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Tag Archive: The Natural


   

Review by C.J. Bunce

Summer means baseball, and so it’s time again to delve back into the mythology of the game.  Like every other American sport, baseball is very different than it was when Bernard Malamud wrote his first novel, The Natural, in 1952.  At that point countless fictional stories had been written about the game, yet it’s his story that grabbed the attention of readers and it has since been referred to as both the first great baseball novel and the best ever written.  The novel was made into a major film that was nominated for four Oscars and starred Robert Redford as hero/antihero Roy Hobbs–the film, too, is on many rankings of the best sports movies ever made.  For those who have only seen the film, they’ll find most of the novel familiar, but several differences will make the movie more enjoyable for most.  Roy of the book is an oddity but in different ways than the Roy of the movie.  Malamud’s story is a dressing down of baseball more than an inspiring showcase of the great American pastime.  The movie on the other hand is another film about a fractured sports hero who comes out on top in the end.

For its day, and without the benefit of all the great baseball stories, real or imaginary, that have been passed around since, Malamud’s novel is a fine piece of American literature.  It’s about a young man who creates a baseball bat that he names Wonderboy.  It either possesses some kind of magic, or it’s all in Roy’s head.  Either way, Roy experiences the same bad luck (being at the wrong place at the wrong time results in Roy getting shot), misfortunes (he misses his opportunity to be a professional player because of the gunshot, and so he doesn’t get a chance again until everyone else says he is too old), trials (he’s constantly after the woman who doesn’t care about him when the one we all know he belongs with is right there in front of him), and successes (he eventually albeit briefly gets his fifteen minutes of fame).  Yet Roy’s ego and the general lack of develop of the other characters result in a story with truly no one to care about.  The baseball as backdrop is thin, nothing so deeply researched and vivid, for example, as Harry Turtledove’s The House of Daniel (reviewed here at borg.com last year).  Malamud writes his baseball scenes with the feel of a radio announcer shouting out the stats during gameplay.  His hero/antihero could be a driven character who fails and falls in any story (any sport or any vocation), and it feels like baseball is more of an excuse to tell Roy’s story.

   

Yet there is something about the aura of baseball that Malamud gets right.  His novel does illustrate well the level of superstition among baseball players, which continues today.  His cast of characters may have determined the similar stereotypical cast of characters in every baseball movie since.  Yet Malamud couldn’t find a place for real women in a baseball story, so he populates his story with three odd characters: the first shoots Roy (and incredibly enough was based on a real incident, the shooting of Eddie Waitkus, derived from the dark recesses of baseball lore), the second only has value for Roy because she is attractive, and plays the siren luring him to the dark side (aka rigged gambling), and the third is like some kind of sign from God, a muse for Roy appearing from nowhere to make Roy win at baseball again after a long slump.  So ultimately readers will need to dig deep to find the Americana in the book–hidden between the action you can find it as he revisits his dreams and memories of the past, as he looks out the train windows, and as he tries and fails to figure out what makes him tick.

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chris-pratt-moneyball

It’s that time of year again.  The 2016 World Series is now in full swing with the first game a sweep by the Cleveland Indians.  How will the Chicago Cubs fare in Game 2 tonight?  If you’re not in the baseball frame of mind yet, we have five of the all-time best baseball movies you can stream right now for free or for less than four dollars on Amazon Prime’s streaming service.  Most of these can also be rented on Netflix.  And let’s face it–everyone should own our fifth movie on the list.

Have you seen them already?  Then you know these great films can be watched over and over again.

Let’s start with a classic:  Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees from 1942.  The movie recounts the then-recent personal triumph and tragedy of what baseball as an American pastime has created over and over for more than a century: baseball players as American icons.  Pride of the Yankees shows the personal side of being a famous baseball player, and features real-life legends Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Mark Koenig, and Bill Dickey, all playing themselves on-screen.  Academy Award winners Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan co-star.  If you want to see classic baseball from a contemporary view, this is your movie.  Although the story is certainly bittersweet and a tear-jerker, it reflects baseball as more than just a game.

pride-of-the-yankees-babe-ruth-gary-cooper

The most recent movie on our list is Moneyball, from 2011, a modern classic we’ve already watched over and over.  Moneyball reveals the game as a modern business.  The conflict between playing the game as classically envisioned and the game as seen from an analytical angle is wrestled with from the real life mostly true story of the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane as he turned the team around in its 2002 season.
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Eddie the Eagle poster

At a critical point in last year’s World Series the crowd drew silent and a fan in the crowd could be seen in the Jumbotron holding up a sign with three words:  Never say die.  The crowd erupted.  And his team went on to win.

