Sports Cinema: A Natural Love for the Game


Editor’s Update: On Saturday, April 21st, 2012, Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox pitched the 21st Perfect Game in Major League Baseball history. Another moment in baseball history when perfection was achieved, making the analysis below of Billy Chapel’s accomplishment appropriate to one more man who has taken the mound in the quest for perfection.

In a year when three of my favorite/most critically acclaimed films were tributes to the nostalgic era of 1920s cinema, film’s impact on America’s culture of leisure is quite clear. When people weren’t captured by the moving pictures, they were enraptured by Jack Dempsey and the sweet science or by Murderer’s Row dominating America’s pastime. News reels of Babe Ruth aired before Douglas Fairbanks graced the silver screen.  In America’s pantheon of heroes and icons, movie stars and athletic all-stars have always filled the hallowed halls. So, with spring training upon us, Opening Day weeks away, and a new film season before us, it’s time to turn to our past.

In the recent B.S. Report podcast where Bill Simmons interviewed President Obama in the White House, President Obama spoke about the power of the myth of sports, how it can bring people together who may agree on nothing else, and how it may be one of the truest meritocracies in our society.

Every winter when the Academy Awards graces the small screen, we get movie stars gushing about the history of film, how it has captured their imagination since childhood, and how it expands our horizons while carrying us to far away places and pushing our minds to think about things in ways we’ve never thought about them before.

Sports and movies are very intertwined.  Many of the most inspiring, goose bump-inducing films are about sports. Pastors from pulpits relate Biblical tales and universal truths to sports, movies, and sometimes sports movies. Why is this? Because as much as movies are a portal to a world we’ve never seen or a window into people’s lives we barely know (whether real or fictional), movies are also a mirror revealing to us our own human frailty, sinfulness, and potential for redemption.

Given these aspects of movies, it should come as no surprise that sports and movies meet so often with such popular and memorable results. As both Memphis and Vanderbilt’s college basketball seasons have ended on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, it’s time for me to turn towards The Masters, the Memphis Grizzlies playoff run, a hopeful Linsanity redux, and baseball season. During the next month or so, I’m going to provide you with a peek inside my mind.  Starting two years ago during my first year of Teach For America, I accumulated a lot of baseball movies on my DVR in the spring.  Coming home, pouring myself a big glass of scotch or pouring myself a cold one, I’d sit on the couch at the end of a long, rough day in the classroom, and I’d lose myself in the world of a classic baseball film. This year, I’ve begun to do the same thing during my 1L year. Why?

I find myself in similar conversations all the time. What is the greatest sports movie of all time? Is baseball a dying sport? What is America’s sport? A few weeks ago, I found myself discussing the merits of baseball with some individuals who simply don’t like baseball much. But then, in defending my pick for greatest sports movie ever (in due time, good reader, in due time), I appealed to the romance and history of baseball.  It’s seen clearly in a look at the collective survey of the best sports movies of all time. I highly doubt that you’d find a sport represented more often than baseball. Now while an argument can be made that reinforces this emphasizing the PAST in baseball as America’s pastime, I argue that it matters. Baseball is about the romance and this history of it all.  It is exactly why it still matters so much. Moneyball was the only “sports” movie nominated for Best Picture last year. And, while it focused on universal human themes, these themes were embodied on the baseball diamond and in the baseball clubhouse. Most of us in the Millennial generation grew up playing baseball, whether little league or sandlot-style. It’s something we can relate to. It’s something in our American cultural DNA. It’s why so many entries in the Sports Cinema Hall of Fame are baseball movies.  But it’s not simply because baseball is the most important sport (very debatable now in 2012) or is America’s pastime. I argue that it is because the history and romance of baseball defines for us as Americans how we relate to sports.

So in several entries over the next few weeks, I’m going to provide you a peek inside my baseball movie-watching.  Some of these films are old, some are new.  And the ones I watch this year will be, by no means, an exhaustive list.  But they’re inevitably some of the all-time greats that give us a peek into our cultural DNA and why baseball is America’s pastime.

FOR LOVE OF THE GAME (1999) Starring Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, and John C. Reilly

When I told several friends I’d be starting my journey here, they scoffed. Multiple people said the exact same thing: “That’s not a baseball movie. That’s a love story.” No better place to start then, in my mind.

As a film that tracks an old veteran pitcher in the twilight of his career’s attempt to pitch a perfect game, what’s not to love? First of all, any jog through great baseball movies will involve spending a lot of time with Kevin Costner. Kevin Costner should get in the Sports Cinema Hall of Fame on the first ballot.  He should be voted in unanimously. So to a decade after Field of Dreams and a decade and a half after Bull Durham comes Kevin Costner as an old baseball player (very believable) who loves the game more than anything (also very believable in Hollywood sports land) having the chance to achieve rare perfection in sports.

