The game of baseball is a largely contemplative affair wrapped around outbursts of adrenalized action. So are certain great movies. In fact, the two – professional baseball and commercial cinema – were born around the same time, came of age together and have developed a nodding acquaintance through the years. By rough count, more than 80 "baseball movies" have been made. Some are good, a few are very good, but none is a great movie because none is a contemplative affair wrapped around bursts of action – that is, none really deals with the game of baseball.
Of course, a sports movie is never about the sport itself. Rather, screenplays do to the game exactly what sportswriters and broadcasters do: They personalize it, turning the narrative into tales of romance and redemption and especially inspiration, a lofty battle against age (For Love of the Game) or illness (Pride of the Yankees) or corporate chicanery (Eight Men Out) or conventional wisdom (Moneyball) or racial prejudice (42). There, baseball hovers in the background, only occasionally inching forward to ask co-ordination-challenged actors to impersonate elite athletes. That can be amusing to watch. Most amusing? Easy: Tony Perkins tripping over himself to play Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out. Piersall had a golden glove; Perkins couldn't catch a beach ball.
But back to the Hollywood rule, which states that, in order not to alienate the non-sports-fan, other narratives must prevail. My two favourite baseball movies manage to follow that rule even while slyly breaking it. There's plenty of hot romance in Bull Durham, and a terminal illness at the centre of Bang the Drum Slowly. Yet each film also pushes the game into the foreground to capture the unique rhythm of the baseball season. Unique, because its 162-game schedule approximates a workaday job whose labourers, however skilled, suffer the same vicissitudes as the rest of us. A good day at the office is followed by a bad, sometimes the fault is ours and sometimes not – the gods are fickle, perfect pitches get hit and screaming line drives get caught.
Even better, in a voice-over scene at home plate with Crash Davis, Bull Durham offers us a small glimpse into the interior, contemplative component that is such a large part of baseball – the need to think but not too much, to play the game in your head without allowing your head to get in the way of playing the game. To some extent, that's true of every sport, but especially baseball, where there's ample waiting time between those bursts of action. Perhaps, though, it's a truth impossible to catch on film. To dramatize action is easy; to dramatize the thought that precedes, and shapes, action is much harder.
Instead, baseball movies like to pretend that the game is a microcosm of life, the better to drum up the romance/redemption/inspiration plots. But, for the player, it's more of an escape from this world into another, a chalk-lined field with its rigid rules and flexible surprises. My ideal baseball movie would find a way to enter and dramatize that world, maybe just a single big-league game, with micro-cameras planted on gloves and bases and outfield walls and messy dugouts and the ball itself, all peering deeply inward.
Sure, sports telecasts convey the game's exterior, and statistics convey the facts, yet the inside dynamic remains unrevealed and a mystery to all but its elite participants – the shifting multiple perspectives, the minute calculations that go into every inning and so often go for naught. Yet sometimes succeed brilliantly. And when they do?
To take an obvious example, a superbly executed double play is lovely to watch, yet far lovelier to execute, to experience. That experience is the purview of the athlete. "How did it feel?" the reporter lamely asks, and the player serves up a cliché. My ideal baseball movie would dig beneath the cliché to let me into that world between the lines, where confidence waxes and wanes and where excellence co-exists with failure – the zero-sum game within the game.
I suspect the field of play is like my world and it isn't; I suspect it's both much simpler and far more complicated. Yet that's just an amateur's guess. So, a truly great baseball movie would do what any great movie does: recreate a particular world and transport me there, give me a palpable taste of its mystery, verifying or contradicting what I could otherwise only imagine. But I've been waiting for that movie a long time – too long to imagine it will ever get made.