I coached little league baseball for four years and the truth is, kids swear. You’re not supposed to encourage it, but it’s pretty damn amusing when it happens. If this movie had a love scene lit by candlelight with Susan Sarandon in a bathtub, it might be the best movie ever made about baseball. If you don’t think there are coaches like Vic Morrow around, just check out that videotape of Bobby Knight kicking his son on the Indiana Hoosier bench.
Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker — a washed-up, drunk pitcher who cleans pools and may or may not have once struck out Ted Williams in an exhibition game. Sadly but entertainingly enough, Michæl Ritchie’s film makes the case that Buttermaker’s probably about as good a little league coach as you can hope for in this modern win at all costs world. Matthau’s team sucks; it is filled with geeks, fat kids with psychiatric evaluations, undersized cursing street fighters, and a couple of twins who can’t even speak English, much less swing a bat. The one kid with an athletic family and an understanding of the game’s history winds up treed and disrobed after losing a fly ball in the sun. Eventually, Buttermaker does drum up some pretty nice yellow and white uniforms, even if the only sponser he could find does turn out to be Chico’s Bail Bonds.
You know they’re going to get better. It is a movie after all, but the cool thing is that instead of coaching, Buttermaker builds a winner by adding a couple more outcasts to his roster. The first is Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O’Neal), a tomboy spitballer who was unlucky enough to have Matthau as her father figure during the formative part of her childhood. She joins the team for some designer jeans and ballet lessons, can swear as good as the mercurial Tanner Boyle (Chris Barnes), and absolutely refuses to wear an athletic supporter, which instills a rebellion that will be costly to one of her more vulnerable teammates later in the season. Unfortunately, she can’t hit, so Buttermaker needs to pimp her out so she can convince the smoking, motorcycle riding, air hockey-hustling, eternally cool juvenile delinquent and milk money-stealing Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) to play ball with a bunch of runny nosed losers.
We’ll never know, but I will always be convinced that if Jackie Earle Haley had ever grown to full size he’d be bigger than Brad Pitt right now. Unfortunately, he wound up with one more good role in another great sports movie (“Breaking Away”) and then it was “Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence” and off to the showers. I’d definitely trade the last ten performances Daniel Stern has coughed up for a full-sized adult Kelly Leak. He nearly causes do-gooder mom Joyce Van Patten an embolism on any number of amusing occasions. Buttermaker even winds up doing a little bit of coaching, which is only fair since he makes the kids clean his pools and listen to his drunken stories of youthful achievement.
Matthau should get points for allowing himself to be filmed as such an unlikable cuss, and Vic Morrow, as usual, is just short of psychotic. In the end some dignity is spared — a kid stands up to his unhinged father as a fat kid lumbers around the bases, one team wins and the others wind up with a congratulatory beer. Nothing is learned, some music from “Carmen” is enjoyed, the kid with the runny nose catches a fly ball, a history of hypocrisy and living through one’s offspring is exposed and sour tempered Tanner Boyle tosses a trophy and gears up for a sequel in the Astrodome minus the high-priced talent. Isn’t it great when a piece of classical music gets forever redefined by a movie about a bunch of foul mouthed brats? What could be a better way to spend 102 minutes of the truth?