“Excuse me, but what the hell’s going on out here?”
“Well, Nuke’s scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man’s here. We need a live … is it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose’s glove, and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. That about right? We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”
You don’t have to know me that well before you realize I’m not one to speak in absolutes, especially when it comes to cinema. I’ll praise the things I love, I’ll critique the stuff I don’t – so long as it’s in the right context – but I’m allergic to any claims that make our experience of the the world narrower. Five greatest this and ten worst that is bullshit clickbait, not a way to engage film — or life for that matter. People can continue to ask me for my five favorite movies until the end of time [it happens constantly], but I will never give a straight answer. The parameters of the question are nonsense.
And yet, while I live my whole life by the creed above, I have absolutely no problem saying that Bull Durham is the greatest movie that will ever be made about baseball. It’s the exception that proves the rule.
Bull Durham is one of those rare instances where a story embodies the essence of what it depicts. The movie isn’t about baseball, it is baseball. It reverberates with the same heartbeat you’ll hear deep down – if you can tune out all the extra bullshit – at the core of the game.
Bull Durham reveals that baseball is more than a sport, it’s a religion. The faithful worship a deity that is romantic and holy, but unvarnished, profane, and steeped in the ordinary dailiness of life. The articles of faith demand a streak of irreverence in the devotions of the faithful.
It should come as no surprise that it was written and directed by a man who played minor league ball for five years — not some casual layperson or weekend warrior, but a true believer, properly initiated into the faith.
Players are among the faithful, many as devout as the impassioned supplicant of any other god. After all, religion is humanity’s attempt at finding some level of agency and order in a chaotic universe. You can’t control droughts, plagues, natural disasters, or the mystery of death, but maybe you can negotiate with the higher powers who can. Which is what makes it a direct analogue to baseball.
More than in any other sport, a ballplayer isn’t in control of the outcome of their actions. The variables in baseball are crueler. A perfectly executed pitch can result in a weak, broken bat single that finds a hole, driving in runs or breaking up a no-hitter. The hardest hit ball all day may become just another zero in the box score. It’s why ballplayers are by far the most superstitious athletes in the world. The game, like life, isn’t fair. It’s a game of hanging breaking balls and missing your pitch; not a game of inches, but fractions of an inch. On every single pitch, a slight, barely perceptible tilt in angle separates success from failure. Greatness and mediocrity are separated by a razor’s edge.
Crash Davis — philosopher, poet, and career minor leaguer — explains: “You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? 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.”
Playing a game like that for a living, it’s understandable one would seek the rituals and offerings that might appease the gods.*
And if baseball is a religion, Crash Davis is high priest. Nuke Laloosh** may be a force of nature, an insane talent, but he may pitch an entire, bright but relatively brief career without ever truly understanding the game. But Crash pours over the minutia in order to read the meaning – quite literally – between the lines. He lives and breathes the game, putting in the work everyday well after it’s clear that those twenty-one days in the show are all he’s ever going to get.
But Bull Durham isn’t just a hymn to the players who understand the true holiness of the game, it’s just as much a hymn to the zealots, the happy few whose love of the game defies the boundaries of reason. There are plenty of baseball fans, even rabid fans of their clubs, who remain reasonable in their reverence. Perfectly ordinary folk. And then there’s the sort whose devotion runs deeper than that, to a degree that looks ridiculous to those outside the fold. It gets to the point where our belief is barely metaphorical anymore. Deep down, we almost believe that baseball is a key to unlock the secrets of the universe.
Annie and Crash reflect this faith back to us. And like us, they see the world differently than most. It’s no coincidence that Shelton has written both of these characters as philosophers pondering the mysteries of the universe, as readers of fiction and poetry who speak in grand romantic metaphors. That’s the sort of soul most likely to fall this deeply in love with the game. You’d be hard-pressed to find this particular brand of disciple who wasn’t. [That is by no means meant to discredit other lovers of the game, those who hold a deep and abiding affection that never reaches this degree of absurdity.]
You can definitely enjoy Bull Durham as a great film, even if you don’t care about baseball. It’s a well written, well-crafted film, populated with lovable (now iconic) characters, and immensely quotable dialogue. It’s sharp, well paced, and wonderfully shot — a scene that comes to mind is when they switch to handheld while we hear Crash’s thought process during a particular at bat. [I love that scene, especially when Crash tells the bat boy to shut up. Classic. I’ll laugh at it ever time.] And you’ll definitely enjoy the film more if you appreciate baseball to any degree.
But, like baseball, there’s another level under the surface for those with eyes to see. Visible to those whose love of the game exceeds rationality. For this sort of disciple, and I obviously consider myself among them, Crash Davis is our high priest, Annie Savoy is our patron saint, and Bull Durham is our blessed sacrament.
*In case you’ve any doubt that a player’s superstitions can reach religious levels, take the case of batting legend Wade Boggs as an example: He ate chicken before every game [one and a half chickens a day]. He woke up at the same time every day and ran sprints at 7:17 pm. He beat a path from the dugout to third base by taking the exact same route, there and back, every time. He drew the Hebrew for ‘life’ in the batter’s box before every at-bat [he isn’t Jewish]. He asked Sherm Feller, the public announcer at his home park of Fenway, not to announce his uniform number during introductions, because Boggs once broke out of a slump on a day when Feller forgot to announce his number. Are you sure it’s only a coincidence that he was one of the greatest hitters of all time? The dude once went a an entire season — 719 plate appearances — in which he only struck out 34 times! Something was working.]
**In a sad coincidence, Steve Dalkowski – the man who inspired Shelton to write the character of “Nuke” LaLoosh – died last week due to complications of Covid-19. He never made it past the minors, but one season, in 62 innings, he struck out 121 batters and walked 129.