An Outta-the-Ballpark Look at Baseball : 'It Was Always My Goal in Life to Be a Baseball Player,' Says 'Durham' Creator

Returning from a USO tour of Korea, Marilyn Monroe told her husband, New York Yankees Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio: "Oh, Joe, it was wonderful. You never heard such cheers."

DiMaggio's instant reply: "Yes, I have."

Ron Shelton's office is crowded with memorabilia from a decade-long film career. The sweetest reminders are the freshest--a pile of rave reviews for "Bull Durham," his new film and directorial debut.

But when the 41-year-old film maker was growing up in Santa Barbara, movies were just a diversion.

"It was always my goal in life to be a professional baseball player," said Shelton, an affable, self-effacing man who spent five years playing minor league ball in the Baltimore Orioles organization. "For me, it was a dream--a dream I got to experience."

Shelton hasn't forgotten the simple pleasures of the game, whether it's watching a home run sail over the Jantzen Girl sign on the left-field fence in Portland or starting a fire in the bullpen and roasting marshmallows on a cold spring night.

"I miss the camaraderie," he said, kicking his feet up on his desk. "I've never found that in Hollywood. In baseball, athletes not only have a healthy irreverence, but a ruthless, brutal type of honesty about everything. In Hollywood everyone's afraid of stepping on people's toes. In baseball, they love to give you a hotfoot."

A movie that celebrates the sly grandeur of the game, "Bull Durham" sizzles with some of that hotfoot steam. Washington Post film critic Hal Hinson calls it a "limber, funny" movie that "eases up on you, lazy as a cloud and carries you off in a mood of exquisite delight." (During its opening five-day weekend, the film had a solid at-bat, making $6.4 million.)

It stars Kevin Costner as Crash Davis, an aging minor-leaguer hired to school Nuke LaLoosh, his team's dazzling but erratic pitching phenom. The film's raucous authenticity derives from Shelton's vivid memories of the bush leagues, where he played with future all-stars Bobby Grich and Don Baylor. But what gives the movie its comic--and erotic--wallop is the character of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a giddily spiritual English teacher-turned-baseball bloodhound who pays homage to the game by tying her lovers to her bedposts and reading them Walt Whitman.

It's no surprise that the film brims with crisp, colorful dialogue. Baseball has always been a writer's playground, a sport populated by mythic characters and extraordinary events.

As Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell put it in a 1982 essay: "The minors teach two lost American arts--how to chew tobacco and how to tell a story. Ballplayers are tale tellers who have polished their malarkey and winnowed their wisdom for years. In the world of the minor leaguer . . . talk becomes a staple of sanity; the man who does not have a way with a yarn, a joke, a tale of pathos, or an epigram drawn from his own experience is condemned to be an outsider."

So let's listen to movie makers and ballplayers--past and present--talk about the game.

THE FLAVOR OF THE GAME: "The thing people forget is that--for the players--most of the time in baseball is spent between the action," Shelton explained. "Most of my memories are of conversations on the mound or absurd arguments with umpires. I remember I was playing for the Stockton Ports when--in the middle of an inning--our third baseman, Ralph Manfredi, had his hat blow off. So he asked for time out so he could retrieve it without the runner on second base stealing third. But the umpire, who didn't like Ralph much anyway, wouldn't give him time.

"So they started arguing, going nose to nose, yelling and pointing at the hat. Our shortstop Junior Kennedy and I come over, 'cause none of us can figure out why they're yelling and pointing at Ralph's cap."

By now, Shelton had recaptured the fury of the debate himself, leaping out from behind his desk, acting out each new escalation. "Now our manager comes running out on the field, yelling, 'What the hell is going on out here!' Finally, Junior, who was a sweet little farm boy, tried to act as the peacemaker. But without any malicious intent--just by habit--he called the umpire (an obscenity) and the ump immediately threw him out of the game. And when our manager went crazy, the ump ran him too. Total chaos--and all over a hat!"

THE MAD STORK: Thom Mount, whose production company brought "Bull Durham" to the screen, worries about box-office receipts from movies and baseball. The Durham, N.C., native is part-owner of Durham Bulls Baseball, a firm that runs five minor league teams, including the Bulls, which is averaging about 3,400 fans a night--up from 2,600 last year. The company also publishes Baseball League, a biweekly sports publication that Mount describes as "the authentic voice of the minors--it's somewhere between a Bud commercial and the Paris Review."

