Rozner: Why Bull Durham remains part of sports fabric

  • Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) gets an earful from Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) in "Bull Durham."

    Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) gets an earful from Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) in "Bull Durham."

 
 
Updated 4/5/2020 12:12 PM

• Second of two parts

While celebrating the 30th anniversary of "Bull Durham" two years ago, we had actor Robert Wuhl on our Sunday morning baseball show.

 

The veteran actor played the role of pitching coach and confessed he ad-libbed the famous candlestick line as the players gathered around Nuke LaLoosh on the mound.

But what stuck out was a conversation with Wuhl -- can't remember if it was on air or off -- about how the movie almost didn't get made.

"That's true," writer/director Ron Shelton told me this week. "Nobody wanted to make it.

"The script was turned down twice by every studio in town."

There's little doubt that an honest look at minor league baseball is the reason why. Studios want fairy tales with fairy-tale endings, and "Bull Durham" was instead a comedic and genuine look at the difficulties of journeymen minor leaguers.

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"That's why no one wanted to make it, even with Kevin Costner aboard," Shelton said. "He wasn't 'Kevin Costner' yet when he was first interested in making this movie. By the time he was coming off 'Untouchables' and 'No Way out' he was a big star.

"Still, it wasn't easy to find a studio. No one was interested in honesty in a movie."

And certainly no one wanted a romantic comedy where the prince doesn't climb the walls or storm the castle in a heroic ending.

"The business out here is run by very conservative thinkers," Shelton explained from his home in Los Angeles. "There's so many creative people, but the studios are very conservative in their business approach.

"Something like 'Easy Rider' or 'Pulp Fiction' comes out of left field -- maintaining a baseball theme here -- and then they all want to make 'Easy Rider II' and 'Pulp Fiction III.'

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's a creative business filled with creative people, but the business side of it is backward looking."

Once Costner hit the big time, Orion Pictures gave Shelton the necessary financing.

"We got it done. But what did we get done?" Shelton chuckled. "When we went to the first test screening, people were laughing and cheering, and that was the first time we thought maybe we were right. But there were a lot of doubters.

"Minor league baseball players. Who cares, right?

"And I wanted a movie where the star doesn't hit the big home run to win the big game at the end."

It's that honesty that is probably the reason the movie holds up so well and holds a special place in the hearts of baseball fans, much like Shelton movies "White Men Can't Jump" and "Tin Cup."

"I think sports fans are happy to see a movie that isn't about a home run in the bottom of the ninth," Shelton said. "What's more interesting about sports is what you don't get to see on TV.

"We watch games and highlights and there's 17 cameras and we see everything to death on the field. We watch a highlight 62 times and your wife wants you to change the channel and you say, 'Just one more time.'

"A movie can take you everywhere else. In the bus, locker room, even in the shower. What's happening in his personal life? What's he thinking at home plate?"

And so much failure.

"I think people were happy that Roy McAvoy didn't win the U.S. Open," Shelton said of Costner's "Tin Cup" role. "There was more glory in his failure than in winning. It was more real, which almost never happens in movies."

Shelton knows of failure, having been a mediocre minor league player himself over five seasons after being drafted by Baltimore.

He lived the Crash Davis life.

"Every day is so important, so intense," Shelton said of his experience. "Every day you're trying to get past the guy ahead of you and stay ahead of the guy behind you, and yet these are your best friends. It's frightening and at the same time an exhilarating moment in your life.

"There are guys every year who finally make it to the majors at 30 years old and it's like the old gunfighter who's at the end, trying to prove he's still the guy. That journey is more interesting.

"Every player in the minors was the star of his team in high school or college. I signed out of Southern California, which is where most major leaguers were coming from then, and then I get to the minors and now we're all the same, all fighting like dogs to survive.

"That's way more interesting than the superstars you see in the majors. They tend to be fairly dull characters. Like movie stars, they're protecting the crown.

"More interesting are the character actors trying to get from Double-A to Triple-A. Maybe he's a great player, but there's a better one in front of him, or the organization doesn't like him, or he's got issues at home.

"He needs a fresh start and meanwhile he's trying to live on $7-a-day meal money.

"There's definitely some luck involved."

Shelton has been working on and trying to sell a TV series about the minor leagues, but so far with little luck, saying baseball doesn't travel or sell internationally.

So he's working on about nine different projects and continuing to write, though he doubts we'll see another "Bull Durham."

"Studios were a lot less corporate than they are now," Shelton said. "Most filmmakers in the '70s and '80s faced fewer restrictions.

"Now, it's small studios owned by multinational corporations and that's a huge difference from the small companies that were internationally famous.

"They were small back then and you knew the names of all of them. Now the studios are part of gigantic companies and the mandate is move the needle for stock options. Harry Potter and Marvel Comics move the needle. 'Bull Durham' doesn't.

"Those movies have to exist outside the studio and they have to have a foreign sell."

And probably gone forever is the genuine glimpse into the lives of athletes, especially those without a valiant climax.

"I always said that if I get one shot to direct, I'm going to do a sports movie the way I want to see it," Shelton said of his baseball movie. "I finally got my chance."

The rest is more than just history. It's the best sports movie ever.

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