Still catching up on notes from past family movie nights. August 21, 2015.
“Candlesticks always make a nice gift.” In the most famous mound conference in baseball movie history in one of the best baseball movies, Durham Bulls catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, center) does what good catchers have to be able to do: swallow their pride and sublimate their egos for the good of the team.
Two stories from the very good baseball book I’ve been reading, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse by Molly Knight. Both stories are about catcher A.J. Ellis and his different relationships with the Dodgers’ star pitchers, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
Ellis had caught Kershaw when he was working on a new pitch before, with mediocre results. At the beginning of the 2007 season, Kershaw skipped High-A ball and went from Low-A ball to Double-A Jacksonville. Because he didn’t yet have an effective changeup, the Dodgers wanted him to throw fifteen of them a game, no matter what, to try to develop one. They didn’t care if batters hammered it. Though Ellis and Kershaw would later become the best of friends, their first meeting was no lovefest. Ellis went to catch one of Kerhsaw’s bullpens in Jacksonville when Kershaw was working on his changeup. Frustrated by the pitch’s lack of deception, he kept throwing it high and away so the batter wouldn’t swing at it. Ellis called out to hi, “Hey! Get the ball down!” Annoyed, Kerhsaw looked back at Ellis and yelled: “Hey! Relax!”
“And that was when I realized it was better if I didn’t try to talk to him when he pitched,” said Ellis.
On the morning Greinke threw his first bullpen session for the Dodgers the following spring, Ellis approached him and asked him how he liked to warm up...Greinke smirked and stared at his feet. “I’m pretty easy,” he said. “You go over there and I’ll stand over here. I’ll throw the ball and you catch it. Then you throw it back to me.” Ellis couldn’t contain his laughter. He laughed again when, weeks into the season when the Dodgers were stuck in a painful slump, he asked Greinke what roster moves he might make to improve the team. Greinke considered the question carefully, as he always did, then came back to Ellis with his answer. “Well, the first thing I’d do is trade you because your value will never be higher,” Greinke said. And then I’d sign Brian McCann in the off-season to play catcher so we can upgrade the position offensively.” He was serious….
Greinke wasn’t trying to be rude. He just lacked the ability to sugarcoat words as they stumbled off his tongue. Once, after Greinke had been riding Elis hard for being so slow on the basepaths that Greinke’s bunts had to be perfect to sacrifice Ellis over, a teammate told Greinke that for every five mean things he said to someone he had to pay one compliment. He was half joking, but Greinke took it to heart. The next day, Greinke approached Ellis between innings and told him he’d done a nice job framing a low pitch. Ellis wondered what the hell he was talking about. Then he remembered Greinke’s new orders to be nice. He laughed again.
The point of the first story is that Ellis knew when to back off and defer to his pitcher’s judgment of his own wants and needs.
The point of the second story is that Ellis had enough understanding of how his pitcher ticked to know not to let the pitcher’s eccentricity get to him.
The point of both stories is that Ellis is a good catcher because he knows it’s not about him or about the pitcher. It’s about what works best to help the team win.
To do their jobs well, good catchers have to be all things to all men. They have to know the game better than anyone on the field. They have to be aware of everything that’s happening on the field. They have to know their own team’s strengths and weaknesses on defense. They have to know the opposing team’s just as well. And since they’re expected to hit with power and for average, they have to know themselves pretty well too. What’s more they have to be able to read minds. Their pitchers’, their managers’ and coaches, the opposing batters’, the umpires. They have to be able to negotiate, cajole, calm, encourage, inspire, and persuade. They have to be able to deal diplomatically with all sorts and conditions of difficult characters---eccentrics, egomaniacs, and nutcases---and other high-strung, proud, competitive, talented young men who because they are so talented and so young are often arrogant young men who for one reason or another don’t take kindly to criticism or even helpful advice. In order to handle all this, catchers have to be psychologically astute and, at least on the field, in command of their own egos and emotions. They have to be self-effacing and self-sacrificing. It’s not that they have to be lacking in ego and pride. They just have to be able to keep both in check. For the good of the team, and for the sake of their own sanity, they can’t take any of it personally.
All of this is why conventional baseball wisdom has it that catchers, when their playing days are over, make the best managers.
It’s also why two good baseball movies, both of which have been recent features of Mannion Family Movie Night, Bull Durham and A League of Their Own, have catchers as their protagonists. The stories of both films hinge on their catcher-hero/heroine submerging their egos and sacrificing their pride for the good of the team and to advance another player’s career.
