EDITORIAL: My top 10 baseball movies and their lessons

(Image: www.imdb.com)

In honor of the opening day of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, I felt obliged, just as I did with an editorial last fall for the opening of the NFL and college football seasons, to put my reputation on the line with my picks for the best baseball movies of all-time.  For as much as I grown personally to become a bigger football fan than baseball fan, baseball was the first sport I learned growing up (like many kids with me and before me), making it dear to my heart.  "America's Past Time" has been a ripe tree for Hollywood to harvest both true and fictional stories for movies.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:  The Babe, Angels in the Outfield, Bang the Drum Slowly, Pride of the Yankees, Cobb, *61, and Rookie of the Year are all fun baseball movies, but fall outside of my Top 10.  All are still recommended, but the next ten are the best.

THE TEN BEST BASEBALL MOVIES AND THEIR LESSONS

10. Eight Men Out-- Director/writer John Sayle's 1998 dramatization of the infamous "Black Sox Scandal" of eight Chicago White Sox players throwing the 1919 World Series for gambling interests is a well-crafted movie filled with journalistic intrigue, excellent period baseball scenes, and a great cast (including D.B. Sweeney, Charlie Sheen, David Strathairn, and John Cusack).  It may document a black eye on the game of baseball, but does so with great respect to history.  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: THE CORRUPTION POSSIBLE IN POPULAR SPORTS-- Baseball, though not the only sport to face charges of cheating, gambling, and corruption within its walls, is the most fragile sport to be harmed by corruption because of its lore as "America's Past Time."  Baseball is held to a higher standard than the other major sports and its flaws become the most public and damaging.  The "Black Sox Scandal" has never fully been reconciled in nearly a century.  I can't imagine how history will continue to treat the performance-enhancing drug scandal of recent years if the Black Sox are the template for scorn.

9. The Rookie-- When Disney gets their hands on a great story, as they did with The Rookie in 2002, they tend to hit all the targets necessary to make a great movie from that story.  Dennis Quaid's aged high school coach turned big leaguer is treated right by John Lee Hancock (who knows a few things with The Blindside also on his resume) and is an outstanding family film.  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: YOU'RE NEVER TOO OLD TO TRY-- Jim Morris, breaking into the "bigs" at the age of 35, is real evidence that it's never too late to try.  Don't let your 30s or or 40s be the excuse you stop pursuing your dreams or harnessing your talent.  Opportunities can appear at any time.

8. Bad News Bears-- Skip the lackluster 2005 Billy Bob Thornton remake and dig up the 1976 Walter Matthau original.  He plays a burned-out alcoholic ex-pro who is recruited to coach a little league team with very little initiative to do any coaching until sparked to show up the other team's coach.  (clip)

ITS BEST LESSON: THE DANGERS OF AN OVER-COMPETITIVE ATMOSPHERE-- While the profanity and vulgarity comprise the big fun of Bad News Bears, the real lesson is the danger of over-competitiveness.  Sure, winning is important, but it's still a game, especially at the youth level.  In Bad News Bears, both players and coaches are guilty of taking things too far.

7. A League of Their Own-- Director Penny Marshall brought great attention to the forgotten women's page in baseball's history, consisting of their professional teams during the wartime years of the 1940s and 50s.  Even with ladies at the plate, the film does a great job honoring the game and bringing out great performances, especially the hilarious manager turn from Tom Hanks.  We all know the rant and the line!  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: GIRLS CAN PLAY TOO-- This lesson is too easy.  If the history behind and the action within A League of Their Own don't prove to you that girls can play the game of baseball, go watch a softball game.  It's just as tough as baseball.  They are just as physical, fast, and skilled as the men in their own way.  They deserve respect, appreciation, and an audience for the way the play and honor the game.

6. For Love of the Game-- Though not a well-regarded favorite, I have a soft spot for this 2000 movie from Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man and Evil Dead series).  Back in the day, while writing for The Observer student newspaper for Saint Joseph's College, I ranked For Love of the Game as my #2 movie of the year behind Castaway.  If I were to recount my votes today, I don't think it would lose its spot.  For those who don't know the melodramatic plot, Kevin Costner plays a successful veteran Detroit Tigers pitcher closing out the final game of the season, and possibly his career, at Yankee Stadium.  He's in the middle of pitching a perfect game, but all he can think (which we are privy to learn in flashbacks and daydreams) is how he messed up with the only woman (Kelly Preston) that ever loved him.  I just love that dual story, the respect for the professional game, and how it came to together in one film.  It's an under-appreciated favorite.  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: PLAYERS ARE REAL PEOPLE WITH REAL PROBLEMS OFF OF THE FIELD-- With Costner's character preoccupied all game with remorse and regret we witness a big-time athlete with real-life problems.  They have a high-stress, high-travel job that be hard for any marriage, relationship, or family.  Sometimes, just like us, they bring those problems to "work."  Too often, we see the money and celebrity first and forget that those idols and athletes are flawed and fallable people too.

