Live-Blogging 'For Love Of The Game'

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When Moneyball: The Movie came out last fall, I wrote a great deal about it. Maybe I wrote too much. I don't know. But I love baseball and I love movies almost as much, so when the two come together I do get enthusiastic.

And writing all that stuff about Moneyball made me want to write more about baseball and movies, maybe because it's one of the few baseball-related topics I haven't already written much about in the last 15 years. So I figured I would try to write about a lot of baseball movies this winter, once all the awards were awarded and all the Alberts were Pujolsed.

Granted, all the Princes haven't been Fieldered yet. But spring training is just eight weeks away, so if one's got an ambitious off-season project in mind, now's the time to start.

Why For Love of the Game, though?

Because just a few days ago, it wasn't even on my list.

Not including documentaries, I've got 10 baseball movies on DVD. Most of the good ones, for sure. I figured on starting with my favorite and working my way down, and figured I wouldn't get to any lousy movies before spring training, at which point I could forget this entire project ever occurred to me.

But then I saw For Love of the Game scheduled on HBO. I saw it when it came out, in the fall of 1999. I remembered the basic outlines and a few images. I also remembered not really liking it. I was terribly distracted, though. See, I was on a second date and it was going really well and we were sitting in the back row.

Granted, my date was a serious baseball fan. So we did see most of the movie. But I usually get lost at the movies, and this time I didn't. So I figured I should give For Love of the Game another shot. And I decided to live-blog the thing, mostly because I so desperately admire Amanda Rykoff's brilliant 24 live-blogs (for example). I'm not doing precisely what Amanda did. But I hope this contains some of her spirit and at least a touch of her wit...

Disclaimer: The time-stamping is approximate, since I'm watching on DVR rather than DVD. Does this really matter, though? Probably not to a single one of you...

:01 - Opening credits, with montage of what we quickly realize is the images of an outstanding baseball player growing up, from Little League through high school. All the while, he's blessed with a father who's crazy about baseball but never shows anything except unconditional love and support. You know, just like in real life. The music, of course, is terribly cloying, all strings and tinny horns and whatever else is supposed to tug at your heartstrings.

If you have any. Which of course I do not.

This goes on for approximately too many minutes. Unless you're already crying, in which case it's fine.

Oh, the credits! Kevin Costner's the baseball player, and Kelly Preston's his lady friend. Then the title of the movie. Then John C. Reilly! I don't think I recognized him in 1999. I'd seen Reilly in a few small roles by then, but had somehow missed both of the Paul Thomas Anderson movies -- Hard Eight and Boogie Nights -- in which Reilly actually did interesting things. But Magnolia came out three months after For Love of the Game, and then I got caught up.

I do remember seeing Reilly in this movie, not knowing who he was, and thinking this guy's not much more of a baseball player than Robert DeNiro was in Bang the Drum Slowly. Much of which was shot, like For Love of the Game, at Yankee Stadium.

But I digress.

Also in the opening credits: Jena Malone (never heard of her), Brian Cox (heard of him) and JK Simmons (for some reason the periods in his initials were omitted).

Three minutes in, we finally see Kevin Costner. In slow-motion, he and his Major League Baseball teammates are walking toward the camera, presumably in an airport. They are all wearing lovely suits.

And back in the credits, something I had completely forgotten ... Sam Raimi directed this masterpiece!

Sam Raimi, who directed all those cult classics starring Bruce Campbell, along with a fine little thriller called A Simple Plan. And some years later, all three of the Spider-Man movies that starred Tobey McGuire and got progressively worse.

Man, being a baseball player in a really expensive suit does look like a lot of fun. If only I'd seen this movie when I was eight years old, I might have made something of myself.

:03 - Okay. Movie's starting. The club's on the charter flight, and we quickly realize that a) Kevin Costner (Billy Chapel) has a sore shoulder and b) John C. Reilly (Gus Simski) looks after him like a mother hen. Costner's reading a big book, and Gus is playing with a hand-held video game. Gee, this is looking more like Bang the Drum Slowly all the time. If Gus dies at the end, I might actually cry. 'cause I already love the big galoot.

Billy tells Gus that their manager (Simmons) wants Billy to start tomorrow's game. It's the next-to-last game of the season and it doesn't mean anything for Billy's Tigers, but the game's against the Yankees and they're trying to fend off the Red Sox for the division title (oddly, nobody mentions the dramatic Wild Card situation). Gus wants to talk to the manager about this, but Billy stops him.

Gus tells Billy to fasten his seat belt. Because he's a mother hen.

