Some baseball flicks just look more real than others.
I recently watched The Natural for the umpteenth time. It is my favorite baseball movie, and is quite possibly my favorite movie period. Love the story. Love the acting. Love the drama. I have just always freakin' loved The Natural. Even if I had never picked up a baseball or watched a baseball game in my entire life, I would probably still enjoy watching (spoiler alert) Roy Hobbs win the pennant for the Knights.
Thing is, I have picked up many baseballs and taken in many baseball games in my time, and as a lifelong baseball guy, I can appreciate the fact that Robert Redford has a pretty sweet swing.
No one watches a baseball movie purely for the choreography. You watch for the nostalgia, storyline, etc., but the reason you enjoyed The Natural probably isn't because it looks like Redford could really swing it. Nevertheless, it clearly doesn't hurt. Even the casual baseball fan can probably tell that The Scout's star, Brendan Frasier, wasn't exactly an ex-pro. You might still enjoy the film, but bad choreography can make the inevitable baseball sequences cringey. It is no surprise then, that many of the movies on this list are all-timers. Maybe you didn't acknowledge it initially, but it helps when the movie makes you feel like you are watching real baseball.
So as I watched Hobbs knock the lights out once again, I thought to myself, "Which movie has the REALEST baseball?"
Of the four major U.S. sports, baseball is the most popular in terms of sports films, so it was tough to narrow it down. Some of them have great supporting casts, but leads who struggle to look like a real ballplayers. Some are the opposite. I'll remind you, this is NOT a list of greatest baseball movies, though many are classics. This is purely based on how accurately these film ensembles enacted the skills and movements of America's Pastime.
1. For Love of the Game (1999)
About as realistic as it gets, Kevin Costner plays the role of an aging, aching ace in Billy Chapel perfectly. You knew Costner could hold his own as a fictional baseball player (see: Davis, Crash), so no surprise he has good mechanics as he goes for a perfect game in Yankee Stadium. The guys around him display their baseball chops too, though. John C. Reilly is very believable as the slow-footed, light-hitting, defensive specialist in catcher Gus Sinski. Pitchers love throwing to those guys and often request to do so, as Chapel does.
J.K. Simmons and the late, great Augie Garrido play convincing skippers for the Tigers and Yankees, respectively. Everyone in the field and at the plate looks like they have played before (looking at you, Rickey Ledee and Juan Nieves), and the voices of the incomparable Vin Scully and Bob Sheppard provide ideal narration for Chapel's perfecto.
One thing, though...
Really two. The mound is only 60 and a half feet away from home plate. Chapel would look like a complete crazy person if he was churning out dramatic monologues to himself the entire game, and the home plate umpire would have had a fit waiting for him to deliver the next pitch (Commissioner Manfred, this is NOT the movie for you). The movie, for effect, makes it seem like he's on an island by himself. But in reality, he's not that far away from anyone.
Oh, and Ken Stroud, who seemed pretty quick, would probably have been safe by a mile if he would have hit a ball that deflected off the pitcher's glove, rolled up the middle, and was stopped by a diving shortstop near the base of the outfield grass. Get your ass down the line, rook.
2. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Never seen it? Do something about that. Richard Linklater's film about a big-time college baseball team in the 80's is excellent. But that's not why it's on this list. Everybody Wants Some!! sits in the two-hole because some of the actors really were players, while the rest are not offensively bad.
The best of the bunch is probably Jay Niles, an oddball pitcher with a live arm, played by Juston Street. Sound familiar? Juston is the younger brother of Huston Street, the two-time All Star with 324 big league saves under his belt. Juston, like Huston, played at the University of Texas. He signed with Oakland as an undrafted free agent in 2008, and wound up pitching two years in the minors before calling it quits. So yeah, he clearly knows what he's doing and is actually humming it in there pretty good when he takes the mound.
One of the film's best scenes from a baseball perspective happens during a live batting practice session, when Niles gets a lesson from Glen McReynolds, played by Tyler Hoechlin. Before pursuing acting full-time, Hoechlin was an infielder for Arizona State University, where he appeared in the College World Series in 2008. He later transferred to UC Irvine, another good baseball school. An injury led to him wrapping up his baseball career in lieu of acting. This Niles v. McReynolds matchup is some real baseball, and it is part of what makes Everybody Wants Some!! a solid baseball flick.
One thing, though...
McReynolds splitting a baseball perfectly in half after hitting it with an axe? C'mon now.
