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THE FALL GUYS : John Sayles' Young Stars Go on the Road to Film a World Series Scandal

October 25, 1987|BILL STEIGERWALD

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Cool and sunny and October--a perfect day to make a baseball movie.

At third base is John Cusack. Dressed in a baggy gray-and-black-striped Chicago White Sox uniform from 1919 and wearing a primitive glove of the era, he scrapes up clouds of Bush Stadium's thick red infield dirt with his metal cleats. Then he coils into a crouch, weight forward, hands down, head up, eyes fixed toward home plate. He's ready.

Director John Sayles yells over to Ken Berry, a former major leaguer standing off-camera on the third base line in front of Cusack with a baseball and a wood bat: "Don't be afraid to get a hit, Ken!"

"You can't hit it by me!" taunts Cusack, 21, punching his fist into a pathetic rag of a mitt that's three times older than he is.

It is a bold but empty boast and Cusack knows it. His stumpy, web-less glove provides scant help in fielding anything hit hard. To catch a ball cleanly, he must snare it squarely in his palm--and then suffer the sting that rips through the thin leather.

But Cusack is game. After all, he's living out Everyboy's Dream. He's playing in the World Series--the scandalous White Sox-Reds World Series of 1919 that became known as the "Black Sox Series" after it was learned that eight Sox players had conspired with East Coast gamblers to deliberately lose to the greatly overmatched Reds.

Bush Stadium, the spacious home of the Montreal Expos' top farm club, the Indianapolis Indians, has been done over by Hollywood cosmeticians to resemble Cincinnati's long-gone Redland Park. It's been decked out in red-white-and-blue bunting and given weathered wooden dugouts. Its red brick walls are hidden behind a weathered 40-foot wood facade that's been painted with period billboards advertising things like Youngs Hats and Louisville Slugger bats and Whittemore's shoe polishes.

Cusack's character is Buck Weaver, the scrappy star third baseman of the powerhouse White Sox. He and seven teammates--including left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson (of "Say it ain't so, Joe" fame), whom historians assert was one of the greatest natural hitters ever--were ultimately banned from baseball for life for their part in America's greatest known sports swindle. (Though they were acquitted of all charges by a grand jury, they were nevertheless banished by baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis: "No player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game . . . will ever play professional baseball!")

The definitive account of the origins and aftermath of baseball's worst hour was told in Eliot Asinof's best-selling 1963 book, "Eight Men Out." Asinof explained how disgruntled first basemen Chick Gandil approached gamblers with the idea of throwing the Series and then recruited seven teammates to make a host of subtle but damaging mistakes on the field.

Asinof also detailed the not-so-innocent world of baseball that existed then. It was a sport run by wealthy team owners who treated their underpaid players like chattel, a sport where the outcome of games was regularly rigged by players in cahoots with gamblers.

Sayles faithfully followed the book when writing the script for the movie "Eight Men Out," which is due out from Orion Pictures next summer. A complex ensemble piece budgeted at $6-million-plus, it has 17 major and 35 supporting roles. It's deep with seasoned New York actors (Bill Irwin, David Strathairn) and young Hollywood upstarts--Cusack ("Sure Thing"), Charlie Sheen ("Platoon") and D. B. Sweeney ("Gardens of Stone"). Sayles himself plays newspaperman Ring Lardner. Author-radio host Studs Terkel plays a sportswriter.

In Search of Authenticity

"Heads up!," warns Sayles. He calls for action and Berry, a Gold Glove outfielder with the White Sox and Angels in the mid-'60s and early '70s, nubs a soft liner that's grabbed easily by Cusack.

"Really whack 'em, Ken," urges Sayles, whose big-boned frame miniaturizes the director's chair he's sitting in.

Sayles, 37, is 6 feet 6 and must weigh around 225 pounds. He looks more like a veteran NFL tight end than a brainy author-screenwriter-director-actor. The Williams College graduate has figured out how to pick Hollywood's wallet (by writing screenplays for such movies as "Alligator" and "The Howling") while turning out his own self-financed, low-budget but generally critically blessed movies like "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Brother From Another Planet."

Despite a chilly breeze and low-50s temperatures, Sayles is wearing only dusty white shorts, a tank top, disintegrating size-14 running shoes, a watch and no socks. On his head is the same green ball cap he wore while directing "Matewan," his current well-received release about a bloody 1920 coal miners' strike in West Virginia.

Berry begins cracking balls at Cusack.

\o7 Whack. Whack. Whack.

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