I have been sorely remiss in my documentary viewing in 2014. Outside of LA Film Fest (wherein some of my favorite films were docs), the only notable documentary that I’ve seen this year is Steve James’s bio-doc about Roger Ebert, Life Itself (I loved it). Documentaries are such an important form, but so many docs come out each week that it is hard to get a sense of what is actually worth your time. One that I’ve had my eye on since its Sundance premiere, however, is The Battered Bastards of Baseball. Well, good news, everyone: The Battered Bastards of Baseball is now available on Netflix streaming. So if you didn’t delete your account after you finished season two of Orange Is the New Black, get thee to your computer now.
The feature, from rookie filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way, presents the rise and fall in the 70’s of the last true independent minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. The team was founded in 1973 by actor Bing Russell (of Bonanza fame) as a way to bring baseball back to the city. Russell filled his team with washouts and weirdos that Major League Baseball wouldn’t dare touch. Well, those guys and his son, Kurt (…Kurt Russell, maybe you’ve heard of him). The Portland Mavericks became a real-life underdog story, succeeding despite all the factors stacked against them. Eventually Bing and his team draw the ire of the MLB, and must face their wrath while keeping a hold of their collective dignity.
The whole story is very cinematic, and it is no surprise that the remake rights have already been sold, reportedly to be directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children), who actually served as the team’s batboy as a child. The Battered Bastards of Baseball may be one instance of a true story that really benefits from the motion picture treatment.
Some of that is because of how the Way brothers construct their document. The Ways are the grandsons of Bing, which explains their excellent access to their uncle Kurt, Todd Field, and many of the original Maverick players. Obviously this a story that means a lot to the directors, but their love of the tale kind of lessens the impact of their film. The first two-thirds of the film are incredibly triumphant. Nothing but triumph. Down to the music. From the moment the Mavericks take the field, they are winners. In fact there is no real conflict until the last twenty minutes or so, when we find out that the team has been facing adversity from organized baseball from the very beginning. That’s the kind of information that could have made the preceding 50 minutes a lot more dynamic.
Once we get that conflict, though, The Battered Bastards of Baseball does become more interesting. And the Way brothers are not without a certain amount of style, particularly in their recounting of the 1977 championship game, where the directors take away all talking head audio, and just allow the game footage to speak for itself. It is a nice touch that many filmmakers might not even consider.
Baseball movies are a special sub-genre that is relatively unique to US cinema. The list of movies that have made me tear up over the years is not long, but two of its entries are Hardball and A League of Their Own. It’s hard to say what makes baseball movies so powerful, but in the final reel, when the players are talking about how much the late Bing meant to them, I can’t deny that I got a little emotional. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a fun and entertaining piece of history, even if it isn’t the most successful piece of cinema. If handled with the right amount of care, Field has a homerun teed up when it comes to the remake. Just a matter of hitting it out of the park.
Can I squeeze in one more baseball pun? Nope, I’m out.