‘The Perfect Game’ dodged many curveballs en route to big screen

The odds against them were daunting for the motley team of Mexican schoolkids who somehow won the 1957 Little League World Series.

They were almost as steep for the filmmakers behind “The Perfect Game,” which opened Friday and relates the tale of the scrappy, undersized team’s improbable triumph.

Initially, the movie’s shooting was plagued by fits and starts. At one point production closed down entirely and had to be relaunched.

Then Lionsgate, after slating the film for release way back in July 2008, held the movie from theaters because its original backers reportedly had run short of cash.

“At times it was kind of bleak,” said David Salzberg, who produced the film with Christian Tureaud, his partner with High Road Entertainment.

So when “The Perfect Game” finally arrived in theaters, it came with a ready-made underdog subtext that matched its real-life story line about a baseball team from the industrial city of Monterrey. With minimal experience but maximum talent and grit, that squad pulled off a shocking victory over its considerably taller and heavier U.S. opponents.

In prevailing 4-0 over a team from La Mesa, Calif., the Mexicans became the first foreign squad ever to win the Little League world title. Capping the story, the Mexican pitcher, Angel Macias, hurled what still stands as the only perfect game in a Little League World Series championship match.

In reviewing it for The Times, Mark Olsen described the film by first-time screenwriter W. William Winokur as “sweet and disarming,” and said that “the heart of both the story and its telling” manage to smooth over “other deficiencies.”

Oddly, the movie may have benefited from its delayed release. During that time, several of its young actors have emerged in prominent television roles, including Jake Austin in “Wizards of Waverly Place” and Moises Arias, who plays Rico on " Hannah Montana.”

“We never thought we could get to the teenage girl audience, but now these guys are heartthrobs,” Tureaud said.

The PG-rated film, which took in around $500,000 in 417 venues, doesn’t dwell on the uglier aspects of the racism that confronted the young Mexican players, who literally walked across the desert into the United States for the series of matchups that would culminate in the championship game.

But it doesn’t shun them either. Several preliminary games took place in the segregated South, where Mexicans faced some of the same discrimination as African Americans.

Clifton Collins Jr., who plays the Mexican team’s resolute coach, knows something about that era from his own family history. His late grandfather, Pedro González González, was a Mexican American character actor who got his start on the vaudeville circuit and later performed in film with John Wayne.

In an interview, Collins said he remembered his grandfather telling him about restaurants in the Jim Crow Southern states that required blacks and Mexican Americans (typically referred to with racist pejoratives) to eat in the back.

“You don’t know what it was like,” Collins said he told his young Latino acting colleagues in “The Perfect Game.”

The producers’ marketing strategy called for opening the movie in Mexico two weeks before its U.S. premiere. Playing on 326 of Mexico’s approximately 4,000 screens, the film had a strong opening weekend and has been running only behind DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” in the family-friendly sweepstakes, the producers said.

The timing at last may be right for “The Perfect Game” in another unforeseen way. In the months that have slipped by since the film’s initial planned release, the world has endured the worst economic setback since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Its producers hope those conditions will help favor their upbeat movie, as they apparently did “The Blind Side.”

“We need uplifting stories and messages,” Tureaud said. “People are thirsty for projects that uplift them.”