The romanticism of the game clashes with the practicality of sports as contemporary business in Bennett Miller’s adaptation of the non-fiction best-seller "Moneyball." It’s impossible for the modern fan to not consider the economics of the game, as depicted in the painful opening moments of the film, where Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) listens powerlessly as his bargain-basement team completes an inevitable loss in the postseason to the massively pricier New York Yankees, the collective weight of the Yankees’ near-mythical payroll collapsing onto Beane’s small-market dreams. Millions of fans feel this defeat coming every year, but Beane’s job is to circumvent a compromised system to maintain a slender budget while also remaining competitive as their best players depart for distinctly greener pastures. Though Beane finds salvation in the irreverent new sabermetric approach by cub exec Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), he remains unfulfilled – the poetry in “Moneyball” is in finding a new way to do business in a manner where you can never be certain if it’s working. As the A’s become a winning ballclub, it can’t help but feel like smoke and mirrors, and Beane jeopardizes long-time relationships and risks professional mockery for a championship, a result only one out of thirty teams celebrates every year. In other words, what if you were a trail blazer and had nothing to show for it? “Moneyball,” picked up from the ashes of a previous, different version by Steven Soderbergh, is a film about fascination, about a truth far away from your grasp, a question without an answer.
“Eight Men Out” (1988)
John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out” tells the story of the Chicago Black Sox scandal and the eight players who were banned from playing professional baseball for throwing (or "throwing") the 1919 World Series. Adapting Eliot Asinof’s book of the same name, Sayles’ 1988 film casts a mostly sympathetic eye on the ballplayers, showing a group of men who, while praised by fans and are at the height of their talents, felt underpaid and were resentful of the White Sox owner, Charles "Commie" Comiskey, himself famous for being a miser (he made the players pay to launder their uniforms and rewarded the team with cheap champagne after winning the 1917 pennant). “Eight Men Out” moves at a swift pace, filling the first half with plenty of old-timey baseball action before the tone shifts down to the subsequent conspiracy trial and fallout from the scandal. The cast is a who’s who of character actors and up-and-comers, including Sayles regular David Strathairn as pitcher Eddie Cicotte, D.B. Sweeney as Shoeless Joe Jackson, John Mahoney as manager William "Kid" Gleason, John Cusack as Buck Weaver, a pre-“Major League” Charlie Sheen as Hap Felsch, and Michael Rooker as Chick Gandil, the instigator of the fix. Sayles covers a lot of ground, showing the complexities of the scandal in the two-hour runtime, and the end result is a fine depiction of when baseball was the reigning pastime and a reminder of a less cynical era when players said they just wanted to play ball, and we believed them.
“Bull Durham” (1988)
Anyone who’s watched ESPN in the past 20 years probably remembers the network’s often hilarious commercials, which brilliantly spoof sports culture and make actors out of former athletes and broadcast journalists. There was a time when ESPN remade scenes from famous sports movies, casting its on-air personalities in the roles but otherwise recreating them verbatim. One of the favorites were the “Bull Durham” segments, in which the indelible crew at the time for “Baseball Tonight” -- baseball nerd legend Peter Gammons, former player turned commentator Harold Reynolds, and more -- lovingly re-enacted two famous moments from sports movie director Ron Shelton’s beloved baseball comedy: the “lollygaggers” scene and the “what’s it like in the show?” bus sequence. ‘Durham,' starring Kevin Costner (who would become the Babe Ruth of baseball movies) as salty veteran catcher Crash Davis and lanky Tim Robbins as brash pitcher Nuke Laloosh, looks at the world of minor league baseball, where some players toil for years and never get called up to the big leagues while others are merely waiting impatiently to inevitably move up. It’s a smart, sexually frank, very funny and wonderfully scripted baseball movie, one that’s often understandably cited as the best of the genre. Shelton, a former minor leaguer writing from experience, would have later sports successes, like “Cobb,” “Tin Cup” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” but perhaps he’ll never make as good a film as “Bull Durham."
As majestic as baseball may look on the big screen, it doesn’t necessarily capture the realities of a game where thousands of players compete just to make it to a major league diamond, and dreams die every day. “Bull Durham,” which paints a fairly accurate portrait of the minor league system, carries with it an unmistakable sense of hope. But the decidedly more balanced “Sugar” captures the realities of the modern game better than any recent baseball picture, with Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden’s narrative capturing the life of a minor league prospect who doesn’t rise up the ranks as much as plateau as a promising talent stuck in neutral gear. Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto) is like many young ballplayers, seeing the game as a way to thrive away from the village where he keeps his home. But pushed into the game so early, Miguel hasn’t been able to distinguish his identity away from the ballpark, and his eventual trip to America is fraught with angst about his identity, a stranger in a strange land, with strange, borderline worshipped ability. “Sugar” depicts the mundane careers of low-level minor leaguers, some who don’t even know English, slinging fastballs in the cornfields of the Midwest and playing a part in America’s pastime as if they were sacrifices to an unfamiliar religion. While heartbreaking, “Sugar” is powered by a human heart: there are no villains in “Sugar,” only a support system around Sugar eager to see him succeed. In a way, it’s a picture about the American Dream, and what it means for someone who hasn’t quite figured out how, or why they should be dreaming in the first place.
“Field of Dreams” (1989)
For many American boys, baseball has been the bridge that unites them with their fathers. Yeah, it’s a cliché to say this, but clichés are often loaded with truth. For “Field of Dreams,” Phil Alden Robinson’s beautiful, meditative and moving dramedy with Kevin Costner in one of his best performance to date, the writer-director tapped into this very real cliché, and the result was the best damn baseball movie ever made. Yet it’s not even a baseball movie in the way we typically associate the genre. Sure, baseball is played in it, and the sport is omnipresent in every scene, not unlike one of the ghosts from the Iowa cornfield that Costner plows and turns into a baseball field (the field still stands today as a tourist destination near Dyersville). Hearing a perfectly-pitched (creepy, yet soothing) voice tell him “if you build it, he will come,” Costner risks his family and life to pursue an obsession he can’t shake. Robinson has always been an underrated, gifted and thoughtful filmmaker, and his take on the material (adapted from W.P. Kinsella’s novel “Shoeless Joe”) is so assured it’s scary to think of any other director’s vision of the movie. He packs in fascinating history (the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal) with grounded, atypical fantasy elements and lets his terrific cast do the rest of the work. Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan, Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley are all at the top of their game. The film has a restless vibe, and its spirit of the ‘60s attitude (which may be played out now, but works perfectly here) complements the contemplative mood. Wanna see grown men cry like babies? Put on “Field of Dreams” and watch the tears flow like a leaky faucet, especially at the climax, when Costner gets another chance to “have a catch” with his father. Pure movie magic.