:08 - Billy's hung over. See, the night before he was expecting some special lady to show up in his hotel room. But Jane never showed up. So he drank a whole bottle of Champagne plus a bunch of those little bottles from the mini-bar. Gus wakes him up. Gus is wearing trousers, a sweater, a sport jacket ... and his Tigers cap. Because he's a galoot. And in case you missed it, a baseball player. Baseball players wear their caps everywhere. The galooty ones, anyway. Or maybe just Gus.

Tigers owner Gary Wheeler shows up to speak to Billy. It's not clear why Wheeler has an Irish accent, though it might have something to do with him being played by Brian Cox. Wheeler has come to tell Billy that he's sold the Tigers. But wait, there's more!

Wheeler: All those negotiations, the bastards never said a word.

Billy: Said what?

Wheeler: They wanna trade you to the Giants.

The way Cox delivers that line and the way Costner reacts, you might think that getting traded to the Giants is among the Six Worst Things in the World. Granted, it might be; in '99 the Giants were still playing in Candlestick.

It turns out Mr. Wheeler has come to suggest that Billy retire after the season. And we get a speech from Wheeler:

I don't know how to say this. You know, I've been watching you for 18 years. Nothing, nothing has given me more pleasure. You're like the old boys. They were golden. They had that special pride. When they were done, they were done. Nobody had to show them the door.

Yeah. Like Ty Cobb and Willie Mays and Warren Spahn and ... Wait, what? Oh.

We learn that Wheeler's not some Irish potato magnate; his dad bought the Tigers when Wheeler was seven, which would have been in the early 1950s. (So, accent still a mystery.)

I grew up watching the Tigers. I was going to leave the team to my kids but they don't even like baseball. Everything's changed, Billy. The players, the fans, TV rights. Arbitrations. It isn't the same. The game stinks. And I ... I can't be a part of it any more.

The phone rings. Billy's lady friend, Jane, is calling. She's downstairs. Billy's off to see her. It's urgent!

Wheeler wants an answer about the trade. It's urgent!

Billy needs more time. On the way out, he does offer a corrective to Wheeler's hazy bullshit: "The game doesn't stink, Mr. Wheeler. It's a great game."

:14 - Jane has left the hotel, but Billy tracks her to a muddy baseball field in Central Park. She's crying.

This is our first look at Kelly Preston. I'm reminded how little I care for blondes with pointy chins and conventionally perfect cheekbones (this means you, Reese Witherspoon). This is not a good start, since this is clearly going to be more romance than baseball movie. Every time the female lead shows up, I'll be thinking about how much better she would look with dark hair. But that's my thing. If she's been good enough for John Travolta for all these years, she should be good enough for me. Also, she gave birth when she was 48. Which is something, for sure.

Anyway, Jane's come to tell Billy that she's taken a job in London, and is leaving tonight. Which is really inconvenient because Billy's pitching tonight, and if she would just come to the game he might pitch a really good game and she would be so impressed that she would give up her dream job as an editor at a prestigious publishing house where they wear a lot of tweed and publish books that get reviewed in The Sunday Times and ... Okay, so I made some of that up, while Jane was crying and saying goodbye forever, because that's really boring.

:16 - It's Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium! Vin Scully's calling the game on FOX, and his partner in the booth is Steve Lyons. Billy's late to the ballpark. You know, because of the crying and stuff. On his way to the locker room, he walks past a kid in a Yankees uniform. The kid is obviously an actor: 5'6", maybe 160 pounds. Billy doesn't recognize him. Kid doesn't recognize Billy at first, but finally does and says, "Mr. Chapel? Ken Strout. I was your batboy a long time ago. My dad was a Tiger."

Billy asks Ken if he's playing. Ken says no, probably not. He got called up just yesterday.

You know, because a lot of 160-pounders get called up on the next-to-last day of the season to sit on the bench. Happens every fall. Oh, and I'm sure there's almost no chance that ex-Tigers batboy Kenny Strout will wind up playing a larger role in this unfolding drama, a couple of hours from now. No chance at all.

:17 - Jane's in a cab, presumably heading toward JFK to catch her flight. The cabbie's got the Yankees game on the radio. Jane asks him to turn it off. He tells her to go obscenity herself. What's she got against baseball, anyway?

:19 - Billy's changing into his uniform. Pinches an inch of fat around his mid-section. Just like in the old cereal commercials.

:21 - Billy's warming up in the bullpen. The manager's out there, which is weird. He tells Billy he's not going to start Gus behind the plate, because Gus hasn't been hitting. Billy tells the manager to go obscenity himself.

