Rozner: As 'Bull Durham' tops sports movie lists, director Shelton remembers

  • Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner form an interesting triangle in the baseball romantic comedy "Bull Durham."

    Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner form an interesting triangle in the baseball romantic comedy "Bull Durham." COURTESY ORION PICTURES

  • Ron Shelton is the writer and director of one of the best sports movies of all time, "Bull Durham."

    Ron Shelton is the writer and director of one of the best sports movies of all time, "Bull Durham." ASSOCIATED PRESS

Updated 4/3/2020 3:03 PM

• First of two parts

There are honest players in sports. And there's everyone else.


You know them when you see them. They do it right and they do it for the right reasons.

Their motivation is simple. Play hard and play fair, play for the guy next to them and for the uniform -- not merely for their own stats and glory.

These are the guys you root for and these are the guys that keep you coming back.

Honesty is so hard to come by in this era of the heavily-produced athlete, guarded by agents, dollars and marketing departments, less intent on collecting rings than collecting followers.

It is just as true in the entertainment business.

Perhaps that's why the lists you see every day have "Bull Durham" at or near the top, as those desperate for ideas share with you their Top 10 sports movies of all time.

Yeah, don't think I'm not sending it your way in due time.

But the genius of this great baseball movie -- the best baseball movie ever -- was its commitment to honesty, to showing you what life was really like in the minor leagues, and the genius behind the film was writer/director Ron Shelton.

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"Once we started filming," Shelton told me this week from his home in Los Angeles, "I was just trying to stay on schedule and not get fired."

The 74-year-old Shelton was himself once a 21-year-old drafted in the 39th round by the Baltimore Orioles, sort of a Crash Davis of the middle infield, only not that good.

Though he did reach Triple-A Rochester in his final season, over five years he compiled a pedestrian .253 average with 10 homers, 127 RBI and an OPS of .647.

All athletes want to be actors and all actors think they're athletes. Shelton was obviously a pretty good athlete to get drafted out of a baseball hotbed in Southern California, and he hasn't acted much, but as writer/director of movies like "Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump" and "Tin Cup," we're grateful he found his true calling.


And now that we all have nothing but time on our hands, "Bull Durham" is not only making all the lists, but it's getting a lot of play as people remember it as -- at least in my opinion -- the best sports movie ever.

"It's a surprise. It's thrilling. I suppose gratifying, more than anything," Shelton said. "Honestly, every movie you make, you try just as hard to make it great. You believe in them all the same. You believe in each one just as much.

"It's just that some work and some don't. Nobody knows why. Some are rejected and never get made.

"The whole thing is a crapshoot."

For "Bull Durham," Shelton received an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, an award taken down by Ron Bass and Barry Morrow for "Rain Man."

That's kind of like getting beat by Meryl Streep. Not much you can do. But the screenplay did win the 1988 prize at five film festivals around the country, including Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

"Really, you're just trying to get your work done every day. That's all you can do," Shelton said. "You believe in the characters and believe in the scenes and get through the day and live to fight another day."

Shelton has directed 11 movies, frequently the writer on those pictures, and has also written sports movies like "Blue Chips," "Cobb" and "The Great White Hype."

But unlike so many writers who believe their every sentence is a gift to all humans -- often shoveling indecipherable, authentic frontier gibberish born of a self-destructive and debilitating ego -- Shelton doesn't pretend to know what he's putting on a page.

"Often, you don't know what you're writing about until you're done writing it," Shelton said with a laugh. "I'm not even sure what it's about sometimes."

Sounds familiar.

"Frequently I want to go right back to it and rework it," Shelton said. "But I didn't know what 'Bull Durham' was really about.

"It turns out it's that Crash loves something more than it loves him back. His true love is baseball and it doesn't love him the way he loves the game.

"I didn't know that at the time.

"About 20 years after it came out a critic said that to me, and I said, 'You're right,' and that's bigger than baseball.

"We've all loved something more than we were loved back, whether it was a person or a job or a sport or you name it.

"The reckoning is coming to terms with that and not being devastated by it, moving on and finding something in your life to replace that.

"You have to identify that and get on with life."

In the words of Annie Savoy, "Oh Crash, you do make speeches."

• Next: Ron Shelton on the difficulty he had getting a studio to greenlight "Bull Durham" and why he thinks the movie still resonates with fans.

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