It’s not easy to make a good baseball movie.  The relatively slow pace of the game rarely matches up well with the fast-paced rhythms of most modern films.  Don’t get me wrong–baseball movies are plenty exciting for baseball fans.  But for the casual observer, there’s not a lot of drama in a routine fly balls and deep pitch counts.  As a sport, baseball has more in common with a novel than the film based on that novel.

That’s why so many classic baseball movies aren’t entirely about baseball.  They spend a substantial amount of screen time (if not the majority of it) focused on off-the-field subplots to compensate for the supposed tedium of the in-game action.  Bull Durham wastes a bunch of time on an unnecessary (and unpleasant) love triangle.  The Sandlot yanks the storyline away from the field at the midpoint, and only makes it back for a short epilogue.  Every time the baseball action picks up in For the Love of the Game, the lovely Kelly Preston goes on another angry crying jag.  And Field of Dreams–considered by many to be the best baseball movie ever–is  really just a mid-life crisis fairy tale that uses baseball as an awkward plot device.*

*Sorry guys, it’s true.

Other beloved baseball movies keep the action closer to the field, but stretch the viewer’s suspension of disbelief well beyond the breaking point.  A League of Their Own is a good example–the film is certainly about baseball (with a side order of Girl Power), but it suffers from several glaring breaks with reality.  It’s a real struggle to believe even for two hours that Rosie O’Donnell can play an effective third base.  That Madonna can cover all the ground in center field.  That Lori Petty is a woman.

Major League, Rookie of the Year, The Scout, Angels in the Outfield, Ed, and even (gasp) The Natural all suffer from a similar loose grip on reality that at least partially spoils the believability of the on-the-field portions of the film.  I’m not saying baseball must only be depicted in the most accurate and reverent way possible–I’m too much of a Naked Gun fan to ever argue for that.  But it’s rare to find a movie that unapologetically focuses on baseball and takes it seriously.

Which brings me to what might be the best baseball movie you’ve never heard of: Pastime. 

Released in 1990, Pastime is the story of two ballplayers whose lives and careers briefly intersect in the minor leagues in 1957.  It had a limited theatrical run**, but it did make an impact at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award in 1991 (under it’s original title, One Cup of Coffee).  It also earned five Independent Spirit Award nominations the following year.

**Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of first seeing this film as a child during it’s abbreviated theatrical run because the producer/director is friends with my father.  However, there’s no incentive for me to endorse the movie–in fact, he doesn’t even know I’m writing this post.  But if our casual association makes you think I can’t write an unbiased review, well… sorry.

The film stars William Russ*** as veteran pitcher Roy Dean Bream, reliever for the Tri City Steamers.  At forty-one years old, Bream is a baseball lifer holding onto his last playing days in the central California D League.  His best baseball is long behind him, but his knowledge and his youthful exuberance for the game still make him an asset to his team–at least in the mind of his manager, Clyde Bigby, played by Noble Willingham.****  Bream doesn’t fit in well with the rest of his teammates, who cover the usual stock ballplayer character types–the preening infielder, the hot-headed starter, etc.  Pressuring Bigby to unload the aging pitcher is frustrated team owner Peter LaPorte, played by the always entertaining Jeffery Tambor.*****  In a great sequence early in the film, Tambor struggles to juggle all the roles of a small town minor league baseball executive–general manager, in-game announcer, and hot dog vendor.

***Russ is most famous for his roles as the loving, supportive father on the long-running ABC series Boy Meets World, and the racist dad in American History X.  What can I say–the dude is versatile.

****Willingham is a long-time character actor who has made a career out of playing lovable, crusty old authority figures.  Walker, Texas Ranger fans will immediately recognize him as retired Ranger and saloon owner C.D. Parker.  Everyone else… well, they need to watch more Walker.

*****Tambor has enjoyed a lengthy career playing many memorable characters–none more so than perpetual butt-of-the-joke Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, and George Sr., the incarcerated patriarch of the Bluth family on Arrested Development.  I am a big Jeffery Tambor fan, and this movie might be where it all started.

You get the sense early on that the Steamers are the kind of team where talent and potential go to die.  Each man knows his future hinges on playing his way out of town, and the tension and frustration of not being promoted is palpable.  The D League in 1957 would be similar to Rookie league today–an entry level no one wants to linger in for too long.  Hanging on to the fringes of professional baseball, you’re competing against your opponents and your teammates to advance up the ladder.

Into this tinderbox of frustration and unfulfilled potential comes seventeen year-old flamethrower Tyrone Debray, played by Glenn Plummer.******  Literally fresh off the bus, Debray shows up with the kind of self-evident talent will soon be his ticket out of town.  As the youngest man and the only black player on his team, Tyrone wears his intimidation and shyness on his face and in his posture.

******Plummer is another face you might recognize.  In my household, he’ll always be know for this role and for his brief appearance in Speed.  He was the guy whose car was commandeered, damaged, and ultimately totaled by Keanu Reeves.  “You… you broke my car.”

Where Roy Dean’s age separates him from the rest of the Steamers, Tyrone’s race also makes him an outsider.  As loners on the fringes of the team, they form a fast friendship that becomes the heart of the film.  Roy Dean has someone to listen to his stories of past success and glory, and all the baseball wisdom and experience he’s accumulated finally finds an outlet.  Tyrone gets an unexpected friend and mentor, building up the confidence he sorely lacks.  While their career trajectories are heading in opposite directions, it’s clear they share a consuming love for baseball and a deep appreciation for the ability to play the game for a living.  As Roy Dean points out, “Some guys have to get up every morning and go to work in an office.”

If nothing else, stick around long enough for the scene where Roy Dean tells a wide-eyed Tyrone about his short stint in the majors–“just a cup of coffee”–pitching for the Cubs against Stan Musial.  Russ tells the story like he’s told it a thousand times before, and his words have all the wrinkled and ragged qualities of the newspaper clipping Roy Dean keeps as proof of his major league career.

And if none of that grabs you, this might: Pastime is a visual holiday for baseball historians.  The background of many scenes is littered with Hall of Fame ballplayers.  Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Don Newcombe, Bill Mazeroski, Duke Snider, and Bob Feller all make blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.  Also, the final scene of the film was the last thing shot in old Comiskey Park on the day before it was torn down.

I can’t promise you that Pastime will be the best baseball movie you’ve ever seen.  It doesn’t reach for the manufactured emotional highs of some of the films mentioned above–there are no magic bats or mystical cornfields here.  It’s not trying to sweep you off your feet.  It’s a quiet story about the real life triumphs and tragedies of baseball, grounded in a reality that will feel instantly familiar.  And in that regard at least, it’s a home run.

Pastime is available on Netflix Instant View and for purchase here.

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