Sports films always seem to cover the same ground: underdogs versus arrogant champions, unlikely teammates overcoming racism, beloved player facing a disease with only five games left to live, etc. By the end of the first scene, you’ve mentally connected the dots to the film’s obvious conclusion. It starts off with what looks like a group of baseball players triumphantly returning back to their locker room after a big win. Momentarily, I felt this was going to be old hat. However, before the credits even begin, you’ve been thrown a curve. What looked for a brief second like a post game celebration is actually the aftermath of a shocking tragedy. This isn’t a feel good story about the little guys making good in the face of adversity, it’s about how the arrogant champions engineer that adversity.
Brett Packard (Mark Mench) is the first baseman of the Carolina Devils. He’s the golden boy of a team whose current success is making the history books. His hold over his teammates digs in deep; he exacerbates their fears and insecurities, all the while positioning himself as a close friend and confidant. Unbeknownst to one another, Brett exploits their weaknesses to Machiavellian heights in order to accumulate his personal and financial powers. Taking out batters with pitches to the head may cause a black streak on a player’s career, but with Brett’s connections, the promise of lucrative endorsement contracts outweigh the moral ramifications. With his calm exterior, Packard seems to be in control with no regard for the damage he inflicts on others. He could almost be mistaken for the devil himself, for when his teammates sign those contracts; it’s not sneakers that are being sold. When team manager Jimmy Ingels (Daniel Morris) brings in motivational speaker Bob Tower (Larry Tobias) to strengthen the players’ resolve, he taps into the growing guilt of their deceptions. As the team awakens to the sins they have committed, Packard’s cool façade cracks under the pressure of preserving the one thing that drives him: the absolute domination he wields over those around him.
There’s a line early on in the film spoken by Brett’s wife Natalie (Traci Dinwiddie) where she mentions that a phone number is posted on their refrigerator, the one on the second floor. At this point, you know your dealing with people far removed from the troubles of the average joe if they can afford to place refrigerators haphazardly around the house as if they were lamps. Like that throw away line, it’s the little touches that best illustrate how Brett’s depravity has rescinded his humanity. Take the way he slyly convinces young pitcher Ricky Sparks (Cullen Moss) that his major league career might be short lived then persuades him to play dirty when he’s up on the mound, all the better to earn some of those product endorsements while he’s still young. As this transpires, the twitching body of an injured batter lies in the scene’s forefront, reminding us of what Ricky’s actions will bring about. Or the way Brett nonchalantly seduces his son’s babysitter (Stephanie Wallace), then conscientiously reminds her to pick up the money that’s fallen from her hand, as if she’s nothing more than a w***e collecting her fee. As good as these moments are, not everything flows perfectly. Natalie’s transformation from elitist bitch into the righteous mother saving her son from the corrupting influence of Brett seems uneven and too quickly carried out. As his control crumbles, Brett pleads ‘I’m evil without you. Bad, rotten evil’, as if she’s been the ethical backbone in his life when in reality she could be knocked off her moral high horse with a feather. This leads to a resolution that may be a little too clean for the sorry likes of Brett Packard. Ultimately, though, Packard is not the devil; he’s just the first one on the team to sign off on his soul. Conversely, Brett is the last member to face the consequences of such an action. It wouldn’t be good drama if he were denied the chance to comprehend why he must be damned, not just to experience it but to learn from it as well. Individual reaction to this hinges upon the willingness of the viewer to determine if Packard has sufficiently earned himself underdog status by the final fade out.
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