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Summer of ‘88: Bull Durham

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Summer of ’88: Bull Durham

Evan Davis: Hey, Dad. What’s up? You good? The Braves are doing well this season. I think that their new starter Mike Minor’s got a shot at the Cy Young, if Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw can somehow have a meltdown after the All-Star Break. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking. What? Oh, we’re not talking about actual baseball today? Okay, fine, don’t be so snippy about it.

Father’s Day is on Sunday. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this weekend also marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Bull Durham, maybe the most dad-friendly movie in the history of movies. I was not yet three years old when it first hit screens in June 1988, and didn’t actually see the thing until I was about 12. (You made me fast-forward the climactic sex scenes between Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon; you don’t know my tastes at all!) But for me, nothing has ever crystallized Bush I-era masculinity more perfectly than Ron Shelton’s comedic gem.

Crash Davis—the burned-out thirtysomething perennial minor leaguer on one last trot around the bases before he sets the minor league home run record—has always seemed like the platonic ideal toward which men strived in the late ’80s. Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Cruise, and all the other godheads of the period were merely fantasies, never intended to be emulated in any real sense. But Crash, armed with his urbane wit and an endless knowledge of everything from baseball to the correct placement of a garter belt, could have been born out of the roadside bars of North Haven, CT or Twin Falls, ID. He was a man’s man who was anchored in the way that men actually thought and behaved in America at the time. Even his clothes suggested an Everyman with class—both factory joe and Midwestern intellectual.

Of course, Crash’s foil is that wild and wooly young hotshot, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh, so delightfully embodied by Tim Robbins. I would even dare to posit that, beyond the personality differences, beyond the mentor/protégé relationship, or even their rivalry as potential partners for the comely English teacher/baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Sarandon), the dichotomy between Crash and Nuke is of two warring masculine types. One is the man of control and reason, the other a slave to his impulses—the Appolonian and the Dinoysian, were Nietzsche a fan of baseball as a metaphor for the American experience.

The movie was a huge hit when it was released, and while Costner had had become a leading man the year before in The Untouchables and No Way Out, this is the film that truly made him a star, and defined his on-screen persona for the next 15 years. In other words, Costner and writer-director Shelton helped shape the image of men in American movies for many years to come. Or am I overreaching with that proclamation, pop? You were 36 in 1988, and a lifelong baseball nut; did you see yourself as a “Crash Davis man”? Or did my young mind enjoy the fruits of Bull Durham too literally?

Kerry Magee: Hi son. Good to hear from you…finally. Cy Young aside, I’m predicting Braves catcher Evan Gattis as Rookie of the Year, for familial reasons.

I agree that Bull Durham is a good one alright, but I’ve got a different angle. Maybe it’s because of the different stages of life in which we found ourselves when we first saw it.

When I first saw the movie, I was all, “Yay! Funny baseball movie with hot sex scenes (which, by the way, you should still fast-forward through)! What fun!” But by the time I watched it with you, I began to see a deeper story. I see it as a tale of two people that have been fighting the coming of maturity. The movie is about the relationship that emerges between Annie and Crash. They are products of the “eternal youth” attitude that sprouted in the ’60s and ’70s. Crash is still playing a young man’s game, trying to reach “The Show,” even though it’s beginning to be apparent this may never happen. Here he’s in the bus leagues, trying to get a young pitcher with enormous talent mentally ready for the big time, and he’s despondent, grumpy, and cynical. Annie, meanwhile, is trying just as hard to stay young by recruiting the season’s young stud. She looks for a pattern: someone young, horny, and dumb while convincing herself that she’s making them self-aware and worthy of her affection for that short window. While Nuke has his own arc of maturity, it is his role as the young pitcher/stud that serves to bring Crash and Annie together. One of my favorite scenes is the speech Crash gives when asked what he believes in. At its conclusion, Annie utters an almost perfect George Takei, “Oh my.”

The rest of the film is Annie and Crash finally realizing that eternal youth is a sham, that there’s an energy and strength in a mature relationship that can’t happen in close encounters of the brief kind. It all wraps up in the final scene, my favorite, when they both realize that maybe, sometimes, if you are very lucky, the meaning of life is as simple as sitting on a porch swing with the exact right person watching the rain. We should all be so lucky.



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