I remember my first day on a baseball diamond, climbing out of my father’s old beat up Datsun pickup truck, clinging to a barely broken-in piece of leather that stretched around my barely broken-in six-year-old hands. I ran like I was being chased, making a mad dash for a place I would come to know as "center field." I remember how isolated I felt out there. So out of place. Surely, all of these other kids knew what they were doing, even knew each other, and I would have to make my way in a team sport as an individual. I would eventually learn that this is an essential part of baseball.
This dynamic is also what is at the heart of many of the greatest baseball films of all time. Major League’s Cleveland Indians are a group of wildly different personality archetypes who begin the movie as practical strangers, Moneyball’s Billy Beane never made it in the majors and feels a personal vendetta against the establishment, taking someone who has never had a job in baseball before (or "anywhere) as his only trusted assistant GM, and Ray Kinsella's journey in Field Of Dreams to reunite some of baseball’s greatest players is really a journey to reunite Ray with his own father.
Baseball is big. The field of play takes up more space than the other major sports. The field of competition isn't even close when you consider how many guys in the minor leagues are working their asses off every day just to move to a slightly higher form of A. Baseball is so vast in its establishment and in its grandeur as an idea that it can be easy to get lost in, which is why it’s greatest films are usually about people coming together to be found. This common feeling of alienation and isolation I feel are best captured in a yet un-discussed film so far this article; Sugar.
If you consider yourself even an above average fan of baseball and/or film and have not yet seen this movie, you should stop reading this sentence and procure yourself a copy as soon as possible. Back now? Good isn't it?
Sugar tells the story of a young Dominican pitcher with dreams not unlike my own, and certainly not unlike many Rowbots, baseball writers, GMs, and fans worldwide; he wants to play in the bigs. "Sugar" Santos has a live arm, a winning smile, and a spot on a developmental team in preparation to be called up to A ball. His story takes him from standing alone on a dirt mound on a dirt field off of dirt streets, to the middle of Arizona suburbia, to the endless corn fields of Iowa (not mistaken for heaven in this film,) all without knowing anyone in the country or speaking English.
The film constantly beckons to that feeling I had at six years old standing alone in center field, that feeling of being a very small part of something very big. The language and cultural barriers pair perfectly with the cinematography and sound editing to create a rich space saturated with the honest moments that make baseball and life such wondrous companions.
On the team bus, our protagonist can’t quite communicate with the hotshot young American shortstop, but when the kid places some headphones on the head of the titular fireballer, he is engulfed in a new sound (T.V. On The Radio) and so is the audience, at which point a brilliant edit leads to him running out of the tunnel and taking the mound. This scene sends shivers up my spine and it isn't alone among its peers from the very same film. It also brings me to another important point about this movie; the baseball is real.
Jay Tymkovich just wrote a piece about his favorite, or GOAT, baseball commercial. In the article he makes a great point about how often filmed baseball (even in otherwise good movies) can be obviously fake or inaccurate when performed by actors rather than ballplayers. With a few minor exceptions (like the strike zone being a little wonky) Sugar has easily the best, and most realistic, baseball on film I have ever seen. It even does subtle things.
There is a scene where Sugar is struggling and the camera stays on his front side during windup and delivery; you cannot see the batter or any other players on the field except maybe the shortstop and left fielder out of focus in the background. Sugar releases the ball, you hear a crack of the bat, he slumps his shoulders and the camera, rather than following the ball or cutting to an outfield cam, follows Sugar on his angry jog to behind home plate to back up the catcher. You never see the ball, or the runners, but you know Sugar is giving up runs.
It can be difficult to shake the power or nostalgia that films like Major League and especially Field Of Dreams have. I used the latter liberally as a rhetorical device in the article I wrote about the Grand Junction Rockies that essentially landed me this gig. I could probably quote 80% of that movie, and honestly feel like I owe it a lot. Furthermore, Aaron Sorkin is one of my favorite writers ever and I truly believe that Moneyball will be remembered as one of the greats of its kind. But if forced to give an answer to what I believe is the GOAT for baseball movies, I would say "Sugar."
It isn't about great players, or big time GMs. It isn't about a ragtag group coming together to topple the mighty bad guy team. It’s about the kid in the core of the soul of every baseball fan. It’s about family, loneliness, love of a game, failure, searching for truth, and learning that the game is something we are all a part of, even if you've never stepped on a major league diamond. Regardless of the color of your skin or the language you speak, baseball is a family.
I hope to return to writing about actual baseball next week, but since this is still Spring Training I wanted to mention one more thing about baseball movies. I remember Ryan Spilborghs during the magical 2007 run saying that he had dibs on making the film version of that unforgettable season. In light of that, I came up with my favorites for the cast to play that seasons team. If you have any better, or any additional roles to be filled, please mention them in the comments section.
Ryan Spilborghs - Jason Lee