“Bull Durham” is the best movie ever made about baseball, and it’s not even really that close. Writer-Director Ron Shelton was a minor league player and he knows the ins and outs of the game; the every day excitement and the dreariness, as well as the Homeric romance that appeals to intellectuals like George Will and Ken Burns. For one thing, “Bull Durham” understands that the key to baseball is that it is the story of a long season. “The Natural,” “Damn Yankees,” “Major League” and all the other pretenders build their story up to the climax of the big game, where someone will be knighted as the new hero and their opponent tagged forever as the goat. Shelton understands that the real lessons and humor to be found in the game develop slowly from day to day, and his players seem more interested in picking out the proper wedding gift for a teammate than in gearing up for some Herculean pennant drive. After all, who really cares or remembers who won the Pacific Coast League or the Pioneer League championship last year? Minor League games take place to foster the development of young players. No one without severe emotional problems really cares who happens to win them. All this and an incredibly sensual performance by Susan Sarandon, as every young athlete’s best friend, mentor, and love toy, make for an unbeatable and sexually combustible combination.
“Bull Durham” is the story of catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a minor league lifer, who finds himself demoted from AAA to the single A Durham Bulls so he can help tutor the team’s hotshot rookie Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a pitcher with “a million dollar arm and a five cent head.” Sarandon is Annie Savoy, the local baseball groupie and a local teacher of literature, who dedicates herself sexually to one player a year. “There’s never been a ballplayer that slept with me that didn’t have the best year of his career.” When Annie chooses Ebby Calvin as this year’s project, Crash has to deal with his disgust for LaLoosh’s immaturity and his growing attraction to Sarandon.
Costner is marvelous as a ballplayer at the end of his road. He knows that once he is done coaching the young phenom his career is probably over, and he does a great job of showing Davis’ love of the game, his unrivaled competitiveness, and his overwhelming bitterness at never having really made the big leagues. He talks about his short stay in “The Show” as if it were Disneyland, cotton candy, and heaven all wrapped up in one. His irritation at being a grown man surrounded by any number of flaky teens who have no idea what the real lyrics to “Try a Little Tenderness” are is palpable and strongly felt. When he and Sarandon finally hook up, the passion nearly tears apart every room in her house. Tim Robbins is usually known for his brainy dramatic work or his collection of smarmy con men, but his Ebby Calvin LaLoosh is a wonderfully idiosyncratic creation. He walks around cluelessly in beat up motley crue T-shirts, hits the team’s mascot with a few off-target pitches, and frets manically with embarrassment when Annie suggests his control might be helped if he would just wear her garters underneath his uniform. “Major League” was funny, but “Bull Durham” is funny, literate, romantic, and overwhelmingly adherent to the idiosyncracies of the game.