In Ice Castles a young woman overcomes blindness to become part of a successful figure skating team.  In Rudy a young man fights desperately to play college football.  In Caddyshack a kid picks principle over a college scholarship to compete in a round of high stakes golf.  In Slap Shot and Necessary Roughness a coach tries some innovative methods to turn a losing team into a successful hockey or football team.  In The Bad News Bears and The Mighty Ducks, a coach tries to make a team of youth baseball or hockey players out of a group of misfits.   In The Natural, Field of Dreams, and Moneyball a has-been baseball player returns to the game to save the day.  In Pride of the Yankees a professional baseball player tries to fight a terminal disease to keep playing the game.  In Jim Thorpe–All American a Native American overcomes racism and class struggle to become a track, football, and Olympic icon.  In Brian’s Song two professional football players move past racial differences and face a terminal illness.  In Rocky and Creed a guy from the streets fights to be a contender in the boxing ring.  In Cool Runnings (Jamaican bobsled), The Cutting Edge (pair figure skating), and Chariots of Fire (track) athletes overcome their personal trials to compete in the Olympics.

The underdog finally has his day.

Eddie the Eagle cap

Each of these sports movies follows a trial against adversity, whether it be a physical, mental, social, economic, or cultural barrier.  Some are seriously dramatic and others comical, but most manage to include more than an ounce of humor along the way.  And all incorporate plenty of heart.  But they all share the theme of “beating the odds”.

A new movie from 20th Century Fox looks destined to be the next beat-the-odds sports movie triumph, and seems like it may be good enough to be added to this list of great sports films based on a new trailer.  Eddie the Eagle follows a British skier who in 1988 became the first competitor to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping.

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By C.J. Bunce

It’s All Star Major League Baseball week, and if you’re roaming around host city Kansas City this week, don’t bother trying to figure out those big symbols painted on the street at intersections throughout the city.  You’re probably better off not looking at the pavement as you drive, anyway.  They’re just ads for the event.  Planning and reporting for this week’s festivities made me ask myself:  How many host cities are asked to tear down dozens of houses to improve the appeal of major events?  That’s right, part of the deal to get the big MLB extravaganza into town was agreeing to tear down a bunch of abandoned east side homes near baseball fields holding related games.  Those supporting the action say it caused the city to get off its rear and act on something they needed to do anyway.  But local elected officials have been voicing their dismay on behalf of neighborhood residents–why do we need a sporting event to clean up our city?

This same week, halfway across the country, 150,000 or so fanboys and fangirls will descend upon San Diego for the annual International Comic-Con. It makes you wonder–how many houses are getting torn down in San Diego?  Both All Star Week and Comic-Con bring in money for their towns, and from a city management standpoint, that’s all that matters.  For a city like Kansas City, you don’t get many bites at the apple, not many chances to bring in national events, although the city has built up major convention centers like the Sprint Center and Kauffman Performing Arts Center–facilities that rival their counterparts across the country no matter what size the city, and these venues are attracting the commensurate talent. Kauffman Stadium, where the All Star game will be played Tuesday, is without dispute one of the best venues to see baseball anywhere–its giant scoreboard video screen is one of the top of its kind in the country.

Sponsors have dumped hundred of thousands of dollars into promotions for All Star week.  Nike, Chevrolet, Bank of America, even the Budweiser Clydesdales are all at the stadium, despite temperatures nearing 100 degrees (plan on buying a lot of bottled water if you’re going in person).  At the Sprint Center even more promotional activities are underway at the “Fan Fest,” including members of the original women’s baseball league featured in the movie A League of their Own.  Again, baseball is about money, money and money.  And so is Comic-Con.  If you’re a fan of either, you just ignore all the glitz and go after what you want–watching the baseball game (which seems like it may be an afterthought with all the promotions) and meeting your favorite comic book artists and writers and your favorite TV and movie stars, once you make it through the crowds at Comic-Con.

