“I believe in the Church of Baseball.” So begins Bull Durham, a 1988 cinematic voyage exploring the charm of the minor leagues.
Written and directed by former minor league ballplayer Ron Shelton, Bull Durham expresses a journeyman’s wisdom and weariness honed by 12 years of striving to get to the majors. Crash Davis played in “the show” for 21 days, but his career has mostly consisted of toiling around the minors as a catcher. His odyssey to small towns and small ballparks brings him to the Durham Bulls of the Class A Carolina League for an assignment—tutor rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoosh on the finer points of pitching and life.
Played by Kevin Costner, Crash tosses condescension towards the hurler at every opportunity, but his frustration rises to volcanic proportions when LaLoosh defines success as a Porsche with a state-of-the-art stere0: “Christ, you don’t need a quadrophonic Blaupunkt! What you need is a curveball! In the show, everyone can hit heat.”
LaLoosh taunts with sarcasm by questioning whether Crash has ever played in the major leagues. Crash responds in the affirmative and to the wonder of his fellow Bulls: “Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once, the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show. Somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”
Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson wrote, “On paper, Crash is the jock that women dream about, the sensitive, quirky, knowledgeable man’s man who will debate you the merits of Susan Sontag at the drop of a batting average and who knows his way around a garter belt as surely as he knows his way from first base to home.”
An early scene uses Costner’s narration to describe the inner workings of a batter’s mind during an at bat. When Crash steps out of the batter’s box, the dialogue between him and the Bulls’ batboy shows that Bull Durham is not a conventional Hollywood movie; the batboy says, “Get a hit, Crash” and the veteran catcher responds, “Shut up.”
Annie Savoy complicates Crash’s mission to educate LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins. Possessing a keen eye for the intricacies of baseball, Annie’s summer ritual is to “hook up with one guy a season.” Initially, she narrows the pool to Crash and LaLoosh, who receives the nickname “Nuke” from the older, wiser, and sensual Bulls fan. Crash abandons Annie’s romantic paradigm, arguing that his veteran status absolves him of trying out.
Shelton’s Crash-Annie-Nuke love triangle prompted Chicago Tribune film critic Dave Kehr to write, “With Crash functioning as Calvin’s surrogate father on the field and Annie as his domineering mother-goddess off it, Shelton creates a startlingly new variation on the traditional romantic triangle. The predestined couple starts off with a child; they have to raise him and send him off before they can begin their own love story.”
Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert praised Susan Sarandon’s portrayal of Annie. “I don’t know who else they could have hired to play Annie Savoy, the Sarandon character who pledges her heart and her body to one player a season, but I doubt if the character would have worked without Sarandon’s wonderful performance,” wrote Ebert. “Annie could have been portrayed as a lot of things—as a tramp, maybe, or a pathetic case study—but Sarandon portrays her as a woman who, quite simply, loves baseball and baseball players and wants to do her thing for the home team.”
Meeting on set triggered a romance between Sarandon and Robbins—though never married, their partnership ended in 2009.
One of the signature scenes of Bull Durham is the gathering of Crash, Nuke, and other players on the pitching mound during a game. When Bulls coach Larry Hockett, played by Robert Wuhl, heads to the mound, he finds out the amalgam of problems causing the distraction. Crash explains, “Well, Nuke’s scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man is here. We need a live rooster, is it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off José’s glove, and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. Is that about right? We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”
Larry answers, “Well, uh, candlesticks always make a nice gift. Maybe you can find out where she’s registered, maybe a place setting or a silverware pattern. Okay, let’s get two!”
Wuhl ad-libbed the line, based on a recent experience—he and his wife tried to find a wedding gift for a friend. The studio wanted to cut the scene because it did not move the plot, but focus groups before the movie’s premiere highlighted the scene as one of their favorites.
Besides film immortality, Wuhl received another benefit. In a 2013 interview on Sirius XM’s Raw Dog Comedy, Wuhl explained, “Plus, for me, I never have to worry about any time I’m invited to a wedding, what I’m gonna get somebody for a present.”
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 18, 2016.