Sports and the Movies

What is it about sports that make them almost impossible to portray in feature movies?

I pondered this the other day while surrendering for maybe the 103rd time to the guilty pleasure of watching “Major League,” the goofball story of an improbable pennant run by the Cleveland Indians. Silly as the film is, it surely is fun … and like “Slap Shot,” the Paul Newman satire that portrayed hockey in a similar vein, it hits close enough to real-life baseball to hold a fan’s attention.

Most other sports films fall flat on their keesters from the get-go, and the failure of so many sporting movies seems a mystery. Our games would seem the perfect vehicles to lend themselves to feature drama — all the elements are there. But here’s a half-assed guess:

Perhaps because sports themselves, the games themselves, are suspensions of reality … the movies that attempt to capture them — and what else are movies but suspensions of reality elevated to an art form? — find themselves competing as make-believe with another form of make-believe. After all, the world as presented in 90 to 120-minute dramatic or comedic sketches is not that far removed from the ‘reality’ we see portrayed between white lines in nine inning form, or three 20-minute periods, or four quarters at a time.

I’ve heard praise over the years for “Bang the Drum Slowly,” the baseball soap opera that gave us Robert DeNiro as a Yankee catcher, and DeNiro — who later was terrific in boxing epic “Raging Bull” as a fighter — looked about as much like a Major League catcher as Anthony Perkins did as an MLB outfielder portraying Jimmy Piersall in “Fear Strikes Out.”

When “Fear” played the old Ramona show on Detroit’s east side in the ‘50s, we kids had an excellent time (when not winging wet Ju-Ju-Bees at each other) hooting at Perkins/Piersall’s limp-wristed throws and sissy-boy running. The authentic Piersall should have sued the actor Piersall, who looked like a reject from the Village People. He got out-acted by his uniform.

And maybe that’s why I like — and not-so-secretly like — “Major League.” It’s intended as a take-off, and makes no pretension to mirroring real life. The plot twists are recognizable fare for baseball fans. Indeed, there’s a local echo in the clubhouse scene where the hotshot “Wild Thing” pitcher, portrayed by Charlie Sheen (who’s actual life imitates a bad movie) responds to ribbing by slamming veteran third baseman Corbin Bernsen into a row of lockers. The longtime rumor in Detroit had our own Wild Hoss From Waterford, Kirk Gibson, silencing a veteran pitcher who shall remain nameless here (Jack Billingham) by heaving him into the lockers in the home dressing room at Tiger Stadium shortly after the long-haired rookie reported to the big club.

Speaking of our own Los Tigres (that’s as close as I can come to Spanish, in my high school they taught us Latin, a language rarely used in Sterling Heights), the locally-shot 1983 flick “Tiger Town” tried to foist actor Roy Scheider on us as a sort of Al Kaline in the twilight of his career. Scheider came as close to resembling Kaline on film then as sometimes-slugger Rob Deer did a few seasons later in real life at Michigan and Trumbull. Thus were we again left to scratch our heads in wonderment about movie portrayals of our heroes, and our games.

Like Matt Millen’s long-term plan for the Lions, much remains a mystery.

I’ll close with a personal recollection regarding “Tiger Town” and it’s child star, Justin Henry. Henry, who left the nation weeping as the third Kramer in “Kramer Vs. Kramer” in 1978, portrayed Alex, the young Tigers fan who somehow wills the Bengals and Scheider-Kaline to a showbiz pennant in Disney’s ‘83 non-epic.

Later that same year, local WDIV-TV Channel 4 produced a primetime “Salute To Excellence” special honoring the real-life Kaline and then-fellow Tigers TV announcer and Hall of Famer George Kell. Young Henry was a natural choice to appear on the dais to roast/toast the two Tigers legends. And I, having a history as a roast/toast writer (I once wrote a set of jokes for Jimmy Carter to needle Coleman Young, if you can believe that) was hired to prepare a set of allegedly entertaining remarks to be made by young Mr. Henry.

Speaking to him via long distance weeks before the show, I tried to sample his feelings about baseball in general, and Kell and Kaline in particular. The kid was not very forthcoming, and gave me only a few words about his own Little League and neighborhood baseball experiences. He seemed distant, bored, reluctant. And as I animatedly talked up the lives and reputations of George and Al, two of my childhood heroes, the 12-year old actor finally cut me short, saying:

“LOOK … nobody I know ever heard of either one of those guys.”

Ah, the movies. The world where Roy Scheider and Charlie Sheen will always win the pennant. And isn’t that SO much better than real life?