For Love of the Game
Baseball is such a magical, insane construct that we can only wonder at the mad genius (not Abner Doubleday, we know now) who invented it, and those early players who refined it. Why the foul lines ninety degrees apart? Why four bases in a diamond? Why the pitcher's mound sixty feet six inches from home plate? Why three strikes and four balls? Why a strike zone? These are questions with no answer, and rightly so, about a sport that has only one living relative, the much more straightforward and logical cricket.
It is the most elegant of all team sports, giving those who love it the power to care about and honor everything from lifetime fielding percentage to most sacrifice bunts. Over a century and a half it has survived predatory owners who kept their players in involuntary servitude, a hatred of black players so intense that only the now-mythic combination of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey could breach the wall, and even Astroturf.
The question now is whether it can survive the assault of Kevin Costner's new film "For Love of the Game," and we must hope that it can. I say Costner's film, rather than Sam Raimi's, who directed it, or Dana Stevens's, who wrote it from the novel by Michael Shaara, because for two hours and twenty minutes he is at the center of the frame in every scene, in every shot. Even when someone else speaks, the camera is on Costner. No one in the film exists except in relation to his character, the pitcher Billy Chapel.
Here's the story, and as movie stories go it's a worthy baseball classic. Chapel is at the end of a 19-year career as a star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, a Hall of Fame career. He's been injured, he's forty years old, his owner has just sold the team to an investment group. For five years he's had an off-again, on-again relationship with Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston). It's the end of the season, the Tigers are going nowhere and they're in New York to play the Yankees, who are. Chapel takes the mound one last time. If you've seen the previews, you've heard Vin Scully's voiceover describe the moment this way: "Billy Chapel is forty years old, arm-weary and sore. But today he's going to try to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer." It's a great line, worthy of a better film, but I'll take it anyway.
So the film is about the game that Billy pitches, with flashbacks to various moments in his relationship with Jane, in which she is attracted, then pulls back, then he sends her away, then she sends him away, then he sends -- and then, after what appears to be a couple of years of their relationship we learn that she has a 12-year-old daughter, Heather (Jena Malone), who lives with her. "Some men don't like it that I have her," is all the explanation we get. The relationship seems to be kept at a "Me Billy, You Jane," "Me Jane, You Go Away" level. In fairness, I will report one other nice moment, in which Jane, who knows nothing about baseball, asks "Do you lose very much?" "I lose," Chapel says. "I've lost 134 times." "You count them?" she asks. "We count everything," he says.
The problem is, it's one of the few good moments in a film that's so chock full of clichés we in the audience can say all the lines before the actors do. In a film that cries out for understatement, "For Love of the Game" is unmerciful in the way it lays into each moment, stretching them out beyond all reason. An example, again, if you've seen the previews, is the moment Billy and Jane meet cute. She's stuck on the road, she kicks the car, he in his car says to himself "That'll fix it," he stops to help, he says "Would you like to go to a baseball game with me?" A guy pops up from the other side of her car and says, "If she won't, I will." End of preview scene. In the movie it takes ten minutes to set it up and get to that line, which isn't even the end of the scene. Somebody at Universal should have given the film to the director of the preview, who would have shortened the movie by a third and at least given it a fighting chance.
Having said all that, we must acknowledge that Costner in the right role -- and this is the right role for him -- has a lovely, even slightly goofy smile that warms you every time. And, as in the infinitely better "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams," he delivers his lines with a sense of spontaneity and natural wit that no one since Henry Fonda has done as well. But it's time he learned that in the movies, as elsewhere, less is more.