Perfection. It’s a funny word. Michael J. Fox once said, “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” While this is very true, one sport gives us something called “a perfect game.”  In baseball, a pitcher who pitches a complete game (all 9 innings) without allowing one single base-runner is said to have pitched a perfect game.  It’s just one more of the many mythological aspects of the game.  It’s extremely rare. As Wikipedia tells us, “Over the 143 years of Major League Baseball history, there have been only 20 official perfect games by the current definition. More people have orbited the moon than have pitched a major league perfect game. No pitcher has ever thrown more than one.” 

So how can a film about Kevin “Baseball Movie All-Star” Costner pitching a perfect game not be on a must-watch list of baseball movies as the season starts? Well, many argue it’s actually a love story.  While we see Costner’s character, Billy Chapel, pitching this perfect game, we see him flashing back to his long, up-and-down, love story with Kelly Preston’s character, who had recently decided to dump Billy and move to London.  Her character is watching this perfect game attempt in the airport. Most of the movie is flashbacks to when they met, their first date, their second date, the good times, and the bad times.

It’s this love story that makes this more than a baseball movie.  Ya see, no great baseball movie is great simply because of baseball.  It’s about the humanity of the players, the fans, their families, the managers, the owners, the cleat-chasers, the bellboys, and everyone else. A great baseball movie isn’t great because the team won the championship or Billy Chapel pitched a perfect game. It’s because of the past failures, the human frailties, the impending trade/retirement, or the monkey(s) on the back(s) of the team/player(s).

It’s about losing the championship but realizing that there’s something bigger.

It’s about winning the championship in spite of (and sometimes even because of) everyone telling you that you never would and the hundreds/thousands/millions of failed attempts at success along the way.

It’s about that last one great achievement/mark on history before the inevitable disappearance into retirement and/or death.

It’s about pitching the perfect game through pain and distraction, realizing that you just love the game so much that you have to walk away because you realize that, at the moment of utmost success in your professional life, you still feel empty and incomplete inside.

And thus is the power of this film.  A great baseball movie will inevitably be a love story.  But this one is rare because the love story between the man and the game is not enough.  It’s powerful.  It’s all-consuming. It inspires millions of people.  But, for Billy Chapel, it is not enough. Professional success in the top priority of his entire life is not enough. He can’t do life alone. As great as the achievement is, he needs something else, or in this case, someone else.

Cheesy? Maybe. Combination of cliche baseball movie and cliche romantic dramedy? Probably.

But watch this movie honestly, and tell me you don’t get goosebumps.  Tell me that you don’t think to yourself about your life priorities and how much time/energy/focus you give to different things.  Tell me you don’t want Billy to succeed. But, most of all, tell me that you don’t want Billy to realize that there has to be something more than that perfect game.  Because as powerful, mythological, and historical as baseball is, the home runs, the championships, and the perfect games in real life and on film aren’t what makes the stories so inspiring and memorable.  It’s the human element, the history of the players, their failures (both professional and personal), and their overcoming of all those obstacles to still succeed and develop as people that provides the true lasting power.  And few films give as much balance to both the professional and personal as For Love of the Game.

Top 5 Quotes from FOR LOVE OF THE GAME:

5. Gus Sinski: The boys are all here for ya, we’ll back you up, we’ll be there, cause, Billy, we don’t stink right now. We’re the best team in baseball, right now, right this minute, because of you. You’re the reason. We’re not gonna screw that up, we’re gonna be awesome for you right now. Just throw.

4. Jane Aubrey: [describing Billy] You’re perfect. You, and the ball, and the diamond, you’re this perfectly beautiful thing. You can win or lose the game, all by yourself. You don’t need me.

3. Billy Chapel: I used to believe, I still do, that if you give something your all it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you’ve risked everything put everything out there. And I’ve done that. I did it my entire life. I did it with the game. But I never did it with you, I never gave you that. And I’m sorry. I know I’m on really thin ice but, when you said I didn’t need you… well last night should’ve been the biggest night of my life, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t because you weren’t there. So I just wanted to tell you, not to change your mind or keep you from going, but just so you know, that I know, that I do need you.

2. Billy Chapel: God, I always said I would never bother you about baseball, Lord knows you have bigger things to worry about. But if you could make this pain in my shoulder stop for ten minutes, I would really appreciate it.

Billy Chapel: Clear the Mechanism.
[nothing happens; it doesn’t work]
Billy Chapel: Clear the Mechanism.
[it still doesn’t work]
Billy Chapel: [nodding] All right; all right.

1. Vin Scully: And you know Steve you get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn’t pitching against left handers, he isn’t pitching against pinch hitters, he isn’t pitching against the Yankees. He’s pitching against time. He’s pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer. 



Posted on by Joseph Williams in Baseball, Featured, Movie Reviews, Movies, Sports

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