Commentary

Happy anniversary to 'Bull Durham'

Deconstructing the best baseball movie ever made, 25 years after its release

Originally Published: June 14, 2013
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Twenty-five years ago this weekend, we learned that candlesticks make a great wedding present, that the rose goes in the front on a garter belt and that a young pitching prospect should never, ever -- and I mean ever -- shake off his veteran catcher.

[+] EnlargeBull Durham
BULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.Surely, you've seen it by now. But if you haven't, it's available on a variety of home entertainment formats, and time's a-wastin'!

Released on June 15, 1988, "Bull Durham" is considered by many as the finest baseball movie ever made, and it rivals "Rocky" as the finest sports movie. It's the funny, touching and, of course, sexual tale of veteran catcher Crash Davis, pitching prospect Ebby Calvin (Nuke) LaLoosh, passionate "fan" Annie Savoy and life in the low minors with the Class A Durham Bulls.

"Twenty-five years? I know, I know. Doesn't seem like it," Kevin Costner, who played Crash Davis, told ESPN's Greg Garber this week. "I mean, you look at me, you don't see Crash Davis. I couldn't pull that part off today … But in my mind, I'm still in junior high school. Twenty-five years ago, I could have been Superman if I could get the [hair] curl right. Now I'm Superman's dad.

"That was an iconic baseball story that really holds up. And it's because of the writing. Ron Shelton. That's what does it for me."

A quarter-century later, the movie is a classic, a favorite of old ballplayers, young ballplayers and everyone else who was ever a fan of the game.

"When I first saw it when it came out, I thought, 'It can't be like that then you get to the minor leagues.' But it really is like that," Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski says. "It's gotten better now with the new stadiums, but I remember my first couple years in the minors playing in some of those old stadiums. You would look back at the movie and think, 'That really was a true depiction of minor league life as it really is.'"

It ought to be, given that Shelton, the movie's writer/director, played in the minors. But how realistic was "Bull Durham"? Find out in this scene-by-scene deconstruction, compliments of current major league players, managers, coaches, scouts and executives.

Opening Scene: The Church of Baseball. We hear Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) talk about her belief in the Church of Baseball and outline the movie's crucial plot point: She sleeps with one player on the Bulls per season, noting that "there's never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn't have the best year of his career."

"I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe. And pretty," she continues. "'Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball -- I mean, who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake?"

The typical "groupie" might not be quite as philosophical or esoteric as Annie, but these 'partnerships' do happen in baseball.

"I had a teammate in A ball who had a very similar environment," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price says. "I don't know what her history was, but she was quite a bit older -- 12 to 14 years older. And yeah, he had a great summer."

Bull DurhamBULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.The old park had charms, though lighting (and the women's room) might not have been among them.

Durham Athletic Park. Annie completes her monologue as she enters the Durham Athletic Park, home of the Durham Bulls. It's a lovely night for baseball and Max Patkin, the old clown prince of comedy, is performing on the field.

The current Durham Bulls are a Triple-A team that plays in a new, modern ballpark. The old DAP was not so lavish -- it had exactly one women's restroom -- but according to Mets scout and former pitcher Roy Smith, it was one of the better minor league stadiums in the 1980s when he was coming up.

"That was one of the nicer ballparks in the Carolina League," he says. "I was 18 [in 1980], so it was the first time around for me. The park was always crowded. It was a time warp. It was like time stood still there. It was probably the closest thing to the 1950s."

A Unique Warm-Up. Just minutes before Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is to make his pro debut, Bulls pitching coach Larry Hockett (Robert Wuhl) hasn't the slightest idea where the team's new prospect is. Durham manager Joe Riggins (Trey Wilson) searches for LaLoosh and finds him in the trainer's room, having sex with Millie, whose father paid for the stadium scoreboard.

Seriously? Forget about the sex issue. Here's the important question: Would a pitching coach really not have the slightest idea where the starting pitcher was?

