Column: Down in the minors with Ron Shelton, who sees a major motion picture

Baseball fans take in a game at the Hangar in Lancaster, home to the California League's JetHawks.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

First, I’d like to thank the Dodgers and Time Warner Cable for giving me the time to explore like this. And to think I once detested your awful TV standoff. Now I embrace it for the opportunities it brings.

Please don’t solve it any time soon. If you do, I’ll be in Lancaster or Rancho Cucamonga, towns where fans still manage to say “thank you” and “excuse me” as we jostle to our seats. If I don’t come running back immediately, that’s why.

For in a world where everything changes every five minutes, I give you the grass-roots glories of minor league baseball at little ballparks that ring Los Angeles like a perfect set of pearls.

“There is a movie,” writer-director Ron Shelton is saying, “in what happens to tonight’s two starting pitchers from the moment this game ends till they wake up tomorrow morning.


“These young guys, they go out after a game in a place like this, with no money, maybe they find a strip club, throwing away what’s left of their daily stipend, then borrowing money from friends,” he says. “There is a whole movie in just that.”

Yep, going to a minor league game with Ron “Bull Durham” Shelton is like going to the ballet with Baryshnikov.

We are in Lancaster with our two young sons, both middle infielders with major league dreams and a little mustard on their chins. Is there a better way to watch a ballgame than by the stadium-light reflections in a fifth-grader’s eyes?

An hour from Dodger Stadium, the Lancaster JetHawks are playing the Modesto Nuts, in a Cal League game. You know the JetHawks, right?

On Thursdays, $2 beers. On Fridays, fireworks. Might be the last great value in America.

On the mound, the next Nuke LaLoosh is throwing Chiclets past the Modesto batters, who hack ferociously at his fastball like an old woman attacking a dusty rug. I don’t know as much baseball as Shelton, who played five years in the Orioles organization, then wrote about that rich world in the best baseball movie ever. But even I know that the worst way to approach an ungodly fastball is ferociously, the baseball equivalent of lunging for a supermodel.

More than most, Shelton understands the little things that most others never spot. The way the runner at first didn’t bluff the cutoff man into taking the throw to make sure the run scores, or how a run-down was poorly executed.

“They should’ve been forcing him back to first,” Shelton says.

Between innings, Shelton tells stories from his Cal League days in Stockton, such as the time a promotion featured two actors from “The Big Valley” reading “Casey at the Bat” for a sellout crowd.

But as they opened the centerfield gates, Lee Majors fell down drunk, Shelton says. A Stockton player who’d just been called up looked enough like the actor that he was recruited to read the famous poem, and no one was the wiser.

“On used-car night,” Shelton recalls, “they raffled off a car and the winner was a 5-year-old boy, no parents in sight. The kid wanted the car!”

On the field, a JetHawk lofts a sacrifice fly to right, and a runner waits on third till the outfielder catches the ball, then races for home, scoring easily.

Shelton says that back in the ‘40s, runners on third would head up the left-field line in situations like that, then get a running start so they could tag third at full stride just as the catch was made.

“They had to make that illegal,” he says.

No one has mined crazy sports moments as well as Shelton. “Bull Durham” and “White Man Can’t Jump” were subversive, sexy and occasionally dark character studies. Visual literature. Movies for grown men. Movies they don’t make anymore.

Now Shelton has turned to TV to make funny, subversive, passionate fare. He is currently working with Showtime on a scripted series about the behind-the-scenes lives of dysfunctional NBA owners.

That sounds like a stretch to me. At least in L.A., we’ve never witnessed such a thing. The show’s executive producers include Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss, and I’m sure they’ve never witnessed such a thing either.

Shelton is also working on a musical version of “Bull Durham,” opening soon in Atlanta, where it will work out the kinks before moving — if all goes well — to New York.

Crash Davis singing? I’ve never witnessed such a thing.

But we soon will. Amid Shelton’s gritty dialogue, sharp as Ty Cobb’s cleats.

Twitter: @erskinetimes