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Worshipping at the Church of Baseball
July 09, 2012
The cast and crew of Bull Durham try to wrap their minds around how, 24 years ago, a minor league baseball movie became such a major league Hollywood hit
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July 09, 2012

Worshipping At The Church Of Baseball

The cast and crew of Bull Durham try to wrap their minds around how, 24 years ago, a minor league baseball movie became such a major league Hollywood hit

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The 1988 MLB season bubbled over with unlikely plotlines: The Cubs won the first night game ever played at Wrigley. The Blue Jays' Dave Stieb had two straight no-hitters broken up with two outs in the ninth. And Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hobbled to the plate in Game 1 of the World Series to smash a pinch-hit, walk-off home run against A's assassin Dennis Eckersley. In theaters across America, another magical story unfolded. A little $7 million comedy, directed by a washed-out Triple A infielder and starring a bunch of actors who were no one's idea of stars, reminded moviegoers: Baseball is the closest thing in America to a common religion. The film didn't care about clichés or suspenseful bottom-of-the-ninth at bats. It was all about the details—the color and the craziness of the lives of minor leaguers itching to make it to The Show. Maybe that's why it became a classic and earned this magazine's stamp, in 2003, as the Greatest Sports Movie Ever. Twenty-four years later, SI reassembled everybody's favorite Carolina League roster for a look back at the making of Bull Durham.

I. "I believe in the Church of Baseball ..."

RON SHELTON (WRITER, DIRECTOR): I played ball in the minors for five seasons and quit during the strike of 1972. I was a second baseman in the Orioles' organization. Baltimore was a powerhouse at that time: Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and four 20-game winners. The highest I got was the Rochester Red Wings, in Triple A. I was a .251 hitter, and the most I made was about $900 a month. I had a couple of good years, and I probably could have kept grinding it, maybe gotten a shot somewhere. But I didn't want to become Crash Davis.

THOM MOUNT (PRODUCER): In the early '80s, along with two partners, I started a company that bought and developed minor league baseball teams, including the Durham Bulls for $35,000. I had grown up in Durham, going to the ballpark that's in the movie. A ball game, a hot dog and a Coke on a summer evening—how much better can life get?

SHELTON: When I was playing, I would go to the movies like a junkie. What else can you do when you're on the road? And then my playing days were over. You live with an edge when you play; then, when you're out of baseball, you try to replace that edge for the rest of your life. For me that edge came from screenplays. I'd written a couple that got made: Under Fire, about the Nicaraguan revolution, and The Best of Times [with Robin Williams and Kurt Russell], about trying to replay a high school football game some years later. When I was ready to direct, I thought I should write about something that I knew better than anybody else, even though I had always hated baseball movies. They always have a big game at the end and someone always hits a walk-off grand slam, which almost never happens. Baseball careers end on a ground ball to short.

MOUNT: Ron's first draft of Bull Durham wasn't quite there. But his second draft was extraordinary. It had Annie [Savoy], and she had a point of view and a voice. Crash got deeper. And Nuke got wackier. The movie became about something other than baseball. I had recruited Kevin Costner to be in a TV miniseries a year and a half earlier, but the network turned him down because he wasn't a star. I felt that he was going to break out.

SHELTON: I wanted Bull Durham to be about the players who were grinding it out trying to make a living in this game. I knew so many guys like Crash Davis. They didn't look like Kevin Costner, but they were consummate pros and really talented. The other archetype was the gifted young athlete who could throw a ball through a brick wall but who didn't understand that if he didn't take this seriously, he was going to be selling aluminum siding in five years. That was Nuke LaLoosh. As for Annie Savoy, her character was just a figment of my dreams. Trust me, I never met anyone like her in the minors.

KEVIN COSTNER (VETERAN CATCHER CRASH DAVIS): I was going to do another movie called Everybody's All-American [based on SI writer Frank Deford's novel about a washed-up football player] when I read Ron's script. It was amazing. I don't recall whether I knew about Ron's past in minor league baseball before I read it, but it became apparent from the level of detail in the script that all that time he spent riding buses, hoping for a shot at the big leagues, he was absorbing things.

SHELTON: I had loved Kevin in this little movie called Fandango, and also Silverado. When he read the script, he said, "Look, you played ball professionally. I was just a high school player. I want to try out for you." By then everybody was trying to get Kevin, and he asked to audition for me! He said, "Let's go to the batting cages." So we got a bunch of quarters and went out to these cages on Van Nuys Boulevard, in Los Angeles. He has a gorgeous swing—a better looking swing than I had. And then he goes around to the left side. He could switch-hit!

MARK BURG (PRODUCER): The original list for Crash Davis was Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Harrison Ford. Kevin said yes first.

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