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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Movies: My Favorite Baseball Films 

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again."
James Earl Jones gave us the voice of Darth Vader, the voice of Mufasa the lion, and even the voice of CNN. But for baseball fans, the above quote is probably the first thing we think of when we hear that booming baritone. Even the select few that don't consider Field of Dreams one of the finest films ever made about the sport could not deny that there's something magical in the way Jones says, "baseball."

I like to think that's because baseball, despite its checkered past, has a mystical quality to it. It's not just a part of American culture, it's a big piece of our history. Maybe that's why baseball seems to work better than any other sport when it comes to filmmaking. Boxing might have the most highly acclaimed film roster, and golf might have the funniest single film, but top to bottom, no other sport compares to baseball in the number of quality titles.

Each spring I like to dust off my DVD collection and get ready for the season with a few of my favorites. Here's my personal Top Ten:

1. Field of Dreams: I mentioned baseball's mystical side, and no film explores that the way this one does. Between the father-son dynamic and the power of belief in one's self, Field of Dreams transcends the game.

2. Major League: You can't attend a ballpark without hearing a reference to this gem. It's probably the most quotable movie outside of The Big Lebowski, and its colorful cast of characters are by far the best of any sports movie. We'll just try to forget its awful sequel (and even more horrible third installment).

3. Eight Men Out: Possibly the most underrated baseball movie, Eight Men Out gives a sympathetic look at Joe Jackson's 1919 Chicago White Sox. Excellent character acting and brisk pacing make this a definite winner.

4. 61*: Billy Crystal's pet project does for the 1961 Maris-Mantle home run duel what Eight Men Out did for the Black Sox scandal -- it brings baseball's vibrant history to life. It's hard not to feel sorry for Roger Maris after watching Barry Pepper portray the slugger's plight.

5. The Natural: The film's snoozer of a middle is fortunatelty book-ended by some of the most captivating scenes in movie history. Roy Hobbs' heroics still give me shivers. Or maybe it's just that famous theme, which is as ominpresent at the ballpark as a Major League quote.

6. The Sandlot: Baseball, at its heart, is a kid's game. Bennie and Smalls and the crew remind us of that in this lighthearted look at an era that sadly, doesn't exist anymore. If Field of Dreams makes me want to play catch with my dad, The Sandlot makes me want to grab my brother and some friends and head down to the field for an all-day ballgame.

7. A League of Their Own: I don't know if I buy Tom Hanks as a Hall of Fame slugger, but this comedy shows just how important the game was in our nation's past.

8. The Bad News Bears: Again, we see the kid factor shine through. The Bears resonate with me, because in all my years of playing little league, I never played for very good teams. We always had too many Timmy Lupuses, and not enough Kelly Leaks.

9. Soul of the Game: Forget steroids or the Black Sox or juiced balls, the game's biggest disgrace is that it kept guys like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige from playing in the Majors (though the latter did get in eventually, he was already in his sunset years). Delroy Lindo turns in a great performance as Paige.

10. The Rookie: I remember when Jim Morris debuted in the big leagues a few years ago. It seemed like a great story, and Disney obviously felt the same. Unfortunately, The Rookie, though solid, feels a little flat at times. It just doesn't capture the essence of the game the way some of the other ones do.


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