Put Me In, Coach

April 05, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

In the northern hemisphere, when does spring begin? Is it based on what the groundhog decrees? Is it when the first robin shows off its red breast? Is it the day of the vernal equinox? Is it when the Easter Bunny hops from house-to-house doing his best Santa impersonation? Any of those is, I suppose, a valid answer. For me, however, the beginning of spring has long been associated with Opening Day. For someone who follows baseball, Opening Day not only affirms that spring has arrived, but it's a downpayment on the approach of summer. Baseball season spans all the warm months and ends in the same kind of weather in which it begins. A chilly early April night game is not unlike a chilly October postseason contest.

Of course, spring doesn't guarantee temperate weather. In fact, most Opening Days in the northeast seem to be inevitably cold and wet. I have sat endured more than a dozen of them and, especially when the home team is losing, they can be miserable affairs. In 2004, after attending 15 straight home openers, I swore them off. This was after returning chilled and soaked from a 3-hour, unpleasant loss that should have been postponed because the weather was fit only for waterfowl. Nevertheless, five years later, I have returned, lured back in the wake of a World Series win. At least it won't be wet. But it will be chilly and, if past history can be used to predict future trends, the Phillies will lose in unspectacular fashion. That's their nature. The whole season is not determined by the results of Opening Day, but it would be nice to win once in a while.

I have often wondered how many movie lovers are as devoted to sports (or a particular sport) as I am. My interest in hockey and basketball is limited and, while I watch football games on TV from November through the playoffs, my emotional investment is limited. But it's different for baseball. Still, movies have forced me to make sacrifices and, when it comes to determining whether to see a game or catch a screening, I almost invariably opt for the latter option. For example, this week, I will be sitting through Hannah Montana: The Movie rather than watch the Phillies play game #2. It's like when you choose to marry one girl over another. You may rhapsodize over what might have been, but you stick with the one you chose even when things get unpleasant.

Baseball in April is far from ideal. But baseball in July can be blissful. I have memories of lying outside on a hammock listening to a game on a radio as the sun glides below the horizon. Then, as dusk envelops the world, the crickets start chirping as background music to the voices of the announcers. Innings roll by unhurriedly. The world - the stressful real world - seems far removed. For me, the enduring memories of baseball are those of summer - of long, lazy, over-warm nights and blisteringly hot days. Somehow, it feels right to bake and fry while watching a game, but not quite as right to freeze and shiver. Those things are the purview of football fans.

Baseball is all about nostalgia. It's not a game for the 2000s. It's too slow paced. The best baseball movies understand the lure of nostalgia and immerse themselves in it. The Natural is a great example. Technically, it's imperfect. In fact, it messes up some supremely basic things (such as the fact that an away team cannot win on a walk-off home run). But it understands that baseball is more than rules and regulations. It gets that the game is a state of mind. The Natural remains my favorite baseball movie (and, in fact, my favorite sports movie) because it embraces nostalgia. It captures what's best about the game and serves it in a two-hour portion.

I think movies and sports games are closer kin than many might imagine. The players are the actors. The managers are the directors. The plots are filled with surprises, suspense, action, and high drama. Some games are can't-look-away **** affairs. Others are better forgotten. The difference is, of course, the real-time aspect. With a movie, you rarely go into a theater without some degree of expectation regarding what you're about to see. It's different with a game. Until it's underway, everything is an unknown. That ingredient is the thing movie baseball cannot replicate, and the reason why the on-field action in even the best baseball movie doesn't measure up. (For the record, the most technically proficient baseball movie, in contrast to the best baseball movie, is Sam Raimi's For Love of the Game, starring Kevin Costner as a washed up pitcher having the game of a lifetime.)

When I think of Opening Days past, I mostly remember the cold and the rain, but I also remember the anticipation. Movie lovers can relate to this -they experience it any time a long-awaited film is about to open. Think Star Wars fans and The Phantom Menace or Harry Potter lovers and The Sorcerer's Stone. Opening Day is like that. It's the only time during the season when all teams are equal at 0-0. The script has yet to unfold. There's no reason to be down - that comes later. The team with the lowest payroll has as good a chance (in theory) as the team with the highest one.

For the most part, my calendar is circumscribed by movie events. "Summer" begins in May as the blockbusters start rolling out. The curtain rises on "autumn" when I arrive in Toronto for the film festival. "Christmas" is not December 25, but the entire month of December, when Hollywood delivers one wonderful gift after another to movie-goers. "Winter" is barren and bleak not just because of the gray skies and leafless trees but because of the lifeless landscape of theatrical releases. But, when it comes to "spring," baseball remains my milestone.

The days are lengthening. The robins are nesting. Easter eggs have been colored and are waiting to be hidden. The groundhog, shadow or not, has long ago made his prediction. It's Opening Day and spring has arrived.