Swing and a Miss

March 31, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Today is baseball's Opening Day. For those of us who follow the sport, this Rite of Spring represents hope and renewal. That sense of rebirth may only last as long as it takes for a team to start its first losing streak, but it's there. The slow pace of the game has led many of the ADD generation to turn to other forms of entertainment, including Michael Bay movies, but there's a charm to something that doesn't move too fast. I'll admit that, while watching on television, I sometimes take naps and, unless the game is compelling in one way or another, I multi-task. (I'm multi-tasking at the moment by writing this as the Washington Nationals score five ninth inning runs against the Phillies. Phillies lose on Opening Day. All is right with the world.)

Over the years, baseball has been more closely wed to the movie industry than has any other sport. That's in part because, until around 1980, it was "America's Pastime." During the 1980s, football replaced it in terms of number of fans, and basketball made a run in the Michael Jordan era. But there has never been a truly "classic" football movie and the only great basketball one (Hoosiers) is about the high school version of the sport, which is considerably different than the professional incarnation. Baseball, on the other hand, has spawned its share of top-notch movies from The Pride of the Yankees to Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and The Natural. I could turn this column into a series of recommendations of baseball-themed movies but if you're a baseball fan, you already know them. If you're not, it would probably take a bolt of lightning to get you to watch them. (My wife, who belongs to the latter category, assures me that a bolt of lightning would not be sufficient motivation.)

For me, baseball and movies collided most forcefully in 1993. That was a time when I was as rabid a baseball fan as I ever have been in my life. As a full-plan season ticket holder, I attended 50 of the Phillies' 81 regular season home games that year, plus all six of their home post-season appearances. I was there for the infamous "long day's journey into morning" doubleheader that ended at 4:30 a.m. and for the extra-innings marathon that followed only days later. That 1993 team did its best work in the wee hours. They didn't lose a single game past midnight. 1993, however, was also the year that I jumped feet-first into movie reviewing.

For the most part, baseball and movies were able to co-exist amicably. There were no mid-week issues. At that time, the studios didn't recognize me, so I wasn't allowed to attend early screenings. That meant films would be seen and reviewed over the weekends. The conflict occurred during those 13 spring and summer weekends when the Phillies were home. In order to attend the games and see three or four new releases, my schedule looked something like this... FRIDAY: leave work and head to 7:30 game, leave game at 10:30 (even if it's not over) to catch 11:00 late showing of movie #1. SATURDAY: see early afternoon movie #2 and mid-afternoon movie #3, go to 7:00 game, leave game at 10:30 to catch 11:00 late showing of movie #4. SUNDAY: write reviews before and after 1:30 game. Four movies, four reviews, and three games in 48 hours. Fifteen years later, I wonder where the stamina came from.

After 1993, the pendulum starting swinging toward movies and away from baseball, and the 1994 late-season strike helped to extinguish some of my flame for the game. After that, seeing movies gained increasing precedence over watching baseball games. Eventually, I opted out of season tickets and the number of games I saw in person dwindled. By 2008, however, the pendulum is beginning to swing back in the other direction. After 13 years of frustration, the Phillies last year managed to win the division. Such an improbable thing, which was aided by the Mets' historic September choke, fueled the imagination. I can recall returning to my hotel room at nights during the Toronto Film Festival and going on-line to get highlights of the latest game. The Phillies upsurge, whether long-term reality or a one-season mirage, has come at a time when movie quality is at an all-time low. For me, 2007 was one of the most disappointing years at the multiplex since I began reviewing. Thus far, 2008 has promised even lower lows. Critics talk, and all those I have spoken with voice the same disappointment at how bad things are. It's not just that movies are dumber but that they're dumb and lifeless. Boring. Predictable. Some weeks it's tough to choose a "Pick of the Week" because there's nothing out there I want to promote. It has been 18 months since I assigned my most recent four-star rating. Nothing in 2007 came close to attaining a place in my Top 100 and nothing this year has gotten nearer.

For me, there are two Opening Days every year. The first is today; the second is in early September when the Toronto Film Festival raises its curtain. Both signify hope. When baseball season begins, every team has an equal record and an equal opportunity. When the film festival begins, there's a chance that the movie of the fall is waiting to be seen. No matter how bleak the winter, baseball signifies the arrival of spring. No matter how bleak the year in film, Toronto signifies the arrival of better pictures. For some, this parallelism may seem forced but for me, there has always been a strange synergy between the two pastimes that have consumed so many hours of my life.

So, with the arrival of Opening Day, things are looking brighter. My grass is growing. The trees are budding. Both Battlestar Galactica and Dr. Who return to television next weekend. As for the goings-on at the multiplex... they're still trapped in the icy glacier of mid-winter. But one can't have everything, and Toronto is a long distance away on the calendar.