:22 - FOX shows Billy's season statistics. He's sort of terrible. Sure, the 3.55 ERA looks pretty good, especially for the Steroid Era. But in 30 starts and 211 innings, he walked 98 batters and struck out 111.

Those numbers don't add up, my friends. From 1996 through 2003, only two starting pitchers (Jamey Wright and Kevin Ritz) threw at least 200 innings with more than four walks per nine innings and few than six strikeouts per nine. Their ERAs were 5.67 and 5.28. Of course, neither of them were crafty veterans like Billy Chapel. Maybe he's given up six homers all season. Or 36 homers, but 32 of them were solo shots. Crafty veterans do stuff like that. Also, the nearest analogue in real baseball to Billy Chapel is Jack Morris, and we know Morris didn't need to strike anybody out. Because he knew how to win. Unlike Bert Blyleven.

:24 - Clouds. Sun. Pensive. Musical strings. Last warmup pitches. More strings. Horns. Kettle drums. This is really happening. Baseball will be played, and something magical will happen.

:25 - Jane's at the airport but -- wouldn't you know it? -- her flight's delayed. A drink would be nice but -- wouldn't you know it? -- the TV at the bar is showing the baseball game. Oh, and -- wouldn't you know it? -- a terribly obnoxious Yankees fan just sat down at the bar. He actually says, "It's a beautiful day at the big ballpark in the Bronx." While chewing gum. And wearing a pinky ring (I'm assuming). Bartender obviously hates him. Clearly figures he'll be a lousy tipper, so what the obscenity.

:27 - Yankees third baseman Sam Tuttle is batting. Vin Scully tells us that Tuttle has put together three straight 30/30 seasons. Steve Lyons tells us, "We all know there's no love lost between these two guys. They don't like each other too much." Billy mutters, "Sam Tuttle. I can't think of a better reason not to be a Yankee."

Billy's first two pitches are on the inside corner and the outside corner, both called strikes. Sam complains about both. Billy mutters -- apparently Billy does a lot of muttering when he's pitching -- "No wonder nobody likes you, Tuttle. Everything's a goddamn debate. I saw that shitty little Hollywood movie you did."

Wow, who is this guy? He's got power, he's got speed, and he's an actor!

Behind the plate, Gus drops his middle finger. Billy throws the knockdown pitch. More muttering, then Billy throws a sidearm breaking ball that Tuttle watches for strike three.

:30 - Back on the bench. Gus says Gus things. Billy says somebody wants to play golf with him tomorrow. And he played golf five years ago when he met Jane.

Uh-oh. Here comes the flashback. And now this really looks like a ... love story.

:32 - Billy's driving a Porsche convertible. "Reeling in the Years" is on the radio. Which is lame. Billy is singing along, which means he's sorta lame too. He sees Jane kicking her car, the hood up. He fixes it. Then ... well, who the hell really cares, anyway? This is the "meet cute" part of the movie. There's smiling and laughing and mild heroics and before you know it, Jane's agreeing to attend her very first baseball game.

At Yankee Stadium. Billy's pitching. With musical strings!

One of the player's wives says something mean. Another player's wife says something nice. Billy throws Jane a baseball. She doesn't have a chance.

Post-game dinner. Jane is from Syracuse, she writes magazine articles, and wants to sleep with Billy tonight.

Which is not unusual -- you know, because he's really charming and really rich and sorta handsome -- except these two people seem to have absolutely zero chemistry. Nevertheless, pretty soon they're doing crazy stuff in an elevator.

Okay, we're now a fourth of the way into the movie and I've written 2300 words. Might need to start jumping ahead pretty soon, but...

:44 - Back to the present. Second inning, and someone named Davis Birch is batting for the Yankees. Billy starts off Birch with a change-up that Scully calls a fastball before telling us that Birch used to play for the Tigers, but the club was "forced to trade Davis Birch, who was a free agent. Detroit could not come up with his monetary demands. The Yankees were waiting with open arms, and an open wallet."

Fade to Flashback ... Billy's sitting in a chair and says, "It was your team, too. How much money we gotta make."

Cut to Birch. "You wanna see my team? That's my team over there."

Cut to Birch's lovely wife and two young sons, outfitted in Yankee colors.

Birch's lovely wife: "Billy, are you just gonna sit there and mope, or are you gonna help?"