Bull Durham holds up beautifully, thanks mainly to Susan Sarandon’s performance and the whole conception of her character, that worshipper at the Church of Baseball, Annie Savoy. But it tells a good baseball story that’s self-contained. Other sports movies depend on building to the Big Game for tension and suspense. Bull Durham is content to be about loving baseball for baseball's own sake.
A League of Their Own holds up less well, and I didn’t think it was all that good when it came out. I enjoyed it, and not only for Tom Hanks’ and Geena Davis’ performances, terrific as those were. And it’s still a fun and often funny film---though not as funny as I remembered it. It’s also not as well-made as I remembered it and it wasn’t on my list of potential Oscar-winners back then. In fact, it’s small in scale and artistic ambition, rather shoddily made, uninspired cinematically, and somewhat perfunctorily directed by Penny Marshall, who seems to have approached it as if she was shooting a three-camera sitcom on a studio sound sage. Long shot followed by medium shot followed by close up, again and again, with scene-setting cover shots interspersed as needed.
And it doesn’t look right.
That is, it doesn’t look like it’s taking place in the period.
The details are right. The costumes, the make-up, the sets including the color schemes, the props---they’re authentically 1940s America. But they don’t come together to give the film the feel of the times. The period and places don’t come to life because the things that are meant to tell us when and where we are aren’t used in a lively way. Marshall doesn’t put them to work (or play around with them) to add texture, add motion, or add visual or aural commentary. She doesn’t give them to her actors to use for character-defining business. She just photographs them. They’re statements of historical facts, items from a museum catalog, not indispensible tools of her storytelling kit.
Not only doesn’t it look like a glimpse into the past. It barely looks like a movie.
It looks more like a TV movie of the week from the 1970s doing its best on a low budget to suggest time and place than a Hollywood feature film---lit in a wash, with stodgy, uninspired camera work, lots of unutilized space within frames, little to look at in the foregrounds or backgrounds, most shots laid out along a single plane. I seem to remember that a critical complaint from the late 80s and early 90s was that movies were being made with the idea that they would be watched on more television screens than movie screens, thanks to the sudden ubiquity of VHRs. There were few widescreen TVs back then and a 27-inch screen was considered large. I can’t get into the problems with color and depth of focus because I don’t know the technical details. Everything had to be shrunk to fit and toned down to be visually comprehensible to audiences watching from their couches.
That’s what I remember, anyway. I don’t know if that’s what was at work here but it would explain Marshall’s by the numbers approach. Some of the same downsizing effects are evident in Bull Durham too, it turns out, but director Ron Shelton and his cinematographer, Bobby Byrne, and his designers were more skillful and inspired when it came to mixing things up, composing shots that filled in spaces without overcrowding them, keeping the focus on the actors, and giving the film its own look and sound.
Plus there’s Shelton’s wonderful script in which every exchange of dialog counts and most of the lines are gems or, at any rate, fastballs grooved right into Susan Sarandon’s, Kevin Costner’s, and Tim Robbins’ wheelhouses.
A League of Their Own has plenty of funny one-liners, some good speeches----and one great one. You know which one I mean.---but very little real dialog. Just about everything the characters say they say to the audience. It’s exposition. And the exchanges don’t fall flat just because of the weak writing.
The acting’s weak too.
Actors don’t talk to each other. They talk at each other. They seem to be listening only for their cues. “Are you done? Good. Now it’s my turn to tell the audience about my character.” The exceptions are Davis and Hanks but only in their scenes together.
Costner listens to the batboy in their two-line exchange with every bit as much attention as he does to Sarandon and Robbins.
I wonder how much I overlooked A League of Their Own’s weaknesses the first time I saw it because of the surprise of Hanks’ performance as the team’s reluctant manager Jimmy Dugan. I now take Hanks’ brilliance for granted but this was the first movie in which he proved that Big wasn’t a fluke and Bonfire of the Vanities wasn’t his fault. Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Toy Story---don’t underestimate how much Woody contributed to Hanks’ reputation and the establishment of his movie star persona---all followed one right after the other so closely that what he did as Dugan got folded into his growing legend fairly quickly and it’s hard to remember how new it seemed at the time.
But the main thing that diminishes A League of Their Own for me now is the same thing that disappointed me, in fact, infuriated me then.
It doesn’t take baseball seriously.
Despite its seeming dependence on its being based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, baseball is not intrinsic to the story. It’s colorful background for a domestic tale of two feuding sisters, to whom the beauties, intricacies, demands, and fun of the sport aren’t nearly as important to them as their personal drama.
