Ron Shelton, the writer and director of "Bull Durham," "Tin Cup" and "White Men Can't Jump," isn't a big fan of sports movies.
"Sports movies generally I don't like, and as a kid growing up and as a young man, I liked them even less," Shelton told The Associated Press. "My mother loved 'Pride of the Yankees,' which even as a kid I couldn't stand. I thought it was sentimental and false, and the athletics were horrible."
Shelton, a former minor league ballplayer in the Baltimore Orioles organization, set out to put a personal stamp on the sports movie. He avoided the familiar tales of the heroic underdog player, hard-charging coach or team of misfits that somehow becomes a winner. And he hit a grand slam in 1988 with "Bull Durham," his first effort as a writer-director, which tied for second with "Rocky" in the AP Top 25 sports movies of all time.
"Bull Durham" follows the Class A Durham Bulls through a season — sort of — as savvy veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) reluctantly tutors wild young pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Spoiler alert: When the movie ends, one key player is called up to the majors, another is released and Shelton doesn't bother to show where the Bulls finish in the standings.
"I was out to avoid the big game because there are very few big games in sports and in life," Shelton said. "A baseball career ends with a slow ground ball to third, not a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth."
The movie begins with an ode to baseball in voiceover, not from a player or coach, but from a passionate fan, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a liberated intellectual who favors season-long flings with younger ballplayers. Annie is the hero of the movie, the instigator of a love triangle and a strong voice for respecting yourself and the game.
Shelton said he wasn't trying to sneak a feminist message into the movie.
"I knew that women had a strong point of view about being part of this world and how difficult it was on them," Shelton said. "I didn't want it to be about the beleaguered wife of a player but at least bring in a woman's point of view to a very male world."
Sarandon has said Annie was the rare part she was willing to fight for because the character was so unconventional: "She's very sexual, she's very funny and she doesn't have to be punished for it at the end of the movie," she told the American Film Institute in 2009.
As for the on-the-field action, it's hilariously unsentimental.
"Get a hit, Crash," a bat boy says to the veteran in his first on-screen at-bat.
"Shut up," Crash responds.
Shelton's aim was to bring the audience inside the game. Although the scenes are played for comedy, they're filled with important details. "Bull Durham" dispels some myths about what happens in the dugout, or during the intimate chats between pitcher and catcher, catcher and batter or catcher and umpire.
A profane argument between Crash and an umpire is more about the argument itself than the substance of the ump's call. A meeting on the mound between several players is about everything but baseball.
In order to teach Nuke a lesson, Crash twice tells a batter what pitch Nuke is about to throw. ("Here comes the deuce," Crash says from behind the plate, announcing a curveball, "and when you speak of me, speak well.") Both times the hitter crushes it.
This was one instance where Shelton gave reality a do-over.
"To this day I am haunted by a game I played in Double-A in the Texas League against the El Paso Suns," Shelton said. "The catcher said, 'He's going to throw a curveball first pitch.' I looked down at him and he says, 'No, curveball first pitch. Why would I lie to you?' I didn't know the catcher from Adam. The guy threw the most hanging curveball I've ever seen, and I didn't swing at it, and I knew I could have hit it 400 feet. The catcher says, 'That's the last pitch I ever give you. If you don't trust me, I can't give you any pitches.'"
Nuke was actually a toned-down version of the real pitcher who inspired him: Steve Dalkowski, who died last month of the new coronavirus. Dalkowski threw harder and was even wilder — on the field and off — than the character.
In retrospect, "Bull Durham" was part of a golden age of sports movies. Every movie in the top 10 of AP's list hit theaters sometime from 1977 to 1992. The 74-year-old Shelton understands why "Bull Durham" remains a favorite, though.
"It's about a guy who loves something more than it loves him back. And that's bigger than baseball, it's bigger than sports, it's bigger than gender," Shelton said. "Is there a person on the face of the earth who can't say they love something more than it loved them back? A person, a job, a passion, whatever. I think when I wrote the movie, I didn't even realize that's what it was about. And so I think that's why we're talking about it."
SPORTS CINEMA SUCCESS
The top vote recipients in The Associated Press poll of best sports movies from a panel of 70 writers and editors, with year movie was released in parentheses:
1. “Hoosiers” (1986), 46 total votes
T2. “Bull Durham” (1988), 45
T2. “Rocky” (1976), 45
4. “Caddyshack” (1980), 33
5. “Slap Shot” (1977), 32
6. “Field of Dreams” (1989), 31
7. “Raging Bull” (1980), 25
T8. “Major League” (1989), 22
T8. “The Natural” (1984), 22
10. “A League of Their Own” (1992), 20
11. “Moneyball” (2011), 18
T12. “The Bad News Bears” (1976), 17
T12. “Miracle” (2004), 17
14. “Hoop Dreams” (1994), 14
15. “Eight Men Out” (1988), 14
16. “Chariots of Fire” (1981), 12
17. “White Men Can’t Jump” , 11
T18. “Remember the Titans” (2000), 10
T18. “Rudy” (1993), 10
T18. “Seabiscuit” (2003), 10
T21. “Breaking Away” (1979), 9
T21. “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942), 9
T21. “When We Were Kings” (1996), 9
T24. “Brian’s Song” (1971), 8
T24. “Friday Night Lights” (2004), 8
T24. “The Sandlot” (1993), 8
Others receiving at least five votes: “The Blind Side” (2009), “Happy Gilmore” (1996), “Bend It Like Beckham” (2004), “Rush” (2013), “Senna” (2010), “The Longest Yard” (1974), “The Wrestler” (2008), “Victory” (1981).
Chattanooga's AT&T Field may have to last much longer than expected for Lookouts due to COVID-19 pandemic