See, the family's moving. Presumably to a much larger house, somewhere within limousine distance of Yankee Stadium. Oh, and the moping. Billy does a lot of moping. When Amanda live-blogged 24, she came up with a drinking game. I wish I could remember what it was, but I think you were supposed to take a drink every time somebody references an obviously made-up technology. You know, like voice-activated real-time satellite-based sneeze-recognition software.

Anyway, if you take a drink every time Billy Chapel mopes, you probably won't make it all the way to the end. Actually, you might not make it all the way to the end, anyway. I might not, except I'm a team player.

Back to present. Billy mutters, "You're the best, kiddo. The best around, the worthy opponent."

Then he strikes him out.

:45 -  Flashback ... Wherein we begin to learn that Jane is a mess. It's five years ago, again. About a month after their initial tryst, Billy and Jane are supposed to meet at the hotel bar during the Tigers' next trip to New York. Jane doesn't show, and Billy finally gives up and heads out ... only to run into Jane.

She says this: "I had a great time with you last time. It's not that. Don't get me wrong. It's just that ... I don't mean to sound like anything or anything, but ... I don't do that. And I'm not saying anything about. I just don't do it. Not since I was in college ... I just don't screw like that!"

Mmm-kay. In the history of brilliant movie dialogue, you probably won't find a chapter titled "Jane's Soliloquies".

Anyway, it seems that Jane is really worried about being a "groupie".

Then she says, "Goddamnit! I like you."

Which is a big problem only in the movies. Okay, and sometimes in real life. But not nearly as often as in the movies.

Billy finally suggests that, instead of more screwing, they go for a walk. So they take a long stroll around Manhattan, with some bad 1980s-style music playing over the montage. Billy walks Jane all the way to her place. No screwing! Just a quick goodnight kiss.

Oh, but before that a little speech from Jane.

"So, when you're away, I'll live my life and you'll live yours. And none of this stupid bullshit, why didn't you call me crap. And what you do when you're not with me has nothing to do with me, and vice versa. No questions asked. No worrying. No obsessing."

Billy: "That sounds perfect."

Yeah. Sure. Good luck with that one, pal.

:52 - Still in flashback, but it's the following spring and Billy's in spring training.

Billy calls Jane. She's in her book-lined study, working. She asks when he'll be in New York to pitch against the Yankees. He invites her to visit him in Florida. Spring training's fun, damn it!

Jane: Look, this is crazy. What am I supposed to do? I'm supposed to run down there, and meet Sandy Koufax, get his autograph, and sleep with Mr. Right Guard? ... I can't be a groupie.

Billy: You know, that's the second time you've used that word to me, Jane. It really didn't go down that well the first time.

Jane: Now you're mad.

Billy: Naw, I'm not mad. I'm just ... pissed off. I'm gonna hang up now, all right? I'll call you some other time.

Jane: Wait, no. When will you call me?

Billy: When I don't feel like killing you.

So we're now 53 minutes into this movie, and that's the first bit of dialogue that actually seemed like something real people might say. I mean, assuming that one of the people is bat-shit crazy.

:54 - Billy about to get a massage from an attractive woman.

:55 - Morning. Billy is drinking his coffee and looking at the newspaper.

:55 - There's a knock on the door. Guess who?

Jane: All I've got is my toothbrush and a bathing suit I bought at the airport.

Billy: Jane, listen to me. No matter what happens in the next five minutes, I want you to know that when I opened this door, I was so happy to see you that my heart leapt. It leapt, in my chest, okay?

:56 - Masseuse: "Hey Billy, can I borrow your blow dryer?

Whoops.

Jane runs off. Billy follows her, still in his pajamas (with his t-shirt tucked in, which seems weird, but whatever, "Reeling in the Years" is one of his favorite karaoke songs so clearly he's not perfect).

Billy: What about the whole deal thing?

Jane: What deal thing?

Billy: You know - You do what you do, I do what I do.

Jane: You believed that? I was lying! I was trying to be the man. And I was doing a damn good job of it, until you invited me down here.

He invited you down here ... and in no uncertain terms, you declined his invitation. And now he's just supposed to ignore America's loveliest massage specialists until the Tigers visit the Yankees again?

Anyway, Billy and Jane don't part on good terms. Looks like the end. Oh, except we've got an hour to go. So I'm going to guess that something happens. But what on earth might it be? Jane did mention, during their lovely dinner together last year, that Billy didn't really know her at all. Maybe she's got some secret that will somehow bring them together again.

1:00 - Back to the present. Gus and Billy on the bench, watching teammate Mickey Hart batting.