Dottie Hinson, star catcher for the Dugan-managed Rockford Peaches (Davis) doesn’t even want to play baseball. Her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty), a talented pitcher with a big chip on her shoulder, plays only for herself---everything she does, on the field and off, is about proving she’s better than her kindly, self-sacrificing, much more talented big sister. And with that sibling rivalry centering the plot, everything that happens between the two leads could have been played out without their ever leaving the family farm where the movie finds them at the beginning and for all it matters what they compete at the climactic scene could be a milking contest or a bake off. Which is a way of saying that their particular skills, talents, and achievements aren’t really important. A very strange lapse of thematic focus for a movie that’s ostensibly celebrating women’s skills, talents, and achievements in a particular profession they were traditionally assumed not to be as capable as men at excelling in.
Just as strange is that it’s a baseball movie about a pair of ballplayers who don’t care about baseball and don’t get any enjoyment from it.
It doesn’t help that while the movie seems to expect us to be torn in our sympathies between Dottie and Kit, Kit is almost impossible to sympathize with. She’s selfish, self-centered, oblivious, unfeeling toward Dottie, and consequently, and almost invariably, wrong about everything. Basically, she’s an overgrown brat. Some of Kit’s lack of appeal is due to Petty’s not being a natural movie star. She can’t capture an audience’s attention and affection just by soaking up light. She’s a good actress playing the part as written but not a good enough actress to play against how it’s written.
But thanks to how it’s written, on top of everything else is that because Kit’s a selfish player who stubbornly refuses to be coached, she’s a bad ballplayer, despite her supposed talent, and doesn’t deserve to succeed. This puts the baseball fans like me in the position of rooting against her for the good of the game. That would be fine, in another movie. In this movie, though, we’re not only expected to root for her, we’re expected to think it’s a happy ending that she succeeds even though she doesn’t change her ways.
The worst part, though, is that in the end the movie betrays itself by betraying its characters and baseball.
Kit triumphs by being the bad ballplayer she’s been shown to be. This happens sometimes. Bad and selfish players get away with decisions that ought to have cost their team a run or the game. But not only is not supposed to happen, it usually doesn’t because bad play produces bad outcomes nearly 100 percent of the time and so a bad players manager and teammates don’t put up with a bad player’s bad play or bad attitude, at least not for long.
But Kit also gets away with it because Dottie seemingly helps her.
This might be the result of bad editing or a poor directing choice on Marshall’s part---she might not have trusted the audience to take in what happens---but it looked to me then and looks to me now like Dottie deliberately drops the ball.
Dottie, the ultimate team player lets her deserving teammates down---out and out betrays them---in order to make her spoiled brat of a baby sister feel better about herself.
It baffles me why the filmmakers chose to give their lead character the first name and reputation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s best player, Dottie Collins, but then gave Collins’ career to Kit. Leaving aside the unintended slur of Collins brought about by equating Collins with Kit, I understand why the movie’s Dottie is a catcher not a pitcher. I don’t understand why she isn’t allowed to have not just a career as stellar as Collins’ but any real baseball career at all and apparently it’s by her own choice.
In the end, Dottie, who knows how good a ballplayer she is, knows she could come back and lead the team to the championship next season, decides to give it all up to go back home to Nowheresville, Oregon for a life on the farm as Mrs Boring Despite His Being Played by Bill Pullman Wounded War Hero.
The heroine of a movie about how women can do anything men can do and often do it better is the least proto-feminist of the female characters and her happy ending is to watch her sister go on to have what would be if it had been possible a Hall of Fame type of career while she lives obscurely and self-effacingly but contentedly as a wife and mother.
When I tweeted about this back in July, my sister-in-law, Mrs Luke Mannion, stepped into the box to tell me I’d missed the point.
Dottie doesn’t get a happy ending.
Women of that era like Dottie didn’t.
Not that kind of happy ending, at any rate.
Mulling it over, I think I see Mrs Luke's point.
Crash Davis has a lot of pride and it’s been wounded again and again over time. And it takes another blow when the movie begins. In one way, his being given the job of teaching the feckless and selfish phenomenon Nuke LaLoosh how to be a good pitcher as a sign that the organization respects Crash's baseball intelligence and character and trusts him to handle what in their eyes is their major league teams future fortunes. But he's savvy enough to see that it's also a clear indication they have no use for him anymore as a player in his own right. He fairly certain that no matter how well things go with the education of Nuke, his own career is probably done. It's almost the last straw. He's already frustrated, disappointed, angry, and at the point of turning on himself, thinking that not only is he a failure, he's a fool for ever thinking he might have ever had a chance to make it to the majors.
