As a sports fan, I know that it's nearly impossible to explain to people who don't like sports what the appeal is, let alone convince them to join you in your enthusiasm. Fortunately, there are movies out there that, in one way or another, explain something about the sports fan experience. This is one of them.
It’s hard for me to write something about Bull Durham that doesn’t read as hyperbolic, because, as excessive as it sounds, I genuinely believe that it isn’t just a great sports movie, but also, basically, magic. It’s a wordy writer’s favorite that appeals to jocks; sports-centric yet polished enough as a romantic comedy that it could share a bill with Sleepless in Seattle, and given such a great, happy ending that you forget almost everyone involved is still a loser. It can also make a grown, sane woman find something attractive about Kevin Costner.
Kevin Costner is a short man from the android acting school in general. Not hot. In Bull Durham, he sexes himself down even further by playing a catcher, who are the drummers of the baseball world: the anti-matter dorks that serve to stabilize a world full of cool guys who can always can get laid. His character, Crash Davis, is smart but a career minor-leaguer, save a couple of weeks in the majors. His obvious romantic foil from the start, Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, is also smart, but she’s a junior college teacher in a southern town with a thing for young ballplayers. They are a pair of could’ve-beens who find themselves trying insure the future of a promising young pitcher, the insanely-young Tim Robbins as Nuke LaLoosh, who has none of the smarts they do, but all of the talent they don’t.
The movie would be tragic if it weren’t so funny and honest; writer/director Ron Shelton, who’s since established himself as the go-to guy for sports movies, played in the minor leagues, and does a brilliant job of showing how the players balance thinking of baseball as both a tough job and a grand dream. Annie’s narration, full of mystical mumbo-jumbo about baseball, balances the raw wisdom of Crash and the other players. The team manager’s one line about baseball, requoted by Nuke at the end of the movie, has become a personal mantra that I think applies to life itself; “baseball is a simple game—you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes, you win, sometimes, you lose, sometimes...it rains.”
Many sports movies are quotable, and there’s nothing a jock likes more than an easy-to-repeat quote, from “Boom goes the dynamite!” to “that’s a clown question, bro,” to “you’re with me, leather.” What makes Bull Durham unique is that the quotes are smart, from the above baseball-as-life philosophy to the famous Crash “I believe in the soul” soliloquy (which can be recited by more adult men than would admit it in public). While not a jock favorite, I love Annie’s line about how she doesn’t worry about Nuke’s future, because “the world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness.” [Ed: Emphasis ours] Or Nuke’s declaration, “I love winning man....it's like...better than losing!”, which is dumb enough to be covertly brilliant.
The movie does for the bigger themes in life—success, failure, and love—what it does for baseball: it shows how they can co-exist in broad, philosophical ways and in practical, real-world contexts, too. If, like Slap Shot, Bull Durham is a movie about losers, they’re only losers in the small sense of never becoming famous, or getting the praise and credit they deserve from the masses. That Crash and Annie find and appreciate each other, however, is the more substantial success, and the worthiest reward for their years in the shadows. Bull Durham does so much to explain why certain people love baseball (and fall in love with each other), it’s hard to watch this movie and not understand the mind of fan, or maybe even become a fan yourself.