September is an unbelievably stressful time for baseball fans. If your team has even a remote shot at October ball, your stomach is in knots and you're grinding your teeth. You're not getting enough sleep, checking standings and scores like a crazy person, carefully planning your schedule around the possibility of playoff games. (Sorry, Grandma. I'll have to cut my visit short because I need to be back in town for the American League Division Series.)
Given the hysteria, it is kind of HBO to release Ferrell Takes the Field during this gruelling time. It's a lightly mocking 40-minute comedy that depicts Will Ferrell's improbable one-day spring training stint as a major-league ballplayer.
Last March, Ferrell joined the pros at their Arizona Grapefruit League stadiums to play in five games in a single day. Touring from park to park, he suited up in 10 different uniforms and covered every position, from designated hitter to pitcher, all to amusingly mixed results. This is actually HBO's second sports "documentary" in recent memory, with the tennis-themed 7 Days in Hell released earlier this summer.
While the conceit is hilarious, the cause is a good one – by means of his ridiculous, frenzied day, Ferrell raised $1-million (U.S.) for Cancer for College, a charity that awards university scholarships to cancer survivors. Also, by wearing the number 19, Farrell honoured retired Cuban-American shortstop Bert Campaneris, who, as part of a special 1965 promotion designed to draw crowds, was the first player to play every position during a major-league game. (Campaneris even makes a brief appearance in the film, giving Ferrell some veteran baseball advice in Spanish.)
But honourable intentions do not a comedy make, so the real humour here is how faux-seriously Ferrell takes the entire endeavour, the jokes relying heavily on that hallowed and easily ridiculed notion of "respecting the game." He declines interviews on the day, saying, "I'm in beast mode right now. I can't talk," and then spends the bulk of the documentary having belly-laugh-worthy, over-the-top emotional reactions to being traded from team to team. The setup expertly mimics classic earnest sports documentaries, with rising dramatic music, manipulative slo-mo shots and interviews where Farrell riffs on all-too-common media-trained ballplayer platitudes.
"It's about playing the game you love," he says. "Playing it with intensity, honour and crushing ass."
There's some serious twisting of "America's game" here, whether it's in Ferrell's stock scrum-style answers or his warring with managers over their decisions to pull him. (It's incredibly fun to watch the Dodgers' Don Mattingly try to keep a straight face while Ferrell has a temper tantrum.) What's even better is that everyone else is in on the extended joke – television anchors, sportscasters, scouts, managers, hitting coaches, fans and players alike. Although it's hard to tell if former NFL coach John Madden is joking when he refers to what Ferrell is doing as "a lack of respect."
Ferrell is certainly built for this kind of absurd comedy, and he's got ample on-screen sports experience with Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Semi-Pro, Kicking & Screaming and Blades of Glory. He's also oddly good at baseball, even if he sometimes fails to hide his genuine look of terror of being on the field with actual athletes. (I admit the idea of him catching 90-plus mile-an-hour fastballs made me really uncomfortable.) Those who criticize baseball for not being a very athletic sport certainly get their due when Ferrell, dressed in the gear of an L.A. Angel, successfully fields a ground ball in centre field.
This film is a lovely mix of homage and humanizing, where the game is celebrated but also taken down a few necessary pegs, and brought back to exactly the enjoyable place it should be. You'd have to be a real curmudgeon not to see how funny the whole send-up is, and how brilliantly Ferrell has both revered and skewered the intensity of myth-laden baseball culture.
Babe Ruth. Stan Musial. Mickey Mantle. Will Ferrell. Ferrell Takes the Field both completely makes fun of our obsession with baseball, and makes us love the game so much more. As you stress and sweat as the postseason unfolds, enjoy a little mockery of this game we're sometimes a little too unhealthily devoted to.
"They say there's nothing more American than grabbing a hot dog, heading to the ballpark and watching nine guys from the Dominican Republic make magic on the field," he says at the end of his long day. "But you know what? Today I learned they are wrong. Make that eight Dominicans, and one guy from Irvine, California."
The best part of Ferrell Takes the Field, though? There isn't a Jays game scheduled when it airs.
Ferrell Takes the Field premieres Saturday, Sept. 12 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO Canada.