It doesn't help that not only is Nuke as a person hardly worth the effort, he's a rival for Annie Savoy's affections, which Nuke doesn't deserve anymore than he deserves the talent the baseball gods have bestowed upon him.
What keeps Crash going is his love for the game and his faith. Like Annie, he's a believer who worships in the Church of Baseball. He only comes to grudgingly like Nuke. But he feels responsible for him. More specifically, he feels responsible for Nuke's becoming as good a player as his talent warrants. And taking this responsibility seriously becomes a point of pride with him.
Dottie has no pride, no vanity, and practically no ego. She isn’t a saint because she has no belief in anything. She’s self-sacrificing by reflex. Baseball is not her church or even at the top of the list of her interests. When we meet her she’s playing in a company league but it seems to be to giver her something to do while she’s waiting for her husband to come home from World War II and she can devote herself to the family they’ll start together and her farm work isn’t taking up enough of her free time. Baseball isn’t fun for her. As I said earlier, it’s not fun for Kit either. In fact the the only members of the team having fun playing the game are Madonna’s and Rosie O’Donnell’s which is why they are the most fun to watch when Tom Hanks isn’t on screen. But for Dottie baseball is more than not fun. It’s a painful obligation she can’t wait to be rid of because it does what she most hates---causes people to praise her and tempts her to put herself and her desires ahead of other people’s.
By training and upbringing (and by temperament), Dottie is in the habit of putting other people’s needs---particularly her family’s, which will come to include her husband and their children---ahead of her own wants, dreams, and desires. Women then were expected not to have any wants, dreams, and desires of their own. Still are, in some quarters. Dottie is a product of a time she helps to bring to an end through her self-sacrifice. She’s a heroine because she leads others to their individual and collective Promised Lands, but she doesn’t get to enter the land flowing with milk and honey herself. She ennobles Kit, redeems Dugan, and more or less saves the careers of all the Rockford Peaches by keeping the entire league in business through the popularity and respect she earns for herself and women ballplayers by being the best player in the league. But she’s denied any share of the credit and glory and isn’t even allowed to take satisfaction in what she’s accomplished.
At the end of Bull Durham, Crash winds up with Annie, a happy enough ending for anyone, but his playing days are over and his future in baseball far from guaranteed. The manager's job he's planning to apply for and is hoping will set him on a different sort of path to the major leagues may not even be open. When he shows up on Annie's front porch he's feeling heartbroken and defeated. And the movie allows him the dignity of his sadness. Before they start dancing in celebration of their romance, Annie joins him in grieving for his lost career and unfulfilled dreams.
I’m not convinced we're intended to see Dottie's story as having a less than happy ending, let alone see her as a tragic figure, but if we are, then not only does A League of Their Own betray baseball and its characters in the end, it betrays the feminist principles it otherwise congratulates itself for celebrating. The movie's final scene minimizes any lingering regret and resentment Dottie might feel and even attempts to wash it away with a gush of sentimentality and nostalgia. Dottie isn't allowed the dignity of her sadness. She isn't even given her due for the sacrifices she made. And she is shown to be still, nearly fifty years later, trying to make it up to Kit for being the better ballplayer and person and we're meant to find this amusing and endearing instead of perverse and pathetic..
It's debatable whether or not we're meant to see Dottie deliberately drop the ball. But either way it's still a question whether or not Kit is out anyway. It looks to me like the tag's put on before Kit reaches the plate and Dottie has control of the ball when she tags Kit and holds onto it well after an umpire who wasn't blind would have called Kit out. But what's your call? Here's the clip.
A League of Their Own capped a decade of good baseball movies, including, beside Bull Durham, The Natural, Eight Men Out, Major League, and Mr. Baseball. Of those others, I think Major League is the most fun for fans because it best captures the the rhythm of a season, the excitement of being at the ballpark watching your team win, and the importance to a community of a having a team to root for. But although it builds predictably to the Big Game, the most thrilling moment isn’t the play that wins it, but the moment that has become a matter of routine celebration for the fans---Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn’s coming in from the bullpen. And the thrill is in the fans’ communal enjoyment and our getting to share in their fun. We’re brought into the game too.
Also at Amazon, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse by Molly Knight, in hardcover and for kindle.