Critical Mass: Don't think, watch the film
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

A weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture:

On the Small Screen
"Bull Durham" Special Edition DVD (released April 2)

I've never been a fan of the "I believe in the soul" speech. Kevin Costner's delivery feels forced, for one thing, and there's no way Oswald acted alone, for another.

Bull Durham
"Bull Durham" proves that thinking too much can be a real hazard in sports.
"The rose goes in the front, big guy," "Sears sucks, Crash" ... these are simple, solid truths. These I like.

I think the best line in the movie is "Don't think, it can only hurt the ballclub."

People are always talking about how athletes step up, play big, make things happen. We don't say enough about what ballplayers let go of, about the thousand little acts of faith and memory that go into every move they make.

Sometimes, when I'm playing catch with a friend, I hang onto the ball just a fraction of a second too long and bounce one in the dirt, and all of a sudden the floodgates are open - I'm thinking about my grip, my release point, my follow-through, about the girl who never liked me in junior high, coaches who didn't play me enough in high school, the book I'm never going to be smart or brave enough to write, you name it. It's everything I can do to get out of my own way and find the rhythm of throwing easy and unconscious again.

I've got all kinds of respect for the physical genius of pro players, and for the hard work they put in to bring it to life, but I think what I admire most is that they manage to stay out of their heads long enough to let their bodies do completely improbable things like throwing strikes and hitting curve balls.

"Bull Durham" knows how cool and how rare it is to give up on thinking, and it knows at least a dozen other things about why baseball is important, too. So don't think -- just watch it again.

On the Shelf
"Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure into the Heart of a Gambling Country," by Andy Bellin (published March 5)

I play poker rarely and casually and badly. I play because I like the two-day stink that comes off my skin, because I like wearing my lucky hat, and drinking Yoo-Hoos and eating Doritos and sunflower seeds. I like fidgeting with a cigar cutter, tossing chips into the pot, saying, "check," dipping into my secret stash, watching the sun come up, and I like getting lucky. I'm a hack, really. I don't know snot about the game.

For somebody like Bellin, who plays all the time and plays to win, it's very different. If you're serious about poker, everything is combinations, probabilities and deductive reasoning.

Of course, it's also all chance and emotion and subtle little ways your body and mind betray you.

"Poker Nation" is about being caught between these two truths, intoxicated by the prospect of thinking your way out of each and every puzzle and knowing that that's not possible.

It's a weird, seductive read. I got all caught up in the math, and found myself imagining that I could be good if I thought about it enough. And at the same time, I was learning more and more about how inevitable losing was. It made my brain hurt, made me want to find a game, made me ready to give up my lucky hat and never play again.

Good thing I'm not serious about poker.

On the Newsstand
L. Jon Wertheim's Sports Illustrated article on NBA posses (issue of April 8)

He entertains two ideas worth talking about. Idea One: It just might be good for NBA players, especially young ones, to surround themselves with groups of family and friends. Idea Two: Maybe the league and much of the public are especially anxious about posses and entourages because many of their members are young black men "wearing billowy jeans and copious jewelry."

Shameless In-House Plug
Chris Webber SportsCentury profile on ESPN Classic (airing April 26)

Check out Cherokee Parks talking about the difference between Duke basketball and Michigan basketball in '92 -- he's still envious of the Fab Five -- and his team won the title!

In Our Minds' Eye

Robert Urich died of cancer this week. He was the second-most famous Florida State football-player-turned-actor. Burt Reynolds, the First Seminole Thespian, brought Urich out to California in 1972 and let him stay at his house until he got a break in Hollywood. Urich was in "Magnum Force" the next year, but I first remember him in "S.W.A.T." in 1975, and then later as Dan Tanna in "Vega$." Actually, I just have vague memories of a bullet-proof vest in the one, and some big sunglasses and a sweet ride in the other, but I know he was TV cool in both of them.

Anyway, if you live in Pittsburgh, it'd be nice if you brought out your copy of "Fighting Back: The Story of Rocky Bleier" some time this weekend. For everyone else, it's gotta be time for a "Lonesome Dove" marathon. Urich's at his easy, charming best as Jake Spoon. Pay special attention to the scene where Robert Duvall's Augustus McCrae has to hang him. I've heard Duvall describe the scene as his best piece of acting, and Urich's right there with him. It's an understated thing of beauty.

Slam Dunk Story of the Week

Phil Mickelson
Think Phil Mickelson choked in the final round at Augusta? Think again!
Phil Mickelson choked at another major tournament, and Tiger's all in his head.

One problem with this theory: Mickelson shot a 71 on Sunday at Augusta. So did Tiger.

Tiger Word of the Week

Speaking of Mr. Woods, the consensus seems to be that there's nothing left to say. People are writing stories saying they've run out of superlatives to describe him.

I've got another idea: In the seventh grade, I had an English teacher who made us find words we didn't know, look them up, and use them in a sentence. It was an expand-your-vocabulary kind of thing. We need to do this with Tiger. We need to find new Tiger words and put them in new Tiger sentences.

This week's Tiger word is ...

Élan: (noun) vivacity; energy arising from enthusiasm.

As in, "Tiger made his way down the 18th fairway with confidence and élan, and those who were there will tell you that a certain irresistible charge passed through the gallery -- women blushed, men shifted nervously, children jumped to get a look at the young champion."

Try it out. Élan, it sounds nice, doesn't it? I think Tiger will like it.

Next week's column: Bill Walton and the NBA playoffs, "Baseball Prospectus 2002" and skateboarding in Santa Monica.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at neel@sportsjones.com.





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