5. Major League-- Maybe some appeal lies in the easy-to-mock late-1980s era of excess to a certain degree, but I believe it's the colorful characters that comprise the fictional Cleveland Indians that makes Major League a classic.  With Charlie Sheen as the iconic "Wild Thing" Vaughn, a young Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes, the voodoo-worshiping Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), the grisled Tom Berenger, Paul Gammon's surly manager, and Bob Uecker's announcing the roster is rock solid and hilarious.  "Are you trying to say Jesus Christ can't hit a curveball?!"  As dated as they are, these gags and lines never get old.  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: MOTIVATION AND INCENTIVE ARE NECESSARY COMPONENTS TO SUCCESS-- The Cleveland Indians (not unlike the annual rosters of my beloved Chicago Cubs, especially this year) in this movie are not designed or assembled to win and compete.  They are inferior talent to their peers.  However, with the right motivation and incentive (both genuine and salacious), you can get a team of players to do just about anything.

4. The Sandlot-- The second most colorful team of characters to the Indians of Major League are the southern California kids half their age, yet thirty years older from The Sandlot.  Sure,The Sandlot is just as much about the usual coming-of-age themes of the 1950s (I still want Weddy Peffercorn to this day the way Squints does), but their style of improvised baseball, just kids making it up as they go on patch of land, is how we all likely learned how to play.  When you're a kid, baseball is cool and the sport is larger than life.  The movie is pure fun and pure charm.  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: THE CAMARADERIE AND FRIENDSHIP WITHIN THE GAME OF BASEBALL-- Baseball, though it has its man vs. man moments between pitcher and batter, is still a team sport.  You are only as good as your teammates around you and chemistry is key. The Sandlot boys, as different as each are, have chemistry, camaraderie, and friendship.  No one can play the game by themselves.  They need a good buddy or two.

3. The Natural-- The top three movies on my list are within an eyelash of each other.  You can make an argument for any of the three as the best baseball movie of all-time.  The final order was hard, but here goes.  First up, is 1984's The Natural.  Like Field of Dreams that came after it, the game of baseball is taken to mythological and legendary level.  With shades of King Arthur, intertwined failed and successful destinies happen on and off the field with Robert Redford's aging Roy Hobbs and the fictional New York Knights.  Who can forget that slow-motion ending when the music swells and the sparks fall?  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: BASEBALL IS A PLACE OF LEGENDS AND MYTHS-- While I could easily go with repeating the lesson of The Rookie here, the ominous tone of this movie creates bigger fish to fry.  From the media covering these professional athletes to us fans that watch them, these men can appear as titans and demi-gods to us.  They possess talents, skills, speed, and strength that the common mortal man can only dream about.  Forget the celebrity part, it's the victorious feats from those abilities that turned many men into idols fit for timeless myth and legend.

2. Bull Durham-- There is no better written movie on this list.  Ron Shelton's direction and screenplay on the grind, travels, sex, and shenanigans of minor league baseball is perfect. Bull Durham is arguably the most authentic baseball movie on the list as well.  Part romance and part fable, no mythology, nostalgia, or cliches were necessary for the journeyman catcher (Kevin Costner), the undisciplined phenom-in-waiting (Tim Robbins), and the girl they fight over (Susan Sarandon, Robbins' wife who he met on the movie) in the hopes of getting promoted to "the show."  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: GETTING TO "THE SHOW"-- Once again, I could borrow from Major League's notion of motivation and incentive towards success with the brilliant sexual tension between Sarandon, Costner, and Robbins, but the bigger picture of Bull Durham is the journey of minor league baseball.  Most people don't realize the enormously long road that is in front of an aspiring professional baseball player.  It's not like the direct path from draft-to-pros in the NBA or NFL.  Few guys jump right from school to the bigs.  Laid before the rest of them, like a labyrinth of challenges, is the dingy, unflattering, and unglamorous path through minor league baseball, playing scant competition for small crowds and for little pay.

1.  Field of Dreams-- How can you not see the insight in James Earl Jones' ending speech or get "guy-cry" choked up at Kevin Costner playing catch with his father?  There is no movie on this list, and very few not on this list, regardless of genre, with more heart than Field of Dreams. This simple little movie set in Heaven... err...Iowa says so much about history, redemption, second chances, and seeing things through in life, all with the mythology of baseball as the train engine, viewing lens, and delivery device.  Simply put, it's the best heartfelt baseball movie and I don't think it will every be topped.  (trailer)

ITS BEST LESSON: BASEBALL WILL ALWAYS BE AMERICA'S PAST TIME-- Much like James Earl Jones reiterates to Costner, "people will come."  Baseball, through peaks and valleys of popularity throughout its history and into the future, will always be an ingrained part of American culture, even in if the NFL is the #1 sport today.  Invented here in the United States, it has become a global game, but one that will always be ours.  It will always be something practice and held cherished for everyone's backyards, sandlots, and sunny days and every town's city parks, playgrounds, and stadiums.  Baseball is a shared community experience like few others.