Kevin Costner has portrayed so many sports figures — baseball players in particular — that you’d think he was eligible for Cooperstown.
Say what you will for the man as an actor, but he’s actually done a fair job bringing guys of the diamond to life on the silver screen. In 1988’s “Bull Durham,” Costner is Crash Davis, a past-his-prime catcher brought in to a minor league team largely to work with Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a talented, young pitcher with major control issues — on and off the field. Crash, as we find out, came oh so close to making it in the majors once upon a time, and for all his been-there, done-that, swagger, he still is a romantic at heart and entertains idealistic notions.
The other major player in “Bull Durham” is Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, a Durham Bulls baseball groupie who pledges to date only one of the team’s players per season. Savoy winds up as the rookie LaLoosh’s girlfriend, but she’s intrigued by and attracted to Davis, whose maturity and intellect are more of a match for her own. This triangle is the foundation on which “Bull Durham” is built, even as Crash and Nuke — initially natural rivals in more ways than one — gradually develop a loose friendship as teammates.
This film usually draws raves from the baseball crowd, and it’s easy to see why. It gets a lot right in terms of depicting the bawdy, boisterous and a little offbeat humor unique to baseball locker rooms and dugouts. Writer-director Ron Shelton seems to have a keen insight into the relationships of baseball teammates and the mixture of love-hate and fierce loyalty that typify these teams, and this insight comes through in the script.
Instead of calling LaLoosh by his preferred nickname of Nuke, Davis refers to him as “Meat,” a humbling moniker that mostly just confuses the hotshot rookie. Davis teases his protege after an opponent smashes a home run off one of his fastballs and suggests that “anything travels that far ought to have a damn stewardess on it.”
Comedic dialogue is so well done — and delivered well enough by the typically droll Costner and Robbins in an over-the-top goof of a role — that you wish there was more of it. The way the teammates give each other static — the manager complains that his team is a bunch of “lollygaggers” — has an authentic feel, and it’s fun to be caught up in the mayhem.
Sarandon nearly does the unthinkable (at least to this reviewer) and pulls off her role as femme fatale with a brain. It’s funny, while watching “Bull Durham,” to think her and Robbins would eventually end up together in real life.
Where the film falls short is that it seems to take itself a bit more seriously than it should and veers uneasily between the comedy that is its strength and the lukewarm romance and drama that plays out. The oft-quoted Costner line extolling the virtues of the small of a woman’s back and damning the designated hitter, among other things, is a cool monologue, but the one Sarandon delivers in the beginning rambles on and on about her mystical church of baseball, and the film never really returns to that grand pronouncement to put it into any sort of perspective.
Still, “Bull Durham” is a pretty enjoyable bus ride through a slice of life in the minor leagues.
Dave Kavanaugh is the Optic’s sports editor.