‘Bull Durham’ at Twenty-Five
Nuke LaLoosh and Crash Davis in Bull Durham.
Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh: How come you don’t like me?
Crash Davis: Because you don’t respect yourself, which is your problem. But you don’t respect the game, and that’s my problem. You got a gift.
Bull City Summer coincides with the iconic movie’s twenty-fifth anniversary. This makes it hard to not mention, at least in passing, my thoughts on the movie. I was eleven years old when the movie was released, and my memory of that first viewing in the theater was that I stayed awake. Prior to this my father was always taking me to see grown-up pictures with him and my older brother, and I was constantly falling asleep. Sometimes he had to carry me out of the theater. Sometimes he roused me awake and, leaning against either him or my brother, I made my way to our car and the refuge of its backseat.
On the night Dad took us to see Bull Durham I remember being excited because it was a story about baseball and I was having a good Little League Season (I would make the all-star team later that summer). I was too young to be clued into the movie’s subtle nuances and larger themes. Baseball may be the locomotive of the plot, but it’s a love story, and even though Susan Sarandon was draped over Kevin Costner in the movie’s poster, I thought what I was going to see was a lot of baseball action.
One of the greatest things about my upbringing is how much my father loved movies. In our small town in southeastern Kentucky, he may have been the closest thing to a cinephile. He loved all kinds of movies. He watched At the Movies with zeal and when we went to the video store he was the only person I saw who ever read the plot summaries on the back. For this reason, we not only watched mainstream studio hits but lots of indie wonders. He liked to tell us at the store, “You’ve got to take a chance every once in a while.” This meant we watched a lot of duds. The much lauded Ed Burns’ debut movie The Brothers McMullen comes to mind, which my father took to calling “The Brothers Mulrooney.” Anytime he saw one of the three lead actors from the film in another movie he would shout, “There’s one of those damn Mulrooneys.” Then he’d turn to me and say, “Damn, that was a sorry-ass movie.” Another big miss was the Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan vehicle The Lawnmower Man, written by Stephen King. At the video store my brother and I were soft on taking it home with us, which inspired Dad to say, “Come on, men. Jeff Fahey ain’t never made a bad movie.” We still use the line today.
My father taught me to love stories, essentially. He took me to Bull Durham not caring that it was R-rated. When Crash and Annie got in the tub together, the movements of their lovemaking extinguishing the candles, he didn’t try to shield my eyes. He didn’t care about the cussing or the scene where Nuke wears a garter and Crash instructs him, “The rose goes in the front, big guy,” without batting an eye. My father’s great gift to me as a child, in many ways, was that he treated me like an adult and didn’t censor me from the world. After a movie was over, we went home and talked about our favorite lines and our favorite scenes and I think the way Dad spoke about movies helped me to fall under the spell of their particular magic. It’s a magic that remains with us into adulthood, I believe. The lights dim and we know we are about to be submerged in story. The pictures roll over us and the music sweeps us up and movies, at their best, put us in touch with something ephemeral about being human. The fleeting moments on the screen, the immediacy of the characters’ emotions. Even the most escapist of movies often drive us to the considerations of life. I often tell my students that my favorite movies are those in which I don’t want to get up after they are finished. I want to stay in their glow as long as I can.
The summer after Bull Durham was released, I was moved to catcher. Suddenly, Crash’s actions and demeanor carried far more weight than they had before. One of my all-time favorite scenes in the movie, or any movie, for that matter, is when Nuke, throwing a two-hit shut out, keeps shaking off Crash. The scene echoes an earlier one in the movie when Crash tells a hitter what’s coming to teach LaLoosh that he needs to follow his advice from behind the plate. On the verge of victory, with his best pitching performance of the season, LaLoosh resists again. Frustrated, Crash tells the hitter, “Charlie, here comes the deuce and when you speak of me, speak well.” Nuke throws the curve and the batter deposits it over the right field fence. When he goes to the mound to conference with Nuke, they have the following exchange:
Nuke [without looking at an approaching Crash]: You told him I was going to throw a deuce, right?
Crash: Yep. [A brief pause.] Man, that ball got out of here in a hurry. Anything that travels that far ought to have a damn stewardess on it, don’t you think?
Nuke never responds. He just chews his gum, disgusted, and at that Crash drops a fresh ball into Nuke’s glove.
Two years later during a game, our pitcher wanted to throw a knuckleball he’d been working on. To be fair, he was our number-one pitcher and hardest thrower, but he was in love with junk. He was also trying to throw splitters and sliders and curveballs. He came to me the day of the game during warm-ups and showed me the knuckler. When the time came in the game, I kept calling for him to throw me a fastball, inside. He kept shaking me off. We conferenced at the mound. He wanted to try the knuckle. I came back, and taking my cue from Crash, told the hitter. He smacked a rope into left center that rattled the chain-link on the fly. I don’t remember telling our pitcher what I did, but I must have. Why else do it?
In thinking about that day, it reminds me of how much I took my governing actions from actors in movies. When Robert Redford wiped the sweat from his brow in The Natural with the heel of his hand in that scene before he collapses and is rushed to the hospital, I started wiping my own forehead the same way. When Tom Cruise sat down at the table in Rain Man, he pulled in his jacket and tie with his left forearm to keep them from brushing the table. I then did that, too. The writer David Shields has said, “A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it.” At an early age, I thought the world of imaginative fiction and movies was about “real” life. My hometown of Corbin, Kentucky didn’t seem like a place where real life occurred. It was only a place to escape and certainly couldn’t offer up any models of behavior. It wouldn’t be until I read Updike’s Rabbit, Run at sixteen, coincidentally another story about a fading athlete, that I would come to understand how valid the lives I was surrounded by were.
Bull Durham ends on that sad note with Crash being called into the manager’s office and released. We see him in the pool hall, alone, and the forlorn notes of saxophone set the mood. Annie’s voiceover takes it from there and we learn that he hits the homerun that sets the record, and after that we see him waiting for her on his porch. It may be a bit much to stretch this far with Bull Durham, but there’s a lot of catharsis there. We have watched him lose his first love, the thing he has devoted his life to, and there’s an element where, even with Annie beside him on that swing in the rain in the movie’s final scene, you’d like to see Crash keep swinging and see if he can make it to the show. That concluding conversation with Annie shows us how much of his life he has lost to his dream, how hard he has thought and analyzed nearly everyday of his major-league chasing life. It’s hard to see it all come to an end. Though falling into the arms of love from a good woman can’t hurt none and helps to shoulder the blow.
Even if it wouldn’t be years until I understood all that myself, the human heart can intuit long before we intellectualize it. And when I think about Bull Durham and all the laughs it provides, I’m also struck by all its enduring and universal pathos. The concluding part of the epigraph above is that Crash tells Nuke, “The gods came down and put a thunderbolt in your arm.” In the realm of the movie, the observation is true, and the biting subtext is Crash’s realization that the gods have only blessed him with so much, which is not nearly enough. It’s the hard lesson of sports that talent can often be seen immediately and quantified — by a radar gun, by a win-loss record, batting average, ERA, etc — and it’s the lack of such clarity that makes life so damn difficult on and off the field.