I’m ready for my close-up, Coach Parseghian

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Man Cave movies about sports?

We who love sports like to think we hold filmmakers to a high standard, but as I began to pull together a compendium of great sports films, I realized that critical discrimination is actually least likely to be found among those of us who will gladly watch the first round of Little League playoffs or the Barbisol PBA Players Championship.  Grizzled, hard-bitten sportswriters spit a chewed cigar on the floor and plump for Major League, Caddyshack, The Bad News Bears, The Sandlot,  and Rudy.  

The title of this piece is an oblique reference to Gloria Swanson’s poignantly unbalanced, egomaniacal line in Sunset Boulevard (not a sports film) and Sean Astin’s role as Rudy Ruettiger as the inspirational Notre Dame walk-on in Rudy.  Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a film classic; Rudy is schlock, maybe inspirational and emotionally satisfying, but fairly standard Hollywood Horatio Alger/pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps/little guy overcoming great odds fare.

OK, maybe “schlock” is a bit heavy-handed; let’s go with intending to “please by playing upon the emotions of the viewer”.  Does that work?  Rudy never fails to put a good-sized lump in my throat.  As the crowd chants his name, I tear up.  Time after time.  Joe Montana, however, who was quarterback at Notre Dame while Rudy was walking on and who knows the unvarnished story, probably will not tear up.  The investigators at the SEC who indicted Ruettiger for stock fraud probably will not.  None of that changes my emotional response to a film about a good guy working hard to chase a dream; the more the world tells our little guy that the dream is out of reach, the more satisfying it is when he reaches it.

Hmmmm.  I have to wonder if there is a group made up of films that are essentially man cave films, pretty much admired and defended by guys because, on some level, they speak to the confusing and unarticulated complex of emotions that emotionally muffled men have a hard time explaining, to themselves or others.

For example, my son and I both started to blubber while watching The Rookie, the true story of Jim Morris, a high school baseball coach whose arm had blown out after a brief stint as a single-A prospect.  He’s coached his team to a state championship by encouraging them to follow their dreams, and, after taking them to the top, keeps a promise to follow his at the age of 36 by trying out with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.  This is yet another of the “odds are against the little guy” tales and particularly rich in the “dreams we’ve kept to ourselves” category.

The real Morris trotted out a 98 mph fastball, got a contract, played his way up to the Bigs, and ended up appearing in 21 games, posting 13 strikeouts, a 0-0 record, and a career ERA of 4.83.  Dennis Quaid, our version of Jim Morris, is on the verge of quitting before the try-out, fearful that he could no longer throw a good fastball. He’s rigged up an old radar gun, and throwing as hard as he can, seems to register pitches somewhere in the low 80’s.  He’s ready to quit when the radar screen splutters, digitally coughs, and adjusts itself to an accurate reading of 98 mph.

Cue the tears.

Where do they come from?  We’re sitting in a darkened room watching what might as well be a digital thermometer, and slubbing in our seats as though our own lives had suddenly been touched by a magic wand.

Films about baseball outnumber the total number of films about any other sport for reasons that probably have something to do with the unique metaphoric resonance baseball has for fans and writers.  Poets write about baseball as Donald Hall does in “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons”:

“We listened on the dark screen porch, an island in the leaves and bushes, in the faint distant light from the street, while the baseball cricket droned against the real crickets of the yard. We listened while reading newspapers or washing up after dinner. We listened in bed when the Tigers were on the West Coast, just hearing the first innings, then sleeping into the game to wake with the dead gauze sound of the abandoned air straining and crackling beside the bed.”

Having listened to ball games on a radio I built from a kit, tented in under blankets so as to avoid being caught after lights-out, I’m immediately back in unquestioning fan mode again when a story or a film catches the kid in me and pulls me into a world I long to inhabit.

I’ve written about Field of Dreams elsewhere on this site and hold the opinion that it is the film that most completely captures the sustaining magic of the game.  It is a movie about fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, opportunities lost and opportunities grasped.  It’s a far better film that Rudy, and one I return to virtually every year, but I won’t even begin to apply the standard critical tools to the film as film.

In my cave, some things are better left alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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