With Opening Day and nightly baseball game-watching still a few weeks away, you may want to scratch your baseball "itch" with films. Beyond the box office hits that you've seen a dozen times (i.e., “Major League,” “Bull Durham,” “Pride of the Yankees,” “Field of Dreams,” etc.) , there are a number of indie films, documentaries and obscure classics from the past that you may find intriguing. Here are a few of my favorites.
”Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball” (2006)
"Koshien" -- the high school baseball national championship tournament that began in 1915 -- is bigger in Japan than the Super Bowl is here. The single-elimination tourney begins with 4,000 teams that regularly practice of 8-10 hours a day and arrive with their own cheering squads. Coaches take full responsibility for losses, "fighting spirit" has more importance than technique, players bow to (and never argue with) the umpires, and honor is valued as much as if not higher than winning. Less than an hour long, this deep look into the passionate personalities participating in Koshien leaves you wishing for more.
"Rooters: Birth of Red Sox Nation” (2007)
Yankees fans won't care much for this title, but Red Sox fans obviously will -- and it is a fascinating piece even if you're not one of the Fenway Faithful. The film traces the roots of the rooters -- aka "Boston's Royal Rooters," a group of baseball fans established in the late 1800s -- and follows Boston baseball fandom through today. I have to admit the main reason I picked up this DVD was because it was produced by former MC and 3rd Bass founder Prime Minister Pete Nice -- who is now known by his birth name of Peter Nash and left the music biz a long time ago to focus on baseball history.
”The Emerald Diamond” (2006)
With St. Patrick's Day coming tomorrow, this film is particularly fitting. If you like underdog movies such as "Rocky" or "Rudy," you'll love this documentary, which follows the creation and rise of Ireland's National Baseball Team (yes, they play baseball in Ireland). The team began with a co-ed collection of rugby rejects, chicken-wire backstops, stolen equipment and swamps for ball fields. Through gritty perseverance, passion, and pure joy for the game, this original group eventually developed a competitive club that united religions and races, and established a new pastime in a most unlikely land. A free preview can be seen at the film's Facebook page.
This drama, detailing a bright-eyed, naive Dominican baseball player who discovers and adjusts to America as a minor leaguer, is fictional, but it has a real feel to it; you get the idea that this story has been seen and told many times before. How "Sugar" -- so nicknamed because the girls are "sweet" on him -- simultaneously becomes Americanized and grows into an adult in a short time is as much the story as is his progress as a baseball player.
”Bang the Drum Slowly” (1973)
Robert DeNiro's first major film role is the adaptation of a 1950s novel in which he plays a dopey but lovable catcher dying of cancer. Most of the baseball scenes were shot in the old-old Yankee Stadium (the one before the renovations) and now-demolished Shea Stadium. If you watch closely, you see quick shots of Tony Perez, Brooks Robinson, Thurman Munson and others in the action scenes, playing in now-defunct locations such as RFK, Riverfront and Memorial stadiums. The plot itself is typical early ‘70s: a melancholy black comedy with an eye-watering ending. If nothing else, watch it to learn how to play TEGWAR.
”It Happens Every Spring” (1949)
This is the unlikely story of a dorky high school science teacher who accidentally discovers a substance that repels wood -- and when applied to a baseball, makes him an unhittable pitcher. It's a hokey plot with horrific attempts at athleticism in the action scenes, but enjoyable nonetheless. As a Mets fan, I couldn't stop thinking while watching this about the uncanny similarity to R.A. Dickey's real-life story.
Hope these help you get through the next few weeks; surely, there are others I've missed. What "under the radar" baseball films would you recommend?
Joe Janish writes for Mets Today, which is part of the SweetSpot network.