brought to bear on every frame of Bull Durham when he wrote and directed it in 1987.
He knew the life, the game, the hope, and, most of all, the despair of journeymen stranded in the foothills from which only the most talented ever get to scale loftier peaks.
Double and Triple A ball are where a few epic careers get to take flight while the dreams of the majority die slow deaths in the outfields of quaint, old ballparks necklaced across small-town America.
All these decades later, Shelton spent part of the pandemic writing, The Church of Baseball:The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings and a Hit.”
That there was a demand for this fabulous tome speaks to the enduring appeal of his classic. Eschewing all usual sports movie clichés (no last play game-winners here), it’s beloved for its authentic rendering of a neglected corner of the sport where promotional gimmickry is as appreciated as golden glove shortstops.
Not to mention its depiction of one of cinema’s most bizarre love triangles, involving world-weary Davis, gormless LaLoosh, and nonpareil Annie Savoy, a woman of a very certain faith.
“I believe in the Church of Baseball,” says Savoy. “I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things.
“For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball and it’s never boring . . . which makes it like sex.”
Imagined as a Lysistrata of the minor leagues, after the Greek heroine who wanted women to withhold sex to try to stop the Peloponnesian War, Susan Sarandon’s wondrous performance in the role of Annie, equal parts erudite and erotic, is remarkable. All the more so since Shelton reveals studio heads originally didn’t even deem her worthy of an audition because she wasn’t regarded as “hot” enough.
In the best traditions of books about the movie business, the glimpse behind the curtain reveals this and so many other gossipy nuggets that reinforce the old William Goldman line about nobody really knowing anything in that town.
With a long and distinguished career behind him, including bigger box office hits like White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup, Shelton doesn’t spare those who placed obstacles in his way with lunatic ideas like wanting to replace Costner with Kurt Russell in mid-shoot.
Another studio maven sought to cut Robbins and Susan Sarandon from the picture because he believed early rushes showed the couple had no chemistry on screen. In fact, they were actually falling in love on set and the director ended up becoming godfather to their firstborn in a ceremony that was half-Catholic, half-Druid and, obviously, all Hollywood.
“Perhaps Bull Durham has resonated all these years because it is about loving something more than it loves you back,” writes Shelton.
“It’s about reckoning. It’s about loss. It’s about men at work, trying to survive in the remote outposts of their chosen profession . . . It cannot be dismissed that it’s also about the joy of playing a game for a living. It’s about team and connections and risk and reward.”
The book, like the movie, is about all of that and so much more.