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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."

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