"I think that's something all pitching coaches are careful about -- making sure that the guy is there and the guy is ready," Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis says. "I have had to go and find a guy and, generally, I know right where to go and it's the training room and he's running a little behind with his preparation. But I've never had to go and interrupt anything like that. That's a good thing. But it would be a good story to tell."

As for the sex in the trainer's room?

"Having to go into the trainer's room and pull the starting pitcher off a woman to go warm up in the bullpen is probably a little exaggerated," Price says. "However, it probably did set a standard for others to try to attain after the movie came out."

Nuke's Debut. LaLoosh takes the mound and throws a pitch into the press box. We also see him hit the Bull mascot and a batter. Afterward, Joe and Larry discuss his performance, noting that he walked 18 batters ("A new league record"), struck out 18 batters ("Another new league record"), and "hit the sportswriters, the public-address announcer and the bull mascot -- twice -- also new league records."

Even if all the strikeouts were on 0-2 counts and all the walks were on 3-0 counts and there were no other outs and no hits and LaLoosh pitched just six innings, that's a minimum of 127 pitches. Much more likely, he would have had to throw more than 200 pitches to put up such strikeout and walk totals.

Clearly, this was in the day before pitch counts.

"Certainly in today's game, you would never ever see that happen," Willis says. "I don't think anybody is going to come out with a golden arm and they're going to let them throw 180 pitches their first outing. It's just not going to happen.

[+] EnlargeBull Durham
BULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.Kevin Costner brought enough athleticism to the role to be believable as a catcher.

"I'm sure it didn't happen back then, either."

The Player to Be Balding Later. Crash Davis (Costner) arrives, having been demoted in his mid-30s from Triple-A to the low minors. The Skip informs Crash that the organization has sent him down to "mature" Nuke. Crash nearly quits, but decides to stay because he loves baseball. And besides, what else is he going to do? Sell Lady Kenmores at Sears?

Such a demotion seems unlikely. But Cubs president Theo Epstein says, "Things like that do happen. We have some guys we almost classify as player/coaches, that we send to a certain level for what they provide off the field. Yet they're still active for most of the season. That can happen."

Still.

"When he was told he was there just for the kid," Smith says, "that was a kick in the [groin] for me."

The First-Round Draft Pick. After inviting Crash and Nuke back to her house, Annie chooses LaLoosh to be her "player" for the season. Crash responds with one of film history's great monologues, in which he declares his beliefs -- including, among other things, that "Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone" and "I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter."

Interesting note: Five years later, Costner starred in the Oliver Stone movie "JFK," in which he plays a New Orleans prosecutor who tries to prove that Oswald did NOT act alone and was part of a vast conspiracy. But at least he was prophetic on the AstroTurf issue. There were 10 major league stadiums with artificial turf in 1988; there are just two now. But there is no push to get rid of the DH.

Bull Durham BULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.The pitcher-catcher dynamic between Nuke (Tim Robbins) and Crash, on full display.

Never Shake Off Your Catcher. Crash catches Nuke for the first time. Crash goes to the mound and lectures Nuke, telling him to throw more groundballs because "strikeouts are boring – besides that, they're fascist." (Times and attitudes have changed on that subject. Now, pitchers are basically judged on their strikeout totals.) He also tells Nuke he should hold the ball "like an egg."

Crash calls for a curveball but Nuke shakes him off because "I want to throw my heater to announce my presence with authority." Crash goes to the mound and tells him that the batter is a first-ball, fastball hitter, but Nuke doesn't care. He insists on throwing his fastball. Intent on teaching Nuke a lesson, Crash tells the batter what the next pitch will be. The batter then crushes it over the fence for a home run. (Here's the entire scene, compliments of Orion Pictures and FOX.)

Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher, says informing a batter what the next pitch would be "is crossing the line." He says even if you were telling the batter what pitch might be coming just to mess with his head, "It's crossing the line."

Which isn't to say it hasn't happened.

