in honor of opening day (for most of the major league), brent johnson gives a unique look at some of the best movies about america’s favorite past time.
To me, baseball is the most elegant, beautifully complex sport on the planet. Look at the way a double sails into the gap. The way a perfect pitch can paint the corner of the plate. The way a single inning — with a deluge of runs — can change the course of an evening.
Maybe that’s why baseball films are also the most poetic sports movies. Rocky is the ultimate underdog saga. Hoosiers has the greatest drama-drenched closing sequence. But more than any sport, baseball has produced the greatest amount of sports movie moments — because it has built-in nostalgia, built-in glory and built-in beauty.
So in honor of the start of this season of Major League Baseball — the Yankees opened with a loss against their hated Red Sox last night and the Mets begin by playing the Marlins at Shea … I mean, CitiField today — here are my favorite baseball flicks, presented in my own diamond-themed categories:
THE HALL-OF-FAME MANAGER
Description: The movie that’s like Connie Mack — an early 20th century coach who was a consummate professional and always a winner; in other words, the patriarch of all baseball movies
Example: The Natural
Barry Levinson’s 1982 rich, moving, sepia-toned adaptation of the classic novel about a washed-up player with a second chance at stardom is the consummate baseball film. It feeds of the game’s best traits: fairy-tale magic, childhood hopes, dashed dreams, underdog stories — and glorious, heroic moments. It also is a picture of the game at the height of its popularity: the early 20th century, when baseball was THE sporting event, just above horse-racing and boxing. Plus, I like that Levinson changed the book’s ending — if only for that wondrous Randy Newman score booming as the home-run ball smacks into the lights. That’s baseball at its best.
THE STARTING PITCHER
Description: The movie that’s like Greg Maddux — consistently strong, consistently entertaining and a valuable part of your rotation
Example: A League Of Their Own
Tom Hanks alone is worth a watch. Just marvel in the way he calls an umpire a “penis with a hat on.” Penny Marshall’s exploration of women’s baseball is more than just quotable — it’s funny, heartfelt, educational and endlessly enjoyable.
THE LEADOFF HITTER
Description: The movie that’s like Jose Reyes — a reliable hitter who can get on base, always making you perk up with wonder
Example: The Sandlot
It’s more than just a kid’s movie. But this tale of summer bonding and one unruly dog shows that baseball is a kid’s game — a sport that grips you when you’re young and stays with you. It instantly reminds you why baseball is the national pastime. The July 4th sequence is a surprisingly moving metaphor for that theory.
THE NO. 3 HITTER
Description: The movie that’s like George Brett — the best, most sturdy hitter on your team, always able to come through in the clutch
Example: Major League
Even more so than Bull Durham — the baseball comedy of all baseball comedies, but one that has never struck me as being genius — this playful poke at the Cleveland Indians is funny and well-made no matter how many times you see it. It’s also an example that rooting for the lovable loser in baseball — hello, fans of the Mets, Cubs, Phillies and yes, Indians — is actually endearing.
THE UNDERRATED VETERAN
Description: The movie that’s like Rafael Palmiero — a player you don’t fully appreciate for years, then realize is amazing
Example: Eight Men Out
When people talk about baseball movies, you always hear about Bull Durham or Field Of Dreams. But you don’t hear much about Eight Men Out. Which is a shame. It’s my favorite baseball movie. John Sayles’ telling of the 1919 White Sox — or Black Sox — game-throwing scandal is a masterful drama and a stirring document of baseball history.
THE SCRAPPY UTILITY PLAYER
Description: The movie that’s like David Eckstein — a fun, energetic, taken-for-granted player who makes you smile every now and then
Example: Little Big League
I know. The premise is ridiculous: The owner of the Minnesota Twins dies and leaves the team to his pre-teen grandson, who then names himself the manager. But it’s less ridiculous than the campy Rookie Of The Year. Mainly because this movie seems to have a true love of the game — and more believable game-time sequences. It’s cute, and I like it. Bench me if you don’t agree.