Bull Durham (1989)
LOVE AND LUST AND BASEBALL.
by Elisabeth Geier
When I was a child, my mother’s best friend had a huge thing for Kevin Costner. He was the frequent topic of poolside jokes, the kind I only sort of understood. As a result of this Mom Association, and multiple viewings of Field of Dreams, a film in which Costner was the father to a girl about my age, I viewed Kevin Costner as a Dad. Dads are not crush-worthy. Dads are embarrassing, and they wear dorky pants.
Now that I am an adult woman, and because of hormones and stuff, I realize that Kevin Costner in Bull Durham is a dirty dream come true. As Crash Davis, he’s the perfect combination of smart, witty, driven, and a little bit mean.
“Get a hit, Crash,” a freckled bat boy tells him during a game.
“Shut up,” Crash says. What a handsome jerk.
A career minor leaguer nearing the end of his run, Crash Davis is passionate about baseball, realistic about his prospects, and confident in his worth as both a ballplayer and a man. His meanness is born not of bitterness or cruelty, but of intelligence and drive; he doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, so much as challenge them to do their best. Okay, so maybe he’s not interested in challenging the bat boy. But he certainly intends to improve Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), the rookie pitcher he is assigned to mentor within the first five minutes of the film. Crash envies Nuke for his talent and youth, and dislikes him for his attitude and lack of self-control. He also recognizes Nuke’s potential, and takes his role as mentor seriously. He may grumble about his assignment, and insult Nuke by calling him “Meat” every chance he gets, but Crash will help the pitcher make it to the Show. Crash is, above all, loyal to the game.
Am I over-romanticizing Crash Davis?
Isn’t romance an essential element of baseball, at least on film?
Can one really over-romanticize Kevin Costner’s fine self, circa 1988?
Perhaps it is shallow to fixate on the sex appeal of the leading performers in a film. Or perhaps “shallow” is not the right word. Bull Durham has become a classic baseball movie in large part because it focuses on more than baseball. It’s about the human relationships surrounding the sport, which of course can be said of most great sports films, but in this case the human relationships happen to involve lots of sex. Thus, the sexiness of the main players is key. Hold on, let me say “sex” again.
“She read poetry to me all night. It was more tiring than fucking.”
Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy is perhaps the sexiest woman ever written by a man. As erotic and spiritual sage to the Durham Bulls, Annie “mentors” one young ballplayer per season teaching him how to focus on the field by demanding focus in the bedroom. “When you know how to make love, you’ll know how to pitch,” she tells Nuke LaLoosh. Annie is also smart, witty, driven, and a little bit mean. Like Crash, she’s confident and realistic. She’s the most powerful player in the film, at times the most powerful presence in the ballpark, and because she’s Susan Sarandon, she gets away with some magical-thinking, fix-me crap that otherwise might make eyes roll, particularly when it comes to her control over Nuke.
This is about the time those of us in the Hollywood Know start thinking about Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s real-life long-term relationship, how it all started on the set of this film, and how their burgeoning love is retrospectively obvious on-screen. Their chemistry is real, as are the deep kisses they exchange, and one can’t help but wonder how the sage-rookie dynamic played out in their real lives. That said, Sarandon’s chemistry with Costner is almost as convincing. The push-pull between Annie and Crash is at the heart of the film, and remains one of the most entertaining film romances I’ve seen. The entire baseball season is foreplay to their inevitable union in the end.
You have to play this game with arrogance and fear.
Writer/director Ron Shelton crafts a beautiful screenplay, full of now-classic one-liners and impassioned speeches that are not realistic so much as hopeful. Bull Durham is sexy, funny, and sharp; the script is as strategic and elegant as a triple-play. But is it fair to call it a Great Sports Movie, when what sticks with me is not the sport, but the sex? There’s no come-from-behind victory or crushing defeat on the field. There’s no slow-motion save-the-game shot. Really, its best sporting scenes are also its most mundane, human bits: anxious inner monologues about pitching or hitting the ball; Crash and Nuke communicating through nods; the entire infield discussing wedding gifts on the mound. That the Durham Bulls are not particularly good is kind of the point. In the romantic opinion of Ron Shelton, these minor leaguers are in it for the love of the game.
In his enjoyable commentary track, Shelton asserts that Bull Durham is, at its core, a classic Western. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or High Noon. There’s even a shootout between the classic Western hero (Costner) and the young gun (Robbins), set in the street behind the local saloon. Only instead of firing shots, they fire pitches, and all for the love of a good woman. Or if not love, at least lust. And they fight half as much over the game of baseball as they do over Annie Savoy. Like the urge to get it on, the urge to succeed in athletic competition is primal. It takes over the body, and over-analyzing or getting in your head can be the worst possible thing. It doesn’t matter if the Bulls usually lose. One day, they might win. “Don’t think,” Crash tells Nuke, “it can only hurt the ball club.”
I believe in the church of baseball.
My mother works with a team orthopedist for the Oakland A’s. Several years ago, said orthopedist was on the sidelines at a spring training game in Arizona, watching Nick Swisher (formerly my number one baseball crush, now a Yankee, bless his heart) goof off during warm-ups. Swisher was rolling around on his back in the outfield, laughing.
“What are you so happy about?” the orthopedist asked.
Swisher shouted, loudly and sincerely, “I love BASEBALL!”
I think of this anecdote frequently, often when I’m getting started on a creative project or struggling with work-work. I think of it when I’m doing dishes or riding the bus. I think of it all the time, honestly, because it’s just delightful. So simple, so pure. Swisher’s cry encapsulates what I hope for in my own, emphatically non-sporting life: To be able to live out my dream, as naïve as that may sound. To be able to shout loudly and sincerely, or offer an impassioned speech, that “I love BASEBALL” (or my work, or my life).
Bull Durham celebrates the necessary enthusiasm, the love of the game, by grounding it in the human relationships that make it real. Crash, Annie and Nuke truly love baseball, each in their own way. We see their love (and lust) played out in the locker room, on the field, and in Annie’s bed (and bathtub). We know the Durham Bulls face limited success, but they have to complete the season. We know Annie and Crash will end up together in the end, but they have to circle each other for a while, first. It’s never truly suspenseful, because we know how it will end, but it is always entertaining. Don’t think. Enjoy the game.
Elisabeth Geier teaches part-time at the community college.