3. The Rookie (2002)
Dennis Quaid got to show off his fastball when he played the role of Jim Morris in The Rookie. Quaid attests that he only played baseball in Little League, but he is clearly a good enough athlete to look presentable on the mound. Fluid delivery, lots of intensity, the latter of which is very important if you're portraying a guy who could ramp it up to the triple digits. Job well done.
Quaid's high school team holds their own as well, namely Jay Hernandez as shortstop Joaquin "Wack" Campos, and Rick Gonzalez as pitcher Rudy Bonilla. Once Morris gets signed by the Devil Rays, the minor leaguers he is surrounded with all make the action look as real as possible. Finally, he gets his big-league promotion and strikes out the actual Royce Clayton, an All-Star with nearly 2,000 hits on the back of his baseball card.
One thing, though...
There is a scene in which Quaid throws live batting practice to his team, using an L screen of course. However, either no one on set knew what the function of an L screen was, or they just ignored it. He is just begging to wear a line drive off the teeth. Get behind that thing!
4. Sugar (2008)
Another one that many probably haven't seen, but probably should. Sugar follows the trials and tribulations of Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a young Dominican pitcher plugging away in the minor leagues. It's a tremendously realistic story that features some equally realistic baseball.
Santos is portrayed by Algenis Perez Soto. Though Soto's childhood dream was to make it as a baseball player, he didn't quite possess the skill to be signed by a Major League organization out of the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, he has more than enough ability to look comfortable on the mound in Sugar. The supporting cast is elite in terms of baseball talent, as most of them are real players. The ups and downs of minor league life have been documented before, but the foreign perspective is a new take on things that is encapsulated beautifully in Sugar.
One thing, though...
Soto's windup could probably have been a little more aggressive. He looks like he's playing catch. MAYBE 70% effort. We want Charlie Sheen/Rick Vaughn effort out of you! But overall, he looks good out there.
5. Bull Durham (1988)
Good on you, Kevin Costner. You truly are the quintessential hero of the baseball movie. Bull Durham's Crash Davis is a salty, knowledgeable, minor league journeyman, who mentors young fireballer "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) on the ins and outs of being a pro. Being the two main characters, Robbins and Costner's performances are the main factors in determining the quality of this film's choreography. Costner is impressive as a switch-hitting catcher, while Robbins is...eh.
Perhaps it's not all Robbins's fault. Nuke has a loose, funky windup, so it's tough to really make it look convincing when Robbins doesn't have the ability that Costner does. But he does what he can. Crash looks solid behind the plate, though his throwing motion, which is pretty much the same 3/4 delivery as it is in For Love of the Game, is better suited on the mound than as a catcher. It seems that all of the other players on the Bulls and on the opposing teams have some experience on the diamond.
One thing, though...
A positive thing! I'm looking at you, Susan Sarandon. Swing it, girl!
The Natural (1984)- I have to be unbiased here. As I said before, Redford has a sweet stroke and a good throwing motion. But man, some of his teammates are just not very good at baseball-ing, namely John Olsen, played by John Van Ness. There is a scene in which the team takes batting practice after adding the lightning bolt patch to their uniforms. A teammate chimes in while watching Olsen/Van Ness hit, "Seems to be a slight mistake. Olsen's hitting the ball." True in the film and in real life.
Major League (1989)- Charlie Sheen was reportedly offered a scholarship to pitch at the University of Kansas. You can tell he is actually throwing with some real velocity. Not 101 like the radar gun shows, but definitely mid to high-80s. Clu Haywood, the slugging Yankee first baseman that Vaughn strikes out in the film's climax, is actually Pete Vuckovich, who pitched in the Majors for 11 years, winning a Cy Young Award in 1982. Unfortunately, the baseball talent in this film is top-heavy, as Wesley Snipes (Willie), Tom Berenger (Jake), Corbin Bernsen (Dorn), and Dennis Haysbert (Cerrano) all have their believability issues.
61* (2001)- Barry Pepper (Maris) and Thomas Jane (Mantle) really do look like their characters. Pepper does an excellent job imitating Maris's stance and swing. Jane struggles at the plate, which is understandable considering he's asked to switch-hit. He doesn't really look great from either side, though. Pepper and Jane appear comfortable on defense, and the rest of the actors successfully surround the heroes with believable baseball action. If Jane would have had just a smidgen more baseball talent, this film is in my top five.
In the expansive library of baseball movies, there has been some very-real baseball action for us to enjoy. In other words, this list was tough to make. Do you agree with me? Did I miss one? Comment below and I'll be glad to go back and forth with you.
I'll be watching The Natural in the meantime.