Gus: Aw, Mickey will be gone next year too. Poor guy. Never could get a break. What was that catch he missed? The one that hit him. They still play it on DiamondVision all the time. Whoops there goes, another rubber tree plant.

This elicits a chuckle from Billy ... and another flashback!

It's 1995 at Fenway Park. Mickey Hart is going to the wall for a long fly, and somehow the ball bounces off his head and into the stands for a home run, Canseco-style. After the game, he's down on himself. Mickey and Billy are the last two in the locker room...

Mickey: Guess I looked pretty funny today out there, huh? Probably end up on ESPN or somethin'.

Billy: A lot of shit ends up on ESPN that I don't think's very funny, Mick. There's a buncha cameras out there right now, waiting to make a joke of this, Mick. So you can either stop, give 'em a sound bite, do the dance. Or you can hold your head up and walk by 'em, and the next time we're in Boston, we'll go out there and work the wall together. Don't help 'em make a joke out of you.

In the middle of that, a clubhouse attendant tells Billy he's got a phone call.

Guess what! It's Jane! And she's got a secret teenaged daughter! Heather, who has run away from home. Hopped a train at Penn Station for -- would you believe it? -- Boston, where her junkie father lives. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world ... Hey, it's a movie. And a pretty bad movie. These things happen.

Unfortunately, we miss the part where Billy convinces the traveling secretary to route the team bus to a really crappy neighborhood, where Billy collects Secret Teenaged Daughter and everyone heads to the airport. Daughter also hitches a ride on the team charter back to New York. According to young Heather, she was born when Jane was 16. And Jane doesn't believe in love anymore. Oh, and girls can't figure out why boys like V-8 Juice so much.*

* Blatant product placement.

Billy delivers Heather to Jane's apartment, where -- would you believe it? -- Jane could not be more grateful.

Looking around Jane's gigantic apartment, Billy notices the baseball he tossed to Jane, their first night together. He picks it up and she says -- swear to God she says this -- "I like to hold it in my hand. 'cause I know somewhere you're doing the same thing."

Hey-O.

Then they start kissing and stuff.

And that's how our touching romance is rekindled. But yeah, Billy and Jane have known each other for something like a year, and somehow she just sort of forgot to mention she had a daughter. And why wouldn't Billy want to bust his ass working on a relationship with an honest, loving woman like that?

1:12 - Montage! Billy and Jane and Heather playing Monopoly, and opening Christmas presents at Billy's place in the mountains, and a really stupid long-distance phone call, and a really stupid conversation about white meat vs. dark meat, and Heather watching Billy eat some sort of protein shake and ...

1:15 - Thank God, we're back in the present, Billy back on the mound. But no! More montage! Jane cheering with the other Tiger ladies, in some past season. And more Christmas-y stuff with Jane and Heather.

1:16 - Back to our game, and Gus is coming up. John C. Reilly looks like he might never have picked up a baseball bat until this exact moment. Or perhaps never has seen baseball being played until today's filming. Anyway, he somehow drives a 64-mile-an-hour fastball into the gap in right field and, thanks to lazy center fielder Jaime Ruiz, slides safely into a second with a leadoff double.

Billy claps, and gives his manager a "See, you dumb-ass?" look. Then he sits down, and looks down at the skin between his thumb and index finger, where there's a long nasty scar. The music builds, which can only mean...

1:17 - Flashback! Back in the snowy off-season mountains, and Billy's using some sort of table saw to cut hunks of wood. Maybe he's building a deck. Or a credenza for the rumpus room. Hard to say. But here's a tip for all of you aspiring movie critics ... When you see equipment like this in a movie, get your notebook ready because something important is about to happen. Either Steve Buscemi is about to get stuffed into a wood-chipper or Billy Chapel is about to suffer a gruesome, career-threatening injury to his pitching hand. Trust me. I've seen a lot of movies. Too many movies, maybe.

1:19 - Billy's loaded into the Medevac. Jane wants to come along, but there's no room in the chopper. Billy calls her to his side. Jane looks so happy! Billy needs her! He really needs her!

"Call Mike!" Billy says. "He's the most important person for me right now."

Jane looks crestfallen by this news. See! She never should have gotten involved with a pitcher. They're so selfish.

1:20 - We're back. Base hit into the gap. Gus should score easily on this one, but John C. Reilly runs like he might never have sprinted in his life before today, and there's another really close play. He does score, though. The guy who the manager didn't want to play has scored the game's first run. I wonder if that run will wind up being important. Or if the score will wind up being 8-3 or something. I wonder.

