When people ask if I'm a religious man, my favorite response is to take a cue from Annie Savoy's opening monologue in "Bull Durham."
"I believe in the Church of Baseball," I'll say.
And it's true. Baseball is so much more than a sport to me.
It reminds me of my childhood – playing home run derby with my brother in the front lawn, throwing the ball with dad, rounding the bases as a little-leaguer. But unlike most parts of my youth, the nostalgia factor hasn't worn off.
Every time I enter a ballpark, I get chills. Every time the Astros get set for that first pitch – yes, all 162 regular-season games – I get those nerves.
Fortunately, Hollywood has paid homage to America's pastime with plenty of gems. And really, it doesn't get better than these five flicks. Without further ado ...
5) A League of Their Own – Penny Marshall captures the game perfectly, and she does it while providing a history lesson of women's baseball. Go ahead and try to find fault with the play-by-play footage. The at-bats, pitching, defensive gems ... everything holds up pretty well.
That woman kept alive the spirit of baseball during World War II, the story needed to be told. Geena Davis is the perfect protagonist, Tom Hanks the perfect antihero/manager, and all the complimentary actresses hit every high note. Bonus points for coming up with the axiom, "There's no crying in baseball," and for Tom Hanks pulling off the longest pee on screen.
Memorable Quotes: Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There's no crying! THERE'S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!
"Great game, Jimmy. I especially liked that move in the seventh inning when you scratched your balls for an hour."
4) Major League – I defy anyone to change the channel when Randy Newman's "Burn on" comes on to the backdrop of that those gritty blue-collar images of the Cleveland landscape. Major League has it all – great baseball rags-to-riches story, plenty of grown-up humor, an unbeatable soundtrack, plenty of live baseball action, romance, etc.
Every team has slumps. Every team has winning streaks. Every team has aging veterans holding on to the twilight of their careers – Jake Taylor, Roger Dorn, Eddie Harris -- and up-and-coming stars – Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn and Willie Mays Hayes. Embodying the mindset that a diminutive payroll can be overcome by hard work, heart and a little bit of talent, these Indians were the original Oakland As and Tampa Bay Rays – well, had those teams been run by an exotic dancer whose husband just died. Cleveland has had a long-suffering sports landscape, but at least the city has the memories of this fictional squad.
Watching the roller coaster ride of Randy Quaid as a fan, "Wild Thing" strike out Yankees slugger Clu Haywood with the bases juiced in the ninth inning of the one-game playoff, Harry Doyle providing the color commentary drunk with a flask nearby, and a pajama-laden Mays Hayes outrun players in Spring Training ... so many great moments.
Memorable Quotes: " I play for the Indians. Here in Cleveland? I didn't know they still had a team! Yup, we've got uniforms and everything, it's really great! (Especially funny being an Astros fan)
"Forget about the curve ball Ricky, give him the heater."
"I hit like Mays and I run like Hayes."
3) The Sandlot – Aside from Bull Durham, I don't think there's a more accurate portrayal of the spirit of baseball. Sticking to its namesake, the movie at its core is about kids playing ball around an old sandlot. It's not glamorous; It's gritty, play-until-the-sundown --- or in their case, until the ball clears the outfield fence – baseball with guys with names likes Ham Porter, Smalls, Benny, Squints, Yeah-Yeah, Bertram, Repeat, Timmy.
The complimentary plotlines of that desirous lifeguard Wendy Peppercorn, a chew-experience gone bad, tree-house shenanigans with free-flowing s'mores, and a ball-hoarding dog known as The Beast, whose biggest prize proves to be a ball signed by The Colossus of Clout make this one of my childhood favorites.
Memorable Quotes: "Hey, Smalls, you wanna s'more? Some more of what? No, do you wanna s'more? I haven't had anything yet, so how can I have some more of nothing? You're killing me Smalls!"
"You play ball like a giiirrrrrrrrl!"
"I've been coming here every summer of my adult life, and every summer there she is oiling and lotioning, lotioning and oiling... smiling. I can't take this no more!"
2) Bull Durham – This placement surprised even me a bit, and it says more about the perfection of Bad News Bears. Whenever someone asks me, "What's my favorite baseball movie?, nine times out of 10 I say Bull Durham. So what's changed?
The unquestioned No. 1 baseball on most lists begins with Savoy's oh-so-perfect baseball monologue and ends with Crash Davis – the journeyman minor-league catcher who breaks the minor league record for career home runs, a mark no ballplayer wants to break – returning to Durham to Savoy and the possibilities of life as a manager. In between, Davis grooms Nuke Laloosh for life in the majors while still holding out hope for that promotion from obscurity to the show. Crash can't quit because that'd be admitting failure and leaving behind the only thing he loves, but he can't hold on because the sport he loves is keeping him from something meaningful with Savoy and a bright future in managing.
Baseball is so much more than the sum of its six-figure-salary superstars, postseason battles and sell-out crowds. It's about the process, and that includes the daily grind of life in the minor leagues that Bull Durham both glorifies and picks apart so well.
Memorable Quotes: "Well, I believe in the soul ... the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. 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, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days."
"I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball."
"Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic."
"A good friend of mine used to say, "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains." Think about that for a while."
"You guys. You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Larry! ... Lollygaggers!"
1) Bad News Bears (the 1976 original) –This is the ultimate underdog story, where a team full of cast-offs -- bugger-eating spazzes, criminals, nerds, fatties, minorities, a girl pitcher, a drunk manager – unite to forever change the structure of the little league baseball in Southern California. They start out as the players who are forced to sport Chico's Bail Bonds unis, and they end with a second-place trophy and a cooler full of beer at home plate.
This gem, this ode to what baseball is all about – camaraderie, empowerment, friendships and rallying – will be required watching when I coach a little league team. In Walter Matthau's greatest acting achievement, "Boilermaker" is a drunk that on the surface has no business coaching this group of ragtags. But in reality his blunt honesty is what the cast-offs need.
He's flawed. They're flawed. No one believes in him. No one believes in them. But they believe in each other. Despite Kelly Leak and Amanda Whurlitzer being the only players with discernable talent, the Bears make it work. They become the penultimate team.
Memorable Quotes: " Hey Yankees... you can take your apology and your trophy and shove 'em straight up your ass!"
"Now, my old coach used to say a tie is like kissing your sister, but the way we've been playing, it's more like kissing a really hot stepsister."