This…is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. You got it?
Sport aphorisms have the ability to be extremely wise and extremely simplistic at the same time. Take the above quote, spoken by the Durham Bull’s manager, Skip (Trey Wilson). It’s an obvious statement, yet as any sports fan knows, all sports are built upon clichés. Bull Durham is smart enough to acknowledge the clichés — after all, they exist for a reason — while still poking fun at how obvious they are. A unique cross-breed between the mentor-rookie sports movie and the romantic comedy, the film is a success because it doesn’t take anything too seriously — not even baseball itself. There’a fine line between being archetypal and being stereotypical, yet all the stars align in this story, which is emphatically the former. A fantastical sports romance that trucks in endless vulgarities, Bull Durham feels both grounded and mystical, ensuring its place as a true American classic.
Bull Durham is structured around two simple narrative devices: one season in the life of a minor league team, and a love triangle between Annie (Susan Sarandon) and a pitcher and catcher at odds with one another. She states that every season she gives herself to a new player, guiding him through each game in order to help the team. Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is the rookie on the rise, a speedy hurler with a somewhat erratic pitching arm. Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is a Carolina League veteran whose contract has been purchased in order to play mentor to the youngster. These are two men with big egos, and five minutes after they first meet in a bar, they are already getting into a fight.
Fights outside of bars are a dime-a-dozen in American movies (especially in the 80s), but what Bull Durham does so successfully is guide this fight directly into the movie’s main theme. Crash Davis gives LaLoosh a ball and tells him to throw it directly into his chest. Naturally, when LaLoosh tries to hit him, he wildly misses, crashing the ball into a window. LaLoosh’s problem, of course, was that he thought too much about it. Once you think too much, of course you’re going to miss.
Baseball, perhaps more than any sport apart from darts, is based around irrational thinking. Striking someone out or hitting a home run can be seen as more of a psychological feat than a physical one. It’s not about being stronger or faster than anybody else, but getting into a zone where nothing else matters apart from throwing or hitting the ball as purely as possible. It’s a form game — you either have it, or you don’t. Off-field problems become on-field problems when other thoughts crowd the mind, providing distraction when all you should be focused on is the ball.
Bull Durham exemplifies this perhaps better than any other sports film, taking us inside its players minds when they step up to the plate. Here success in baseball is seen as something of a paradox; you can only succeed when you don’t think about it, but the more you try not to think about it, the more you trick yourself into thinking about it.
These superstitions nicely dovetail with Bull Durham’s main conflict: the two men’s squabbles over Annie. While she picks LaLoosh because he seems easier to seduce, it appears her heart is with the older — and marginally wiser — Crash Davis. Really though, her heart is with baseball itself. When the poor Duham Bulls can’t seem to win any games, Annie tells LaLoosh to stop having sex with her, and instead channel that energy into baseball. The team suddenly improves, and they obtain their best run of form all season. This turnaround in favours could of course just be a coincidence, but it’s a boat neither men are really willing to rock — much to Annie’s eventual chagrin.
This irrational faith in outcome perversely uses sex to portray baseball as a kind of religion. After all, it may have replaced worshipping God in the minds of many men, but it still functions around the same basic principles. It usually occurs once a week, contains many bizarre rituals, and requires a large degree of faith. Stadiums are referred to as cathedrals, and Annie has even built her own shrine towards the sport. She lays this all out in her opening voiceover, stating that she believes in “the Church of Baseball,” and that “there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball.” Later, she opines that she prefers baseball to Christianity, as “there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring, which makes it like sex.”
Baseball has also long been associated with sex. When discussing the relative success of a sexual encounter, the bases have often been used to suggest how far you got without having to be explicit. Additionally a “strikeout” refers to one’s failure to have sex, while “playing for both teams” is commonly used to refer to a bisexual. To see its popularity in everyday discourse, just think of that iconic conversation in Pulp Fiction where Jules (Samuel L. Jackon) tells Vincent Vega (John Travolta) that giving someone a foot massage “ain’t in the same fucking ball park. It ain’t the same league. It ain’t even the same fucking sport.” For American discourse, euphemism is everything, and baseball gives one words to describe sex and sexuality without resorting to vulgarities. In fact, it’s so rooted in the English lexicon that there is even a dedicated Wikipedia page to it.
The key to Bull Durham’s unholy trinity between sex, baseball and religion is Annie — she syntheses these forces together through sheer personality alone. Pledging herself to a new player each season, her character could’ve come off as either sad or a stereotypical cougar; instead, Susan Sarandon turns her into a unique woman who really loves baseball, Edith Piaf, male company, and reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson. She believes that baseball is the most American sport of all, ending with a quote from Walt Whitman: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.”
This quote is a misattribution of what Walt Whitman actually said, having been paraphrased by his colleague Horace L. Traubel. The fact Annie gets it wrong only adds to the movie’s charm, which isn’t so much about being accurate as indulging in the restorative fantasy of both love and baseball. The movie is so charming in this respect that by the end we hardly realise that this is a movie that contains not a single antagonist or opposing team for the Bulls to defeat.
Ron Shelton was a minor league baseball infielder before he went into movies, making him the perfect person to write and direct Bull Durham. There is nothing phony in his depiction of the sport here, with almost every interaction — from the awkwardness of the manager having to dismiss flagging players, to the kind of Altman-esque small talk the supporting cast engage in — containing a real ring of authenticity. He knows better than to end the movie with a Big Match, instead culminating with LaLoosh heading off to the Major League while Crash Davis beats the minor league home run record and ends up with Annie. This crucial choice allows Bull Durham to rise above cliché and become a great study of the knotty relationship between life and sport instead.
It’s like the opposite of a sports aphorism. Instead of looking deep while being obvious, Bull Durham looks simple while being wise. This is an ambitious, warm, and empathetic sports movie — one that swings for the fences and knocks it out of the park. Rarely do sports clichés ever sound so fresh.