THE CHURCH OF BASEBALL: The Making of “Bull Durham.” By Ron Shelton. Knob. 256 pages. $30.
“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game. The American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” —Walt Whitman, as quoted by Annie Savoy
Baseball is the most pastoral of games, the least predictable, and often the most poetic. Never mind the naysayers who say it’s too slow.
Former Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell captured the essence of it thusly: “Baseball at its best is like a breathlessly balanced house of cards.”
Perfect. Like the game itself.
Baseball’s literary pedigree inhabits a league of its own. More articles, books and, yes, poetry, have been written about the American game than all the other sports combined. But if you ask writer-director and one-time minor baseball player Ron Shelton about the movies inspired by baseball, he’d tell you most of them get it wrong. Long on sentimentality and short on substance.
In “The Church of Baseball,” Shelton celebrates the one film that hit it out of the park, his own.
The 1988 classic was Shelton’s debut behind the camera. And it was like chasing a line drive in an outfield that’s all uphill — until suddenly it wasn’t. Eventually, when the studio brass and others stopped meddling, everything (and everyone) found the Zone.
Shelton wanted just the right tone, just the right setting, just the right blend of irreverence, affection, and demystification. He also got some of the best screen chemistry one could ask for in stars Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and a deep, winning bench of supporting players.
But what sets his memoir apart are its insights into the process of filmmaking, from the initial concept through to the script stage, casting, assembling a crew, production and post-production. It’s a remarkably lucid and instructive primer.
“A baseball life is fragile and absurd. It’s also wondrous and thrilling,” Shelton says, noting that he’s always written “to make discoveries, not connect the dots.”
As a player, the author made it all the way to Triple A, a tantalizing notch below the Big Leagues. He found his teammates more compelling for “their flaws and fears than the PR version foisted on the fans,” an attitude mirrored by “Bull Durham.” But he walked away from the game after one year during the baseball strike of 1972, with a wife and a three-year-old kid. Regrets, he has a few.
Fifteen years after leaving the game, his marriage on the rocks, having worked various jobs, and thinking he was done with baseball even as a fan, he came back to it through the movies. Shelton (“White Men Can’t Jump,” “Tin Cup,” et al.) learned screenwriting the hard way — trial and error. Mostly error.
He sold his unfinished baseball script, pitched as “Lysistrata in the Minor Leagues,” to a producer and former studio head who just happened to know classical literature and owned a stake in the real Durham Bulls.
Shelton describes how the story and characters took shape: part friends and acquaintances, part elements of his own experiences in the game. The main characters developed with considerable input from his actors, but secondary characters were written as quick but believable sketches, like penning haiku.
It was in Durham, NC, for a 30th anniversary party commemorating the movie that he overcame his reluctance and decided to write about it.
“The biggest mistake a sports movie can make is to have too many sports in it,” he insists. “A movie can’t compete with television in showing sports action, but it can and must reveal all the moments TV can’t touch. The baseball sequences in the script (for “Bull Durham”) are about character, and never plot. … They need to be funny or flip the tropes or shine light on the clichés from new angles.”
Yet, echoing many another director, he says “It’s always your favorite scene that you have to lose,” if later you begin to see why. It’s “the importance of revealing the right emotional information in exactly the right place,” not too early, not too late.
With “Bull Durham,” Shelton tagged that sweet spot dead on.