So I figured, what better way to start out All Star Baseball and Comic-Con week than revisiting the successful Brad Pitt movie Moneyball?  Last October, borg.com writer Jason McClain was a bit dismayed with the film.  He had read the source material, based on actual events and real people, and I think his best praise was that the film was just OK.  After finally seeing it, if you’re like me–less of a diehard baseball fan and more of a baseball movie fan, you may very well love Moneyball.  In fact, I’d argue inclusion of Moneyball is a must on a future borg.com Top 10 baseball movie list.

Jason identified the best part of the film, namely Pitt as protagonist Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and young Yale economics grad Pete Brand (name changed from the original person in the story) played by Jonah Hill (Superbad) in a much deserved Academy Award-nominated role for best supporting actor.  In an attempt to encourage Beane to push everything aside and do the right thing for himself, Pete shows Beane footage of a classic baseball moment–Jeremy Brown rarely takes the chance to round first and break for second base.  This one time he does he screws up and tries to make it back to first, getting tagged by the first baseman in the process.  What Brown didn’t realize was that his hit made it over the wall.  He’d hit a home run and didn’t know it.  Pete’s point?  Beane was a success and just didn’t know enough to stop and soak it up.

Moneyball is obviously about money in baseball–not just how baseball has changed from its origins into this established, maybe bloated system that resists any effort to change with the times.  It applies to movie stars in NYC and Hollywood, too, but you have to ask: Does anyone deserve $7 million for whatever they do?  I once made it to a day game to see the Yankees play in the Bronx.  Strawberry struck out at bat.  Twice.  Pretty underwhelming game.  But what was memorable was all the local kids at the game.  Each one had a well-marked season’s scorecard with plenty of margin notes.  These were the diehard fans.  And when you think about increasing prices everywhere, including tickets for baseball games or movies, you wonder at what point fans will just stop going.  Or for a change, when prices actually drop.  But that would require thinking differently.  That would require real change.

More than money, Moneyball is simply a great sports story.  Brad Pitt offers one of his less difficult but most subtle and smartly played roles.  For the first time since Twelve Monkeys I saw Pitt in the big leagues as an equal to the likes of Robert Redford in The Natural.  (One humorous bit is every scene he is stuffing his face with some kind of food or having a dip).  The fact that he is willing to stop and change when no one else wants to is inspiring.  As strange and unlikely as it seems, Pitt mirrors Gregory Peck’s role in the Hollywood classic Twelve O’Clock High.  In that film, the Allies keep fighting but keep losing at the same time.  It’s a war of attrition, and hard decisions must be made that affect lives of airmen but actually the fate of the world is at stake.  Peck’s role is clean-up man.  He’s the fixer.  In Moneyball, the stakes are different, but for Pitt, this could be the end of his world if he is not successful.  Can he change the very nature of baseball so his ball club can survive?  Years ago a CEO who was about to get the axe asked me for advice.  “Where did I go wrong?” he asked.  Set in his own ways, he resisted change.  I recommended he watch Twelve O’Clock High for some inspiration.  But it was advice asked and given too late.  Resisting change is natural, and it is powerfully hard to do.  That’s why those people who are successful at moving forward in the face of huge resistance make great stories.

As for criticisms, I will leave those to Jason–he noted (probably justifiably so) that the filmmakers (and underlying source work) may have been harsh in its portrayals of real-life coach Art Howe and scout Grady Fuson.  In brief, these guys are used to the old rules and resist change.  As the story of Moneyball is about change, and as those resisting it, they become the villains.  Whenever you portray real-life people in movies or non-fiction works, someone isn’t going to like the portrayal (particularly the public figures themselves).  Yet you always have to ask whether there is at least a grain of truth in these portrayals.  In what is one of the best pieces of storytelling of all time, Jon Krakauer’s account of a failed attempt of several climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest was met with much opposition, by nearly every other guy who climbed the mountain with Krakauer.  But that does not detract from the fact that the story told by Krakauer is gut-churning, nail-biting, and exciting.  Ultimately accounts of real life can seemingly take on their own lives.  The events of May 1996 on Everest are separate and apart from Krakauer’s bestselling memoire Into Thin Air.  So, I think, may be the film Moneyball versus its source material, the Michael Lewis book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, or even the real events that summer where the Oakland A’s broke baseball’s winning streak records.  We don’t really know what Beane and the man Pete was based on were like then, but we know the characterization of these guys in the film was superb.  And we can love the film whether it got everything real life right or not.

Whether you’re in it for the fandom or the money, this is bound to be a great week from Kansas City to San Diego. Bring on the fans!

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