Why ‘Bull Durham’ Remains My Favorite Sports Movie

Bull Durham movie poster

This was one of the few R-rated movies my parents let me see long before I turned 17. Of course, I was already sneaking into R-rated movies before I reached that age. I’d buy a ticket to “Ghost” and instead walk into the theater showing “Marked for Death.” I guess my mom and dad decided, since I was watching all these movie review shows like “Siskel & Ebert” and “Sneak Previews,” and I had seen this movie’s trailer numerous times on the Movietime Channel (long before it turned into E! Entertainment Television), that the damage to my fragile little mind had already been done. Then again, it’s not like they were exposing my brother and I to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Had they done so, it would have scarred us for life!

When I first saw “Bull Durham” on VHS, I was already very used to the Hollywood sports movie formula where the hero suffers a crushing defeat and has to build themselves back up again to an audience-pleasing finish. When I was younger, I was far more comfortable knowing how a movie would end, and I wanted them all to end the same way. It feels like this with today’s generation of audiences as they thrive on repetition in stories and of the good guys beating the villains we are led to believe good will always triumph over evil. When you’re young, you have yet to learn that in reality the bad guys get away with a lot before anyone notices, especially if they have corporate and/or political connections.

“Bull Durham,” however, forever changed the way I looked at sports movies in general. It didn’t always have to be about training montages and the build up to the big game. Instead, it was about the reality of the game itself, and of the various personalities inhabiting it. Whether or not the characters get their big moment at the end, their victories and accomplishments were never about coming out on top or being the best. The real victory came from struggling through one important stage in your life, and surviving long enough to get to the next. Or, in other words, closing one chapter in your life and moving on to the future.

Most baseball movies focus on the major leagues, but what makes “Bull Durham” especially unique is it is about the minor leagues. Writer and director Ron Shelton based this film on his own experiences in the minors which he played in for several years, and he shows it to be a much looser environment and one which is far more fun and carefree. The baseball stadium may be smaller, but the connection between the players and the fans is more intimate and not engulfed in corporate greed or network contracts. Still, all these players see getting to the majors, which they refer to as “the show,” as their holy grail, the one thing they feel destined to get to at some point. The sad thing is, many of them will never make it there.

“Bull Durham” focuses on three characters throughout: Crash “the player to be named later” Davis played by Kevin Costner, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh played by Tim Robbins, and Annie Savoy played by Susan Sarandon. LaLoosh is the star pitcher of the Durham Bulls and is about to make his professional debut. When he does, he ends up, as Millie (the incredibly cute Jenny Robertson) says, pitching the same way he makes love, “All over the place.”

Hence, veteran catcher Crash is brought in to teach LaLoosh how he can control his pitching, and to get him prepped for the major leagues. During this time, the two of them will meet the high priestess of baseball, Annie Savoy. Her church is the one of baseball, and she hooks with one guy a season to help them with their playing and to expand their mind. This player also gets to share her bed with her, and considering just how amazingly hot Sarandon is in this role, it looks very foolish to even consider turning her down.

At the age of 14, I may not have understood all of what “Bull Durham” was about, but it was not a movie as disposable as a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Shelton offers us a closer look into the world of baseball than I could have expected to see back in 1988. The intimate details of the minor leagues make it very unique among other films of its genre. You also get to learn the importance of the relationship between the pitcher and the catcher, and of how one better not cross the other if he is looking to win.

Aside from the main players, the other team members are individualized to where you can tell one from the other. There’s the one player who swears by the bible and wants all his fellow teammates to follow in his righteous path. Then you have another who uses a necklace with a cross to bless his baseball bat, and who later needs a live rooster to take the curse off his glove. Crash Davis also shows an alternative way to get a rainout which results in one of the movie’s funniest moments.

Kevin Costner was perfectly cast as a veteran baseball player, and he also had the athletic ability to hit a ball right out of the park during filming. In “Bull Durham,” Costner gives us a man knowledgeable of the majors and the minors, and through his eyes he shows us the yearning he has to get back to “the show” as he was there once for 20 days, the greatest days of his life. You can only imagine how much he is working to get back there, but it seems more like a mirage that gets further and further away from him as time marches on.

Looking back at Tim Robbins’ performance, it is clearer to me now he had the toughest role to play in “Bull Durham.” Throughout, he has to take LaLoosh from being a wild and crazy guy on and off the baseball to someone more mature and ready to enter the majors. Robbins makes the transition look seamless, and it was the first indication of the brilliant actor we now see him as today. Seeing him again in “Bull Durham” after all these years is a kick because he is so loose and fancy free.

But seriously, the most memorable performance comes from Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy. To say Sarandon is sizzling hot remains an understatement as she captivates the audience in the same way she reels in Robbins and Costner. With this character, Shelton gave us one of the most original female characters ever seen on the silver screen. Annie is a strong female, and Sarandon succeeds in making Annie this and more. It may almost sound ridiculous to have a character believing in the “church of baseball” when you look at it on the page, but once Sarandon utters those words which start off “Bull Durham,” you never doubt that she fully believes in it for a second. After all these years, it is still a travesty she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her performance.

But the real star of “Bull Durham” is Shelton, and he sees a lot of Crash Davis in himself. After this film came out, he became the go to guy for writing sports movies. You never get a “Rocky” like movie from him, and the characters he creates are rich, complex, and they always have such fantastic dialogue coming out of their mouths. This great talent of his led him on to make “White Man Can’t Jump” where Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes were as brilliant at hustling on the basketball courts as they were at verbal sparring with each other and their opponents, “Tin Cup” which left me thinking Costner and him should make as many movies together as possible, and “Cobb” with Tommy Lee Jones which may very well be the definitive anti-sports biopic of all time.

Incidentally, the commentary track he did for the DVD remains one of my all-time favorites. Throughout the movie, he strips away the mythology of other baseball movies to give us an idea of what the game is really like. I also loved how he talked about the fight to get Robbins cast even though the studio didn’t view him as a big enough star. The way they saw it, the audience would never believe Sarandon would ever fall for a guy like him. This led Shelton to bring up how he is godfather to one of their sons.

Shelton also pays great respect to the other actors like the late Trey Wilson who is so good here as the coach, and to Robert Wuhl whom he cast despite him giving the worst audition of any actor he had ever seen. He also lays bare how much he loves making movies and how much he hates the business.

Shelton may have never made it to the majors, but his experiences allowed him to give us “Bull Durham,” one of the funniest and most irresistibly sexy films of all time. I still see it as my all time favorite sports movie, and I don’t care how much more acclaim “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” have over it/ Besides, where else will you find a movie about minor league baseball? Oh yeah, there’s “Major League: Back to The Minors,” but who’s in a hurry to see that?

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