‘Bull Durham’ became a classic by avoiding clichés
Ron Shelton, the writer-director of “Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Tin Cup,” isn’t a big fan of sports movies.
“Sports movies generally, I don’t like, and as a kid growing up and as a young man, I liked them even less,” Shelton told The Associated Press. “My mother loved ‘Pride of the Yankees,’ which even as a kid I couldn’t stand. I thought it was sentimental and false and the athletics were horrible.”
Shelton, a former minor league ballplayer in the Baltimore Orioles organization, set out to put a personal stamp on the sports movie. He avoided the familiar tales of the heroic underdog player, hard-charging coach or team of misfits that somehow becomes a winner. And he hit a grand slam in 1988 with “Bull Durham,” his first effort as a writer-director, which finished tied for second with “Rocky” in a poll of AP Sports Writers’ favorite sports movies.
“Bull Durham” follows the Class A Durham Bulls through a season — sort of — as savvy veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) reluctantly tutors wild young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Spoiler alert: When the movie ends, one key player is called up to the majors, another is released, and Shelton doesn’t bother to show where the Bulls finish in the standings.
“I was out to avoid the big game because there are very few big games in sports and in life,” Shelton said. “A baseball career ends with a slow groundball to third, not a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.”
The movie begins with an ode to baseball in voiceover, not from a player or coach, but from a passionate fan, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a liberated intellectual who favors season-long flings with younger ballplayers. Annie is the hero of the movie, the instigator of a love triangle and a strong voice for respecting yourself and the game. Shelton said he wasn’t trying to sneak a feminist message into the movie.
“I knew that women had a strong point of view about being part of this world and how difficult it was on them,” Shelton said. “I didn’t want it to be about the beleaguered wife of a player but at least bring in a woman’s point of view to a very male world.”
Sarandon has said Annie was the rare part she was willing to fight for because the character was so unconventional: “She’s very sexual, she’s very funny and she doesn’t have to be punished for it at the end of the movie,” she told the American Film Institute in 2009.
As for the on-the-field action, it’s hilariously unsentimental.
“Get a hit, Crash,” a bat boy says to the veteran in his first on-screen at-bat.
“Shut up,” Crash responds.
Shelton’s aim was to bring the audience inside the game. Although the scenes are played for comedy, they’re filled with important details. “Bull Durham” dispels some myths about what happens in the dugout, or during the intimate chats between pitcher and catcher, catcher and batter or catcher and umpire.
A profane argument between Crash and an umpire is more about the argument itself than the substance of the ump’s call. A meeting on the mound between several players is about everything but baseball.
In order to teach Nuke a lesson, Crash twice tells a batter what pitch Nuke is about to throw. (“Here comes the deuce,” Crash says from behind the plate, announcing a curveball, “and when you speak of me, speak well.”) Both times the hitter crushes it.
This was one instance where Shelton gave reality a do-over.
“To this day I am haunted by a game I played in Double-A in the Texas League against the El Paso Suns,” Shelton said. “The catcher said, ‘He’s going to throw a curveball first pitch.’ I looked down at him and he says, ‘No, curveball first pitch. Why would I lie to you?’ I didn’t know the catcher from Adam. The guy threw the most hanging curveball I’ve ever seen and I didn’t swing at it and I knew I could have hit it 400 feet. … The catcher says, ‘That’s the last pitch I ever give you. If you don’t trust me, I can’t give you any pitches.’”
And Nuke was actually a toned-down version of the real pitcher who inspired him: Steve Dalkowski, who died last month of the new coronavirus. Dalkowski threw harder and was even wilder — on the field and off — than the character.
In retrospect, “Bull Durham” (released by Orion Pictures) was part of a golden age of sports movies. Every movie in AP Sports’ top 10 hit theaters between 1977 and 1992. Shelton credits Hollywood studios at the time for being more freewheeling and less concerned about the overseas market, where baseball in particular doesn’t sell.
Even a director of Shelton’s pedigree can’t get a baseball movie made today. He has a script co-written with his “Tin Cup” collaborator John Norville about a pitcher trying to resurrect his career in Colombia that hasn’t found a home.
And while he’s more worried about his next project than his legacy, the 74-year-old Shelton understands why “Bull Durham” remains beloved.
“It’s about a guy who loves something more than it loves him back. And that’s bigger than baseball, it’s bigger than sports, it’s bigger than gender,” Shelton said. “Is there a person on the face of the Earth who can’t say they love something more than it loved them back? A person, a job, a passion, whatever. I think when I wrote the movie, I didn’t even realize that’s what it was about. And so I think that’s why we’re talking about it.”