"There are a couple times in the minors where I've heard of catchers telling guys what was coming," Willis says. "I never experienced it on my own team. That's not good. I guess maybe I remember that scene so well because I'm thinking, 'What an ass.' I'm all about the pitcher and you're telling the hitter what's coming? Really?

"I've never heard of it happening in the big leagues. But in my coaching career in the minor leagues, we had a hitter come back to the dugout and he told us the catcher was telling him what was coming. I guess they were from the same country. I think it got back to the other side and the catcher got released."

[+] EnlargeBull Durham
BULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.This is what manager Joe Riggins (Trey Wilson) might call "lollygagging."

Lollygaggers. Disgusted by the team's terrible record, Joe asks Crash what he should do to get the players' attention. Crash tells him he should "scare them." Joe takes him up on his suggestion by angrily tossing an armful of bats at the players while they shower. "You lollygag the ball around the infield! You lollygag your way down to first! You lollygag in and out of the dugout!" What does that make them?, he asks his pitching coach. "Lollygaggers!"

"Having a heated discussion with your team is not inappropriate if the situations calls for it," Padres coach and former minor league manager Rich Renteria says. "I don't necessarily remember throwing things, but I have hammered a table or two. I think I had a meeting one time where I broke my hand hammering on the table."

Skip Wants to See You. Joe calls a slumping player into his office. "This is the hardest thing a manager has to do," he says, telling the player that the club is going in a different direction and is releasing him.

This is a scene that resonates with real-life players, managers and coaches alike.

"When you've been in the game for a while, you never want to be the person who tells someone their career may be ending," says Renteria. "It's difficult because you're talking about a human being who has given their whole life, their energy and everything they have to attain the ultimate goal of getting to the big leagues.

"It IS the most difficult thing to do."

Bull DurhamBULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.The trick to an unscheduled day off? Know where the sprinkler system controls are.

The Boys on the Bus. The players crowd onto an old bus for a long road trip. Along the way, Nuke upsets Crash by playing a guitar and mangling the lyrics to "Try a Little Tenderness." Nuke challenges Crash, asking him what he knows about the majors. Crash then relates how he once spent 21 days in 'The Show,' where someone else carries your luggage for you, batting practice is held with white baseballs, the ballparks are like cathedrals "and the women all have long legs and brains."

Players young and old all agree that this scene is a very accurate depiction of minor league bus rides. Smith says the way the players crowd around Crash when he talks about life in the majors is "exactly how it is" and that minor leaguers really do refer to the majors as "The Show."

Pierzynski says the long rides that leave late at night after a game and don't reach the next destination until the following afternoon is also very true.

"You'll get in at 4 in the afternoon and have a 7 o'clock game, and you just go right to the field," he says

One aspect that has changed since June of 1988: You don't have to listen to Nuke singing about how "women get wooly" to pass the time. Most buses now have TV monitors that show movies. And Pierzynski says one of the most frequently shown movies when he was in the minors was, you guessed it, "Bull Durham."

[+] EnlargeBull Durham
BULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) kept a very close watch over her favorite team.

The Rainout. The Bulls' bus pulls into a hotel parking lot, where the tired players notice a bus of attractive Ice Capades skaters also arriving. They wistfully talk about how they need a day off, how they need a rainout. Crash bets his teammates he can get them a rainout. He pulls it off by breaking into the ballpark and turning on the sprinkler system until the field is a muddy, soggy mess.

Realistic?

"The funny thing is, we had guys who did that AFTER the movie," Price says. "I had never had that happen, where you come to the ballpark on a sunny day and you get a rainout because someone had left the sprinklers on all night. But it happened after the movie.

"We were in Arizona at the end of rookie league, in 1992 or some year, and we had fielding practice for pitchers every day -- PFP -- and we had a little half field on the terrible facility in Tempe at the time, and a couple of pitchers went out one night and flooded that half field so we couldn't do PFP."

(BTW: You can see the players' breaths in this scene. That's because the movie was filmed in the late autumn, not the summer, and it was occasionally rather cold in Durham.)

