Bull Durham, Directed by Ron Shelton

Bull Durham, Directed by Ron Shelton
By Ron Falzone

The Coronavirus has impacted everything.  For many Americans, the loss of two pastimes is particularly irksome:  Sports and sex.  And it’s even more acute at the moment because it is spring, the season for both baseball and nookie.

We frequently turn to the movies to provide us with those things we feel are missing in our lives.  If so, could there possibly be a better time to watch Bull Durham.

I grew up in a baseball household.  My father was a rabid Yankees fan, but also the proud possessor of a program to the one World Series game he attended, a 1947 showdown between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs.  In 1975, when the Cincinnati Reds played the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, I managed to be at Fenway Park for the sixth game when Sox pitcher Carlton Fisk “waved fair” his bottom of the 9th home run to win the game. For months afterward, my father held me in awe just for being there.

During the late sixties, our hometown team was the AAA Rochester Red Wings.  At least a couple times each summer, my father would throw my brother and I into the back of the Impala and take us to a game.  The team was only so-so (we could never get past the damned Toledo Mud Hens), but we did have a solid infield sparked by my father’s favorite player, Ron Shelton.

Two decades later, this same Ron Shelton would write and direct Bull Durham.  Several years ago, Shelton was inducted into the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame, but as far as I’m concerned, his plaque should be at the Sports Movie Hall of Fame.  What better honor can there be for the man who also gave us White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb, Tin Cup, Play It to the Bone and Blue Chips?  Even with this legacy, Shelton’s Bull Durham is in a league all its own.

Sports movies are invariably about a passionate love for the game on display.  Taking a lesson from movies like Slap Shot and The Bad News Bears, Shelton examines this passion on a fundamental level:  in a league where the love of the game is the most important thing because it sure ain’t a place to make money.  Here, contracts and fame are not a part of the picture.  If anything, for most players these represent a dream at best, but more probably a fantasy.  Shelton also knows, presumably from personal experience, that playing at this level forces you to examine your life beyond the diamond. 

Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), an aging catcher on the way down, is traded to the Durham Bulls to season Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a young pitcher on the way up.  They don’t like each other very much, especially when a second “trainer,” Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) takes on the role of working Ebby’s screwball in the bedroom.  The problem is that both men want her and she wants both of them.  Unfortunately for Crash, Annie feels she must give her full attention to training the out-of-control younger player.

In movies from Pride of the Yankees to The Blind Side, sports are treated with a ridiculous amount of reverence.  Anything with a ball is meant to be some kind of metaphor for life with ascendance in the sport tantamount to scaling Mount Tabor to sit at the right hand of God.  In Bull Durham, the actors only have to play their characters without also having to live up to some over-inflated idea of sports heroism.  The Durham Bulls are made up of players who deeply love the game, but are all beginning to realize that the passion they feel may not get them to the levels they want to attain.  All of them are desperately seeking ways to let off the steam that threatens to explode their fragile dreams.  For some, it’s religion.  For others, it’s creating a “rain out.”  For Crash and Annie, it’s looking for a more stable and permanent place to house their hopes.

Bull Durham manages to make us fall in love with baseball – again or for the first time – precisely because Shelton uses the sport to explore his characters and not the other way around.  When Pride of the Yankee’s Gary Cooper waxes lyrical about baseball, he might as well be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while The Sons of Pioneers croon us to patriotic glory; when Bull Durham’s Annie talks about the Church of Baseball, she is opening a window through which we view a commitment-phobic soul who is desperately praying for a place to put her intense passions.

Shelton manages to encompass all of this inside a movie that is also something that we haven’t seen in a very long time:  It is sexy as hell.  There is so much heat gushing out of Bull Durham that anyone who has never seen it before would be well advised to either watch it with a loved one or, if not, at least in a room with a very good fan.

Batter up, indeed.