Truly Great Movies: Bull Durham (1988)
For me, the best sports movies are the ones that aren’t really about sports. By far, my favorite film that fits this description to a tee (or in this case, a baseball diamond) is Bull Durham, a movie about the altars and household gods folks pray to for advice and guidance regarding the important deities of sports and true love.
Writer and director Ron Shelton here presents us with the story of the trials and tribulations of the minor league Durham Bulls. There are two types of minor league players: those on their way up to the big time, and those who are on their way out, soon to be lost to obscurity or to move on to other careers within the organization. Kevin Costner plays “Crash” Davis, who was once in the big show, but is now hoping for one last record-breaking season in the minors. Tim Robbins is “Nuke” LaLoosh, and he is on the opposite side of the spectrum, a dim-witted guy with a cannon for a pitching arm.
Still, the true narrator and center of the story is the Durham Bulls’ number one fan and self-appointed baseball goddess, Annie Savoy, a part-time English professor at the local junior college who is more invested in the mysteries and mythology of baseball than the merits of Keats and Byron. Her continued attempts to (incorrectly) quote great poets in reference to her love of baseball provide some of the comedic highlights of the film.
Annie “adopts” and “trains” one of the Bulls’ most promising players each season. To the coaches and players, she’s a bit of a well-respected running joke. To Annie, she sees this season-long mentorship as her calling and mission in life. She teaches her chosen player how to finesse the less-technical ways of the game of baseball. It’s a an equal partnership. She gets the company and satisfaction of a relationship with a definite expiration date; the player gets a fun ride and some helpful tips.
Annie spots both Nuke and Crash as her most promising candidates of the season. She sits them down for an interview. Nuke is clueless and amused. Crash is insulted and miffed. In one of the movie’s most memorable speeches, Crash lists his reasons why both relationships and baseball can’t be trivialized and categorized by Annie’s rules. He walks out on the interview, saying, “ I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot… opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.” “Oh, my”, says Annie. Oh, my, indeed.
Annie takes the inexperienced and arrogant Nuke on as her protegé, but this begins a systematic game of sharp banter between her and the more interesting Crash. Crash subtly sabotages her attempts at romancing and training Nuke, attempting to show Annie who the real man is in the equation. Annie sticks to her guns, saying “Despite my rejection of most Judeo-Christian ethics, I am, within the framework of the baseball season, monogamous.”
Crash also believes that Annie’s training methods go against the very fiber of all that makes baseball great. There is a certain charm and luck involved, and superstitions and streaks are to be respected above all else.
When the Bulls finally hit a well-deserved winning streak, Crash implants the idea in Nuke’s mind that sleeping with Annie will curse his pitching arm. This leads to a showdown between Annie and Crash that sets the course of the rest of the movie. Annie is angry at Crash’s attempt to neutralize her dogma, but she’s also fascinated by his rugged charm. Crash is scornful of Annie’s confident baseball voodoo, but overall he wants to show her that love and baseball are games with two completely different sets of rules.
After the Bulls’ winning streak comes to an end, Nuke arrives at Annie’s to claim his prize, but with a caveat: he’s moving up to the big show. Annie is relieved that she doesn’t have to end the relationship, since she’s come to the realization that Crash is the man she loves.
At the film’s end, we see Crash at the end of a career, Nuke about to embark on one, and Annie at a crossroads. Eventually, Crash and Annie realize that they have to throw the rule book out the window, quit keeping score, and accept each other’s quirks and superstitions in order to move forward.
Still, it all comes down to the altars and alter egos we worship, and as Annie states at the end of the film, ” Walt Whitman once said, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.”
For Annie and Crash, moving forward, nothing could sum it up better.