1:21 - Flashback. Spring training after the injury. Remember Mike, the most important person for Billy? He's the Tigers' trainer. He's not convinced that Billy can make it back. Billy won't admit it, but he's not convinced either. He says mean stuff to Mike. He says mean stuff to Jane, too.

Billy: Goddammit, Jane. I'm the only one who is trying here. Now I got nobody in the front office, nobody in the press, and now I got nobody in this house who thinks I'm going to make it back ... You make me feel distracted. You make me feel weak.

Jane: Billy, you taught me something. You taught me how to believe again. You taught me how good things can happen, and that they will happen. But now you need to let me teach you something about what I know. About how sometimes life seems like it's slamming you down. But it's really giving you a gift.

I had a baby when I was 16. That could have wrecked me. But it didn't. Instead it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Billy: You mean if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade?

Jane: You are such an asshole.

Billy: Well, if you're telling me I'm not ever gonna hold that ball again! I can't. I mean, haven't you ever loved anything that much?

Jane: I'll call the airlines. See what kind of flights I can make.

Except for the asshole thing, that would have made some fine dialogue in a Hallmark Channel movie. Not one of the good ones. But I can definitely imagine something like on TV. Without any movie stars.

1:25 - Present. Billy's pitching with that 1-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh. And he's hurting. Gus doesn't want to throw him the ball. Then, some fantastic analysis from Steve Lyons: "There's something wrong with either his arm, his elbow, or his shoulder."

Uh, aren't the elbow and the shoulder parts of the arm? Technically speaking?

J.K. Simmons comes out to check on Billy, who promises he'll come out of the game if the pain gets any worse.

1:27 - Hey, we're back at the airport bar with Jane and that obnoxious Yankees fan. Jane lets it slip that she knows Billy. But her flight's finally boarding, so she stands up to leave.

Bartender says, "Hey, you leaving? How can you leave when your guy's winning?

"How do you know?"

"Because he's hurting and he won't tell anyone and he won't come out."*

* I'll be honest with you, since you've stuck around for this long ... I almost started crying when Jane said that. I don't know why. It's not due to the skill of the moviemakers, or to Kelly Preston's acting. What I've found is that the older you get, and the more times you get hurt or feel something, the more emotional triggers you pile up. I see things all the time, in movies mostly, that elicit a sort of catch in my breath. When I'm 65 I'm really going to be a mess.

Meanwhile, back in the Bronx, Sam Tuttle lays down a bunt. Billy makes a great play and throws out Tuttle, who slid headfirst. It was really close, like all the other plays in this game. Billy limps off the field. Now he's really hurting. But he sees his dead parents in the stands. Which always helps.

Meanwhile, instead of cutting to commercial, FOX sticks around because there is big news from the executive suites!

Vin Scully:

What a mix we have going on for the last two innings. And sitting alone upstairs, owner Gary Wheeler reportedly has already sold his ball club, the Tigers, to the corporate group in the box to his left. And now an unconfirmed report, beginning to ripple the water, that the corporate's first business would be to trade Billy Chapel when the season is over.

So as so often happens in a ball game, there are so many other undercurrents, so many more things than meet the eye, and here we have it all. A beleaguered owner selling a ball club, perhaps the new owners selling the biggest star on the club, and all the while, Billy Chapel perhaps trying to make the decision of his life: Does he remain a big leaguer, or after 19 years does he call it quits.

I suppose you don't need me to tell you that this sort of talk would never come up during the last weekend of the season. That a sale wouldn't go through then, and that even if it did, the new owners wouldn't immediately leak stuff about trading their star. Anyway, Billy Chapel would have gained his 10-and-5 rights a long time ago and almost certainly would be able to veto any trade. And finally, considering his statistics there wouldn't be much point in trading him, since he wouldn't exactly bring back a passel of prospects.

Otherwise, sure; all this makes sense.

I know it's easy to nit-pick baseball movies, and I generally discourage it. But this entire movie hangs on the premise that Billy has to decide, right now, if he's going to accept the trade immediately after the game, or instead retire.

Anyway, Jane heads toward her gate and her flight to London.

1:30 - Flashback. Billy still trying to recover from his injury. Over the montage of Billy trying to pitch, and eating Chinese food and moping and finding some of Jane's perfume and really moping, we're treated to Bob Seger's "Running Against the Wind," which at least has the virtue of making "Reeling in the Years" seem cool.

1:31 - Oh man. Billy's in New York, and pops into an art gallery. Jane's there. Her hair's all weird. She's smoking, which is really unhealthy. And she's there with some lame art guy.

