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Weekend Tv/reviews : Doctors, Australia And Baseball

May 23, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Mass TV exposure, warring over multimillion-dollar contracts and drug scandals have shrunk the romance of baseball. Better to return to nostalgic greener days when ticky-tack ball fields were the unrivaled shrines of youth and the mingling of dust and dreams on a sandlot was a metaphor for simple American values.

That's exactly what "Long Gone" does, and it works for a while, as this HBO movie (premiering at 8 tonight) initially gives amusing, raucous life to the Class D Tampico, Fla., Stogies, a fictional minor-league team in the 1950s. Then later, as if someone mandated a U-turn, the story collapses.

Barely existing at the bottom of organized baseball, the Stogies are led by grungy player/manager Stud Cantrell (William L. Petersen), who spends his time off the field with the inspiring Dixie Lee Boxx (Virginia Madsen) and is the antithesis of naive rookie Jamie Weeks (Dermot Mulroney).

The fortunes of the struggling Stogies immediately soar with the arrival of the heavy-hitting Joe Louis Brown (Larry Riley). One problem, though. The white team's savior is black, and this is the racist, unintegrated south of 30 years ago.

There are some humorous moments as the Stogies--not exactly civil-rights crusaders themselves--try to pass off Brown as a Venezuelan to make him more acceptable to the fans.

Directed by Martin Davidson and written by Michael Norell, "Long Gone" also provides a firm sense of period and in some ways delivers a true depiction of low-rung, hamburger-eating, barely surviving pros. And Petersen and Madsen give especially nice performances.

After a seventh-inning stretch, though, the story alters course. Its appealing loose ends are awkwardly tied together into one enormous knot en route to a contrived, preposterous, heroic ending that makes "Rocky" look like "Camille." And just like that, reason and intelligence are long gone.

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