Lava Lizard. After the long, bad road trip, Annie tells Nuke, who is struggling with his pitching, to re-channel his sexual energy onto the mound by not having sex until he gets himself straightened out. She also instructs him to start breathing through his eyelids like the lava lizards of the Galapagos (and Fernando Valenzuela).

LaLoosh in Locker RoomBULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.We couldn't find a single major leaguer who'd own up to trying Nuke's garter-belt method.

Neither Price nor Willis say they have ever instructed a player to breathe through his eyelids.

Crash Goes Deep. Crash continues his assault on the minor league home run record by driving a pitch over the 410 sign.

Costner went on to win an Academy Award for "Dances With Wolves," but his performance at the plate was Oscar-worthy, too. Not only does he have a sweet swing, he has it from both sides of the plate.

"He's a pretty good athlete," Yankees outfielder Vernon Wells says. "I saw him hit when we were in Boston that All-Star weekend in 1999, and he knew what he was doing. Either he prepared well or he just has that ability in him."

On the other hand, there is the matter of Robbins' mechanics on the mound.

"Oh, they were bad," Price says. "You could tell it was an actor trying to be a pitcher. I thought they did a great job with the movie, and the only parts that lacked realism was the pitcher. You could tell he didn't throw hard. He was depicted as a very, very hard thrower and you could tell that he wasn't."

"I think Charlie Sheen in 'Major League' had the most convincing windup of all the actors," Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson says. "The worst was Brendan Fraser in 'The Scout.' He doesn't even throw the ball the whole movie. There is no physical scene of him actually throwing the ball. They just zoom in the camera fast. It's terrible."

[+] EnlargeBull Durham
BULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.Kids, don't try this at home. Remember: It's only a movie.

Rose Goes in Front, Big Guy. At Annie's suggestion/insistence, Nuke also finally gives in and begins wearing her garter belt while he pitches.

If any player wore/wears a garter belt, they aren't saying – at least for public consumption. But Padres manager Bud Black, who compiled a 121-116 record over 15 seasons pitching for five different teams, does have a wardrobe superstition.

"I have a shirt that I wear when we need a win, and my daughter calls it the Guaranteed Win shirt," he says. "It's just a plain Ralph Lauren shirt. And I didn't do it just when Jake Peavy pitched. It could be anyone. Random. Usually I do it when we've lost three, four, five in a row. I'll break it out and say, 'OK, today is the day.'

"It's not invincible, but the shirt has a good record."

We Told You, NEVER Shake Off Your Catcher. Nuke and the Bulls have turned around their fortunes. Nuke is pitching well and the Bulls are winning. But nearing the completion of a two-hit shutout, Nuke shakes off Crash again. Crash retaliates by once again telling the batter what pitch is coming. Again, a home run results. "That ball got out of here in a hurry," Crash tells him. "Anything that travels that far ought to have a damn stewardess on it, don't you think?"

Wilson says he would be extremely upset if a catcher did that to him. "But," he adds, "I would probably have done something pretty lame to deserve that."

Bull DurhamBULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.Left unresolved in Ron Shelton's script: Whether Jimmy and Millie actually received candlesticks.

Don't Mess With a Streak. Nuke tells Crash that Annie is upset because he refuses to have sex with her until he loses, but adds that he probably will break down and give in to her desires. Crash sternly tells him not to do so. "You give in now, you might start losing," he warns. "Never [mess] with a winning streak."

Not surprisingly in a game of routine, this is a very widespread and fundamental belief.

"There's a saying in clubhouses after a win or a good game that, 'Hey, whatever you did last night, do it again,'" Black says. "That happens all the time, where guys will go to the same restaurant or something like that.

"I'm not obsessed with recreating the entire day like some guys do, but there was a period of time where I ate macaroni and cheese before all my starts when I was in Cleveland. Just basic boxed Kraft macaroni and cheese. I just kept doing it. Every fifth day, Kraft macaroni and cheese. And I was a major leaguer with seven years' service time by that point. I had some money."