Actually, he's a magazine editor. But he likes abstract art. And his name is Ian.

Like in almost every other scene they've got together, Billy's coming across as a really good guy, while Jane seems like ... well, sort of a bitch. This isn't me talking. This is what the movie is saying about her. Billy's called her three times since their break-up, and he's here with his heart on his sleeve, and she's smoking cigarettes and making googly eyes with Ian. I mean, come on.

Anyway, Jane finally tells Billy how terrible she felt when he sent her away during spring training. Because, you know, she's so open about her feelings and stuff. Five months later, but still.

Billy invites her to his next start at Yankee Stadium, and says to bring Heather along, but Jane declines and anyway the game gets rained out. So Billy heads to Jane's apartment and watches her and Ian (!) through the windows. Which is sort of creepy, but we've all been there, right? And the sound track finally favors us with a contemporary song that's pretty good. Which is shocking, considering the last 96 minutes.

1:36 - Present. Beautiful sunset over New Jersey. Vin Scully: "Billy Chapel is looking a perfect game right in the eye."

Question: Did they let Scully write his own material for this one? Because you know, he's famous for the ninth inning of Sandy Koufax's perfect game, which of course was utterly improvised. If I'm making the movie, I say, "Mr. Scully, here's an extra $100,000. Can you take this stuff in the script and make it sound like you would say it?"

Maybe they did that. I hope Scully writes his memoir someday.

1:37 - Cut to what looks like a dorm room. Heather, surrounded by a bunch of noisy girls, is watching the game on TV.

1:38 - Cue baseball-y music. Billy looks at scoreboard. Looks confused. Gus comes out. Billy just now realizing that he's working on a perfecto. Mopes again. Not to worry, Billy. Gus is on your side.

Chappie. You just throw whatever you got. Whatever's left. The boys are all here for ya. We'll back you up. We'll be there. 'cause Billy, we don't stink right now! We're the best team in baseball, right now, right this minute, 'cause of you. You're the reason! We're not gonna screw that up. We're gonna be awesome for you right now. Just, throw.

We're gonna be awesome for you right now. I gotta remember that one, for the next time one of my friends needs a pep talk.

But apparently pep talks don't always work immediately. Billy throws three straight balls, so lousy that even Gus can't catch them.  A reliever gets going in the bullpen.

Yeah, right. Like we're going to see a relief pitcher. Billy sees his dad again, this time behind the plate. In black-and-white. Which is weird, since Billy should remember his dad in color.

Anyway, Black-and-White Dad does the trick, as Billy's 3-0 pitch is a blazer through the strike zone.

The batter's swinging on the next one, and it's a long drive, deep to right field where -- wouldn't you know it -- Mickey Hart sprints to the wall and makes a leaping catch to steal a home run. Oh, and the batter was Davis Birch. Who tips his cap to Billy on his way to the dugout. Mickey had tipped his cap, too. And there was some baseball-y music.

The next two Yankees go down, the first on a great play by the second baseman, the second on a foul pop collected by Gus. Three more outs to go.

1:45 - Flashback. Billy's eating at an outdoor café next to the Los Angeles Public Library, and who should appear in this city of eight million people but Heather, who's going to USC. Heather's gotta get going because her friends are impatient, but she hugs Billy and says she misses him.

Billy's inspired by this meeting and calls Jane, who agrees to meet him at the Waldorf during his next visit to New York. Which brings us back to the beginning of the movie. And now we're back on the bench, and Billy's moping. (Take a drink!)

1:49 - He's made his decision. Picks up a baseball, scribbles something on it, asks Mike to have the ball delivered to Weaver up in the owner's box.

1:50 - Vin:

Billy Chapel is 40 years old as he sits in the dugout here at Yankee Stadium. Forty years old, arm-weary and aching, and don't let anybody tell you or Billy that life begins at 40. Forty-one hundred innings Billy Chapel has walked to the mound in a brilliant 19-year career. But never before, in all those years and in all those innings, has he ever had a date with destiny as he has right now. He will make the fateful walk to the loneliest spot in the world, the pitching mound at Yankee Stadium, in quest of the pitcher's dream, the perfect game.

Scully must have written that, right? Because it's by far the best thing in the whole movie.

1:52 - Baseball delivered to owner. It's inscribed

Tell them I'm through.
"For Love of the Game"
Billy Chapel

 

If he loves the game so much, wouldn't he want to keep pitching? But "For Love of Not Pitching for the San Francisco Giants in Candlestick Park" might not have fit.

