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[Ed.'s note: It's Bull Durham week at ESPN The Mag.com! All week we'll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the movie. Today, writer/director Ron Shelton gets philosophical on the grind of the minor leagues.]
(This article contains a correction.)
Bull Durham was the creation of a man who'd been cast aside by the game he loved. Ok, he walked away, but in the early '70's, Ron Shelton was a 26-year-old minor leaguer whose chances at the show were dwindling. So he quit. Fifteen years after his love affair with baseball ended, he made Bull Durham in 1988 for a paltry $9 million, going to great lengths to cast actors who could actually play. The movie was a hit, and baseball player-turned-filmmaker was in Hollywood's door. Twenty years later, Bull Durham is still widely considered among the top sports movies ever made, and is BRAVO's choice for best comedy ever.
Mag.com: You saw the minor leagues as a depressing grind. Where'd the inspiration come for the film?
RON SHELTON: The minor leagues are so without inspiration that nothing ever seemed inspiring except the sheer magnitude of the daily grind. I think you could feel that in Bull Durham. A lot of the comedy in the film is just about escaping reality, period. That reality was baseball. It's not a fun game in some ways, it's getting outside of it. That's where the fun was in a lot of ways.
When you made Bull Durham, you'd been out of baseball for a while.
It was sad. I wouldn't watch the game. There were like 15 years where I didn't know what happened in baseball. When I wrote Bull Durham, it was in a way, kind of a cathartic poem to that game that I actually still liked. I wrote the film 15 years after I left the game. I was 26 when I quit. I wasn't released. It was the strike of '72, and spring training was cancelled, and a lot of people thought there'd be no season. And when you're 26, and you're not in the big leagues, you think you're 42. Maybe it's absurd now to think that, but it's how I felt then.
Too young to be old already?
Yeah. And plus, it's Baltimore, and there's all these great players around you and in the bigs, and you felt just stuck in it. Worse, there were guys far better than me stuck in Triple-A for years.
Who's the best player you played with?
There were guys who dominated in the minors who never made it. You think, man, that guy is incredible, but a lot ended up getting hurt, and would sell insurance, and maybe end up coaching high school. There were guys like Bobby Grich and Don Baylor, who hit .350 down there, but couldn't sustain that in the bigs. The thing was, at that level, everybody had a day or a week where their talent showed, and they knew if they could bottle it, they were a Hall of Famer, but it was always fleeting.
It was about consistency?
And the mental side. It's weird. I was better in Triple-A then A-ball. It's hard to hit against Nook Laloosh. It's 99 MPH over your head, then the outside black. It's hard to dig in. That, and the lights were better.
Can you still connect with Crash Davis?
Well, Crash loved baseball more than baseball loved him, and I love movies more than film loves me. I can continue to make 'em at the highest level as long as I'm breathing, but at baseball you just have to stop. (They are similar in that) the camaraderie, the failure, that that you're ruthlessly judged, I carry all those from sports. If you have a bad day as a hitter, you hit the next day. As a film-maker, it can take three years, but it still feels the same.
Sports are unscripted but your films are loaded with scripted speeches.
The trick is, even if the movie essentially stops for the speech or the banter, have it delivered as if it's routine. Good example: after the Bulls end their losing streak, the assistant director told em to whoop it up a bit. I said, 'Hey, this isn't high school football!' These guys do this for a living. I did it for a living. You do it a hundred times a year. I said, 'Guys, a 2-0 victory or a 16-0 loss, you can't tell walking through the locker room; it's the daily routine of it that movies get wrong.
Can you hit .260 in Hollywood?
Yeah. It depends on how big the hit is. If your hit is a gork to right and your whiff is a well-financed, bases loaded thing, maybe not. My last three haven't been huge hits, but I know if I get a hit with this next one, I'm somewhere near .400 again.
Many people say this film revived minor league ball. How is that for someone who lived it?
Time has helped. A lot of it is Durham. That town is thriving and it was boarded up 20 years ago, and if they want to give me credit I'll take it, but it also coincided with a rebirth that I think was happening anyway. It certainly called national attention to it.
So twenty years later, where are the characters in Bull Durham?
Crash probably becomes Grady Little, who was the manager of the Bulls when we shot the movie. He actually did our baseball organizing for us, and twenty years later he managed two winning seasons in Boston, two more winners in LA, and now he's out of work. Seems to fit Crash well.
So a good manager and better scapegoat.
You bet. And he was a scapegoat in LA too. So I think Crash becomes Grady Little, and I say that with great affection. That, and I think Crash still has a heated, sexy relationship with Annie, but it's been sorely tested because she's not going on the road.
Has probably done steroids and now HGH, and he's had a rollercoaster career where he wins 25 games one year and three the next.
You like his character better than Ricky Vaughan?
David Ward, who did Major League the summer after ours came out, saw Bull Durham and he said 'Ron I feel terrible, I'm shooting this movie and I got a Latin player with curses and a wild pitcher,' and I said, 'David, it goes with the territory. Don't worry about it.' Later he got attacked, and I think unfairly. If you live in this world, there are archetypes. I'll take Nuke, but selfishly.
What non-sports flicks inspire a sports film maker?
I love a full range of movies. And I never wanted to be a sports film-maker, per se. It just so happens that whenever I make a comedy sports movie with a woman in it, it works, and when I don't, it doesn't.
Can sports films work without the underdog aspect?
Oh yeah. I mean, it's more about the price paid. In sports, there's always a price. In Bull Durham, the season doesn't end. In White Men Can't Jump, it never really does either. Underdogs are that if they ultimately succeed. What if they just linger?
But sports films really aren't about sports. Sports is just the plate you serve the story on.
Well, with sports, TV can do so many things that I can't do. They can give you twenty angles on a play. High speed, slow speed, forever. You see it the way you never had. But I can take my camera twenty places they can't go. You can say Bull Durham isn't really a baseball movie, and you're right, but it is one too. It starts and ends with the game.
Would Bull Durham have a chance of getting made today?
Well, not with a studio. It'd be independent, and even then it'd be difficult because the independent market is really based on foreign sales, and I'm not sure baseball in this form would travel.
*CORRECTION: In the initial run of this article, Shelton is quoted as saying the team had been recently sold. This is not true. The editors regret the error.