Macaroni and cheese? Well, why not? As Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija says, "Doing this every day, your brain is like Groundhog Day. So there are certain things you do every day to get your comfort level."

The Sermon on the Mound. In perhaps the movie's most famous scene, there is a conference on the mound in which the players discuss Nuke's nervousness over his father being at the game, the upcoming marriage of Millie and Jimmy, and the necessity to find a live rooster to sacrifice in order to take the curse off the first baseman's glove. "We're dealing with a lot of s---," Crash tells Larry, the pitching coach, when he arrives.

Larry shows his first (and only) bit of coaching acumen by telling the players, "Candlesticks always make a nice gift."

Price You could tell it was an actor trying to be a pitcher. … You could tell he didn't throw hard. He was depicted as a very, very hard thrower, and you could tell that he wasn't.

-- Reds pitching coach Bryan Price,
on Tim Robbins as Nuke LaLoosh

Price says there are times when a manager abruptly sends a pitching coach to the mound; and sometimes, he doesn't really know what to say. Sometimes, he'll say something like, "Damn, I really need some TV time -- this is a national game and I need the camera on me." Levity, he says, "is the best way to break the tension."

Willis recalls a time he went to the mound to talk to former catcher Tim Laker. "He was looking around and looking around and all of a sudden he says, 'Are you wearing Hai Karate?' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'It smells like my grandpa out here.' I had put a bunch of Brut on after BP and we had a good laugh about that.

"But I've never said anything about killing a chicken or rubbing bones on a bat."

Scioscia says there is huge value in a catcher going to the mound.

"I think it's important because it keeps distractions away from players as far as the magnitude of the situation," he says. "I think you want your players to play free and play baseball. That's where a catcher's presence comes in when he goes out to talk to a pitcher to execute a pitch he's thrown maybe 70 times in the game and thousands of times in his career."

Nuke Goes to the Show. After losing a game, Nuke and his father visit Annie at her house. Nuke receives a call from Joe telling him the club is calling him up to the majors.

Calling up a player directly from Class A to the majors -- especially one who struggled so much for a good chunk of the season -- isn't a very likely occurrence, but it does happen every once in a while. As Epstein points out, "The Marlins did it with Jose Fernandez." Although Fernandez made the team after spring training the year after being in Class A.

[+] EnlargeBull Durham
BULL DURHAM 1988 Orion Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 2013 MGM, 2013 FOX. All Rights Reserved.The movie is rated 'R,' so we can't tell you what magic word Crash used to get thrown out of this game.

The Wedding Scene. Millie and Jimmy get married in a ceremony on the field.

This has happened multiple times at ballparks across the country. In fact, Mariners bullpen catcher (and former Mets catcher) Jason Phillips got married a couple years ago in the Seattle bullpen after a game. They did so because that's where they met -- he was in the bullpen and she was sitting next to it during a game. But they definitely did not recreate the Nuke/Millie scene in the trainer's room.

Crash Gets Released. Joe calls Crash into his office. With Nuke gone, there is no longer a need for a 30-something catcher. He informs Crash that although the club is releasing him, he has suggested to the organization that Crash would make a good manager. He tells Crash, "There might be an opening in Visalia next season."

The Visalia Oaks were a Class A farm team of the Minnesota Twins when "Bull Durham" was released, and their manager was Scott Ullger. He remembers going to see "Bull Durham" with his wife that year.

"At the end of the movie, he says that line and two young girls about 16 years old said, 'The Oaks already have a manager!' We got a chuckle out of that," Ullger says

Crash Breaks the Record. After getting released by the Bulls, Crash signs with the Asheville Tourists and hits his 247th career home run, breaking the minor league record. He then retires and returns to Annie as the movie ends.

The minor league record for home runs is not 247, and wasn't in 1988, either. Depending on whether you consider the Mexican League a "minor league," the record is held either by Hector Espino (484) or Buzz Arlett (432). Not Crash Davis.

Hey, sounds like the perfect excuse for a sequel.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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