1:53 - Here we go. Billy's toeing the rubber for the bottom of the ninth. More rhapsodizing from Scully. And, Ho! What's this! Billy's getting religion all of a sudden?

Lord, I know that I always said that I'd never involve you in a baseball game. Always seemed silly. I mean, you got enough to do. If there's any way that you could make this pain in my shoulder go away, for about ten minutes.

And then, just before throwing a pitch, Billy says to himself, Clear the mechanism. Twice. He did this early in the game, too. No context. My guess it's a remnant of the book, something everyone liked but didn't want to take the time to explain in the movie. It's really weird, though.

Dramatic music. Dramatic baseball-y music. Gus calls for a curve, but Billy shakes him off. Curves hurt too much. Grounder down the line, third baseman makes a great play, close play at first base (of course) but he's out. Vin references Don Larsen's perfect game on this very spot, which Scully saw.

Two more fastballs, the second of which is driven deep and down the line, but foul (of course). Fastball on the inside corner, and Jesus Cabrillo strikes out looking.

Jaime Ruiz is due next, but guess who's hitting. Remember the ex-Tigers batboy from a couple of hours ago. He's never batted in the majors, but why not use him in this most critical of spots? After all, as Steve Lyons notes, "I think this is a great move by Bobby Mac, the Yankees skipper. Sending a kid up, Ken Strout, his first major-league at-bat, he's just young enough and just cocky enough to not realize the magnitude of the situation that he's in."

Also, he's roughly the size of Eddie Gaedel, so he might draw a walk.

Stroud shoots Billy's first pitch down the right-field line. Foul.

Another fastball, strike two looking.

2:00 - Oh, I forgot to mention that Jane missed her flight to London, because she came back to the bar to see if Billy could do it. And now she's got a single tear running down her cheek.

Here comes the pitch, and little Kenny Strout chops it off the plate!

Vin: "High bouncer, off the glove of Chapel!"

Electronic music. Choral singing. Baseball heading for center field. This is a base hit 100 percent of the time unless Bengie Molina's grandmother is running. Or it's a movie. Shortstop dives, stops ball, jumps to his feet ... and throws out little Kenny Strout by two steps.

Vin: "The cathedral that is Yankee Stadium belongs to a Chapel."

Which is a pretty good line. Gotta give 'em that.

And back at the airport, even the insufferable Yankees fan is now on Billy's side.

Electronic guitar riffs. Choir sings. Much joyful slow motion.

2:03 - Following postgame celebration, Billy delivers intoxicated Gus to his hotel room. They have a manly moment together. Gus passes out.

2:04 - Back in his room, Billy calls the front desk to see if Jane left a message. She didn't. Of course. Because, let's be honest here, she never thinks about anybody but herself. Now Billy's crying. Actually, he's weeping.

2:05 - SPOILER ALERT ... Early the next morning and Billy's at the airport. Guess who else is there. Jane! Billy tells her he's on his way to England. Because he thought she was there already. Billy apologizes for giving his all to baseball, but not to Jane. He says last night should have been the biggest night of his life, but it wasn't because Jane wasn't there. Then Billy mumbles some stuff that Jane couldn't possibly understand. They kiss and stuff, with some pretty inspiring music playing real loud. CURTAIN.

2:11 - End credits. Terrible pop song. Perfect.

I can just see somebody pitching this story to a studio exec ... "Yeah, but it's not really a baseball movie. It's actually a love story!"

Great. That could work. If there was any chemistry between the lovers, or the script was any good.

As any number of people have pointed out, I'm no movie reviewer. So here's Roger Ebert:

You know those quizzes they run in women's magazines, about testing your relationship? "For Love of the Game" is about the kinds of people who give the wrong answers. It's the most lugubrious and soppy love story in many a moon ...

--snip--

The ending is routine: false crisis, false dawn, real crisis, real dawn. Only a logician would wonder why two people meet in a place where neither one would have the slightest reason to be. Thinking back through the movie, I cannot recall a single thing either character said that was worth hearing in its own right, apart from the requirements of the plot.

Michael Shaara wrote the book -- which I haven't read -- on which this movie was based, and Shaara won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. Sam Raimi's directed some amusing films. If you don't think Kevin Costner's much of an actor, check out A Perfect World sometime. Or Open Range.

But do yourself a favor and skip For Love of the Game. There are so many great movies out there you haven't seen, probably hundreds of them. I saw a movie just last night -- Martha Marcy May Marlene -- that's got more heart and truth in its little finger than I saw in two-plus hours and $50 million worth of this dog of a flick.

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