“This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball. You got it?”
In Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham, the only thing that is simple is the game of baseball. Everything else is, like life itself, complicated. Once a minor league ballplayer himself, Ron Shelton scored a breakout hit with his debut as a writer-director with his 1988 romantic comedy set in the world of minor league baseball, a film that stands the test of time and stands as one of the few truly great baseball movies as well as being a truly great romantic comedy. Now one of the finest sports movies ever made lands in the Criterion Collection with a new 4K transfer supervised and approved by director Ron Shelton, and containing an array of special features that dives into the heart of what make Bull Durham a movie that can never be replicated.
The story of Bull Durham takes place in Durham, North Carolina, where the Durham Bulls are an A-level minor league squad in the Carolina League. The film unfolds on two fronts. The first being a long-time minor league catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) brought to the Durham Bulls to mentor a hot shot young pitching prospect Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) with “a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head.” The second is Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a baseball-obsessed woman concerned with the boys of summer and her ongoing spiritual journey. Every year, Annie chooses a member of the Bulls to be her romantic partner and those who bed Annie have the best years of their career. However, her two choices for this particular season are the veteran catcher and the dimwitted up and comer – she chooses the young gun.
On the baseball side, you’ve got a struggling minor league club with a roster of various eccentrics with their own sets of superstitions. Crash Davis is a baseball lifer, a grizzled veteran of the game. At one point during the special features on this new edition, director Ron Shelton recalls a reviewer succinctly saying, “Crash loved the game more than it loved him.” He’s put in the impossible position of mentoring a dimwit and placing him on the path of his own elusive dream – a spot on a major league roster. And yet, despite facing the reality of his own faded hopes in the form of a cocky prospect whom he’s dubbed “Meat,” Crash does what’s asked of him because it’s that love of the game that drives him, even when it means long bus trips, stays in dingy motels, and sparsely populated ballparks with their array of gimmicks.
On the romance side, Annie Savoy is somehow the creation of the rift between Crash and Ebby as well as the glue that allows them to form the intimate bond between pitcher and catcher. She’s a sexually liberated woman, one who’s unafraid to use her sexuality to guide the perpetually horny and stubbornly ignorant “Nuke” LaLoosh to heed the advice imparted on him by her and his catcher. That Annie chose “Nuke” means that there’s a certain level of tension hanging over the relationship between the two baseball players, and it plays out in a variety of interesting manners on the field and off.
Ron Shelton so deftly creates a captivating character dynamic between the film’s three leads that it gives the film so much room to really play around with the national pastime. Manager Joe “Skip” Riggins (Trey Wilson) and pitching coach Larry Hockett (Robert Wuhl) get their moments, such as the managers locker room meltdown or the infamous mound visit that concludes with “Candlesticks always makes a nice gift.” Bull Durham is a movie that just has so many quotable moments that are intertwined with the game of baseball. “Get a hit, Crash,” a batboy says to the power-hitting catcher as steps to the plate. The veteran looks at the boy and says, “Shut up,” before entering the batter’s box with smirk. The movie has even entered the lexicon of baseball, with “the real life Crash Davis” being the moniker assigned to any longtime minor league veteran making their way to the big leagues.
Revisiting what I’ve always considered the greatest baseball movie ever made, I was stricken by something that I hadn’t noticed before – the subject of belief amongst the characters. In the opening narration, Annie Savoy starts out saying, “I believe in the Church of Baseball.” All of these characters are driven by their own set of beliefs, sometimes taking the form of religious tenants and other times taking on superstitions that can work as slump-busters. In the world of Bull Durham, talent can only get you so far before the combination belief and knowledge can propel to that next step on your journey. Of course, the topic of belief leads to one of the film’s most iconic moments with Crash delivering an epic rant as to his beliefs.
Great sports movies are rare, and there’s even a special feature on the Criterion disc where Ron Shelton and critic Michael Sragnow discuss sports films. One reason so many sports films fail to captivate audiences is because their outcomes typically fall into two simple outcomes – win or lose. How many fun sports movies lose their luster in the final act as everything comes down to the big game? Too many to count, and more often than not there’s no suspense because you know it’s either win or lose (most likely win). Bull Durham doesn’t do this. There’s no big game. There’s no pennant race. It’s a movie about the game but not about a game. Beyond the game, it’s a movie about love – be it baseball or romance. It’s genuinely surprising that so few sports films have taken the lead presented by Ron Shelton, that these movies don’t need the big game to deliver a satisfying and moving climax.
Other special features on the Criterion edition of Bull Durham as from its gorgeous 4K restoration include two audio commentary tracks featuring Ron Shelton and Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins. There are a couple of featuettes, one that looks into the making of the film and another examining how the film is beloved by those who’ve dedicated their life to the game. Two NBC news segments offer an interesting portrait of a moment in time, one being a 1991 profile on Max Patkin, “the Clown Prince of Baseball,” who is featured in the film, and the other a 1993 segment about the closing of the Durham Athletic Park, the setting for the film and home of the Durham Bulls.
Bull Durham is the greatest baseball film ever made. It captures the essence of the game. It’s full of crackling dialogue that is endlessly quotable. It’s absolutely hilarious at times and heartbreaking at others. While it’s generally considered a sports film, Bull Durham is truly a romantic comedy with sports as its backdrop and its central romance is one that feels truer than most. Like so many other great movies, Bull Durham enters the Cooperstown of cinema – the Criterion Collection.