Mount clearly savors the game. "Minor league ball is one of the last authentic bastions of small-town American life, so you get some real interesting critters coming out of that world. When I first got involved with the Amarillo Gold Sox, they had this wacko 6-foot-6 outfielder--The Stork--who wrote this wild, stream-of-consciousness poetry. It was either brilliant or terrible, depending on how you looked at it. Anyway, we got the idea of flying the Stork up to New York, where we had him read his poetry at the Oak Bar. We invited all the New York sportswriters to hear him. And it was quite a night--the Stork read and read and got completely drunk and I've never really been sure how he went over because the sportswriters got almost as drunk as he did!"

BEATING THE BUSHES: Pete Palermo says he "never wanted to be a cowboy or be President--I just wanted to play baseball." The tall young right-hander is living out his dream, pitching in the Baltimore Orioles organization. He's 15-4 over the last two years, which earned him a promotion to Double-A ball this year. But he's temporarily back in Class A ball, recovering from a groin injury. When he phoned last week, his team was on the road, playing the Durham Bulls. Palermo already has a ballplayer's wry sense of humor--he says he's reinjured himself so much doing his strengthening exercises that "now I call 'em my re-aggravation exercises."

Palermo didn't see the film's Annie Savoy character as particularly farfetched. "Yeah, we've got baseball groupies. They just get a little more attractive as you go to each higher level. Most of them are a lot younger than Annie. In rookie league, the girls who'd come see us were serious jail bait. In A-ball, they're a little older, so you'd at least think about going out with them. Guys get pretty lonely. One of my teammates has really been swept off his feet by this girl called Desiree. She's real attractive and he thinks she's great. So who knows? His girlfriend's coming to town this week and believe me--she doesn't have any idea. So it could get pretty interesting."

BATTING PRACTICE: Kevin Costner can't get enough of baseball movies. He's in Dubuque, Iowa, shooting "Shoeless Joe," Phil Alden Robinson's film version of W. P. Kinsella's novel. Though Costner is a natural athlete, he insisted on auditioning for Shelton at a San Fernando Valley batting cage. "Actually, the hardest part about performing as a ballplayer was when we shot the hitting scenes and I found myself trying to overdo it," he said. "We shot them in front of a crowd--and they were pretty unforgiving. They wanted a lot of home runs, and I suddenly found myself trying to impress all these 20-year-olds. I was trying to tag every pitch. Finally I had to say to myself, 'Hey, you're just an actor. You're not Bobby Bonds!' "

THE EGO GAME: Shelton insists that baseball is a much healthier world than Hollywood. "Ballplayers' egos aren't as fragile," he said. "In the locker room, ballplayers put down each other's fastballs, their batting stroke, their girlfriends, all with absolutely democratic abandon. In baseball, there's no faking--if you can't hit the curve ball, you're out. In Hollywood, people make careers out of faking it--and damn good ones too!

"Here's the real difference. Baseball players answer your phone calls. Hollywood is the only business in the world where people don't return your calls. I mean, can you imagine someone calling the bullpen and no one picking up the phone!"

HEROES: Costner grew up in Los Angeles, but his early baseball heroes were San Francisco Giants stars Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds--a rooting interest he says he "didn't exactly broadcast" to his Dodger-fan pals. "I saw Bobby Bonds hit his first home run at Dodger Stadium. Mays had made this great catch on opening day and hurt his ribs, so they sent in Bonds, who was clearly his heir apparent. So when Bonds hit his home run it seemed like a romantic thing for me, 'cause he'd stepped in to take my other hero's place."

MEMORIES: "When I was in the Orioles organization, you felt as if you'd signed on with the Roman Legions in the Roman Empire," recalled Shelton. "The Baltimore club had nine future Hall of Famers in the late '60s--and they all had this incredible class. They'd take the bus into Stockton to play an exhibition game on their off day without a word of complaint--and when they'd come into our tiny park, they'd treat the lowest minor-leaguer with complete respect.

"I gave myself five years to make it and after five years, I was still on the Orioles triple-A roster. Listen, you never realize you can't make it. Who knows--I guess I could've kept going. Maybe I should've. But I knew when I made the decision to quit, that I couldn't look back. It would just drive me crazy."

SHOWTIME: Minor League pitcher Pete Palermo says "consistency and inches" is the only real difference between A-ball and the big leagues. "I see people make major league pitches down here all the time--the difference is how often you make them," he said. "I just turned 25 and I do feel kind of old, especially when it's 6 a.m. and you've been on an eight-hour ride in a hot bus with a guy sleeping next to you who doesn't bathe too regularly. You start looking out the window, wondering if anyone still knows you're alive. But you love the camaraderie--being with guys who are from all walks of life, all trying to accomplish the same goal. It's hard to really appreciate it while you're living it. But the experiences I've had have been invaluable to me--I wouldn't trade it for anything. Until they yank my cleats off and take my glove away, I'm gonna keep playing."

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