The Establishing Shot
In the American social landscape, baseball is a metaphor for all seasons, stretching as it does all the way from spring training through the dog days of summer to the October chill of the fall classic. That's why many writers love the game: It can mean what they want it to mean. The best of them tend to put an elegiac spin on the ball, and so the best baseball stories, like John Updike's lyrical capture of Ted Williams's last game or Bernard Malamud's mythic constructions in The Natural, are typically pitched in a bittersweet key. These are tales about endings, complete with a paradox that cuts deep: The game may be played without a clock, but the summer is always winding down, the days are always running out, our pastime is forever morphing into our past time. The dead of winter awaits.
Of course, sentimentalists are reluctant to stray into this darker side of the metaphor. For them, baseball is linked to one season only - America in the spring of its bucolic youth. And since spring is when comedy comes out to frolic, most baseball movies are light, bright and wannabe funny. Which brings us to Ron Shelton's signal achievement in Bull Durham. A sly mix of genres and moods, this is the sports flick as superb switch-hitter. Batting from the right side, it's a sexy rom-com that flirts with farce; from the left, it's a smart elegist that quotes Whitman while venerating "the church of baseball." Breezy and brainy, in one delightful package.
The plot spans a year in the life of the Durham Bulls, a franchise rooted in the minors and staffed with the typical mix of up-and-comers and down-and-outers. Kevin Costner is the veteran catcher, blessed with a big-league brain but cursed with a journeyman's talent, doomed to backstop his career far from the glitz of "the show." Tim Robbins is his polar opposite, a callow and empty-headed flamethrower on a fast track to the majors. Susan Sarandon is the wise woman in the middle, a baseball Annie who can't quite decide where to bestow her ample affections.
Cue the switch-hitting. Play sexy - Sarandon sizzles. Play funny - Robbins amuses. Play smart - even Costner impresses. And, yes, play ball - Shelton shows off a deft understanding of the season's intricate rhythms and the game's infinite frustrations. Anyone who doubts the veracity should read Dirk Hayhurst's The Bullpen Gospels, a factual account that confirms all of Shelton's fictional truths.
Shelton made two other sports movies boasting similarly hybrid credentials, turning to basketball in White Men Can't Jump and (reteaming with Costner) to golf in Tin Cup. He would return to the grand old game in Cobb, only to take a radical detour from the usual Hollywood terrain. That film is set in the snows of winter and the final months of its subject's life: the notorious Ty Cobb, a sports legend yet a hateful man. Brave, even prophetic, addressing our culture's simultaneous need to create heroes and deflate them, it's a baseball movie that attacks the very essence of baseball movies, the entire pastoral tradition. Alas, at the box office, it flailed away like a .200 hitter at a nasty slider, and struck out. No wonder. Where Bull Durham delights, Cobb harangues - one is a classic; the other, a lecture.