Bull Durham: When It’s No Longer Fun It’s No Longer a Game

Netflix Suggested Viewing #11

Being an avid baseball fan it was a sort of shocking to some people that I only saw this film for the first time a week ago. I understand the incredulity but I’m also glad I saw it as an adult and fully established lover of the sport, it makes so much more sense to me now than it would have years ago. I’ve tried writing about the game before but it always escaped my grasp because I was trying too hard to find a feeling that only exists if you really love the experience of watching it. I’ve also failed to find a film up until this point that really touched on all the unique aspects of what makes baseball so much like life, previous examples have failed in one respect or another. For instance, I was thrilled with the first 30 minutes or so of For Love of The Game but grew to hate it so much in the second and third act that my piece transformed into a kind of exercise in loathing Sam Raimi for all he is worth. After seeing Bull Durham, I finally understand now what he was searching for, the model he was trying to follow and it makes me despise the movie all the more. As blasphemous as it is, Field of Dreams escaped me completely outside of the emotional finale but it still makes utterly no sense to me. This leaves a few other examples that are mostly fun to watch but treat the game as a backdrop for situational comedy with the exception of The Sandlot, which, if you don’t love in your heart of hearts you can leave right now. Don’t come back. ForEVer. FOREVER.

Bull Durham is about love and baseball. It’s about a boy becoming a man and a girl becoming a woman. It’s about a man becoming something else entirely, an adult, maybe. I don’t know. I’ll come outright and say I think this film would have been better, nay, truer without the last three minutes. Although this is a movie and movies love dem happy endings, without that coda this story would transcend the medium the way that real art always does. Call me a cynic but the people who change your perspective and open you eyes to who you really are rarely come back, if ever and this is a good thing in many ways. Change is traumatic and painful, like surgery or a car accident, it makes little sense to hang out with your surgeon or have a beer with the other driver after the fact. But saccharine sins aside, Bull Durham gets it right: you can’t talk about baseball without talking about love. I have no qualm with people who dislike the game, I get it. Sports are entertainment, you want something to happen and you don’t want to wait three hours for it. The simple fact that a game where nothing happens can be the most thrilling and rare experience in the history of the game must seem like insanity but to the initiated it can be a Zen-like meditation on perfection, on the meaning of everything. For example, the only number that has been retired completely and will never be worn again is 42, in honor of Jackie Robinson. The answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything is 42. Coincidence?

Yes. Also, it’s a bad example. But you think about that kind of thing in the 4th inning with no score in 90 degree weather with a ten dollar beer in your hand and a five dollar hot dog tumbling around recklessly through your digestive system like some recalcitrant and vindictive toddler that feels like you have wronged it in some deeply personal way. The point is, you’re thinking about things, everything or nothing. You’re looking for connections to what’s happening and dreaming about whatever, you’re willing that player to see pitches from left handers, praying that your pitcher will find the damn strike zone, and that the obnoxious guy in front of you will quit standing up every time the bat meets the ball. It’s a foul tip, dude. Calm down.

This is in contrast to every other major American sport, where thought and sober reflection are for the post game commentary. I like football but it’s the antithesis of those things, where 22 guys are slamming into each other for 6 seconds, then we cut to some commercial that has found new and innovative ways of screaming “WHY ARE YOU NOT BUYING THIS BEER, THERE COULD LITERALLY BE BOOBS FLYING AT YOUR HEAD RIGHT NOW“. I’m not judging football, I do enjoy the sport and if there were a beer that could keep its word I’ll take two, please. At the end of the day, I’m just a man. But when it comes down to it, the action is all there is to it. It’s a series of climaxes over and over without any of the slow build up, the intimate tension involved where you aren’t sure what’s going to happen and all you can do is feel and focus and breathe that makes the actual payoff so much more rewarding, so much more cold shower, exercise, thoughts about baseball.

It’s hard to tell a true story about baseball, the suspense of the game is lost if you know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to tell a fictional story about baseball, because who cares (see For Love of the Game,… actually, don’t) This is what makes the Minor Leagues the perfect setting, great things can and have happened and no one would ever know about it except in small enclaves. Small town heroes, stories of the week, moments of brilliance, this is what it’s all about in the day to day, there is this incredible futility to it that makes it so much more inspiring. In baseball terminology The Show is the big leagues, the Majors. It’s an aspiration, the ultimate ideal, but the harsh and unrelenting truth of the game and life itself is that graduating to that place isn’t the end, it’s not easier or kinder or deserved. It’s harder, less forgiving, and more demanding. But my god, it must be a lot of fun.

Bull Durham is just a good movie. It’s hilarious and it’s got a lot of heart. It’s a also a good reminder that even if you’re stuck in the Minors you can still have a good time and that ultimately, it’s a gift to be able to play the game in the first place. For those of us who are fans it’s a gift to be able to watch it on a beautiful summer day, even when you’re sweating buckets with a warm flat beer in your hand, because at one point that joker in front of you is going to get it right. When that unmistakable sound of a batter making contact brings you to your feet, you’re going to have a high-five ready for who ever wants it.

Go Dodgers.

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