Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Movie Review: The Battered Bastards of Baseball

   On the surface, the premise for the movie The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a sure-fire one, straight from a Hollywood screenwriter:   a city gets left holding the bag by unfeeling owners who let the local team slowly wither and die; rich, benevolent outsider buys the team, not really knowing much about baseball beyond the playing field; team gathers a rag-tag collection of cast-offs, has-beens, and wanna-bes, and somehow fights for the pennant, and revitalizes baseball in the formerly moribund city.

   To be sure, the real-life script of the movie follows that plot-line almost to a "T".  Veteran Hollywood character actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt),  looking for a hobby to occupy him after playing Deputy Clem Foster on the long-running TV hit Bonanza, buys a minor league team in Portland, Oregon, after the franchise had left for Spokane, WA, after years of declining attendance.  Russell, who grew up around the Yankees Spring Training base in Florida, was a dedicated ball player - he had even played a few years of Class D ball in the later 1940s before moving to Hollywood to make it as an actor.
   During his long tv and film career, Russell's love of the game didn't diminish.  He even made a series of instructional videos starring a young Kurt.  When the opportunity came to buy the rights (for $500) to a Portland-based franchise in the short-season Northwest League in 1973, Russell jumped at it, and threw himself in a head-first slide into all aspects of its operation.   Because he had no affiliation with an MLB team (there were several unaffiliated teams at that time, but there number was declining every year), Russell advertised open tryouts for the team across the country, and an army of players of all shapes and sizes descended on the city, chasing the dream.

   No one knew what to expect - Russell appointed Kurt both Vice-President of the club and the team's DH, and found a former ball player who owned a local bar to manage the club (there is a great deal of archival footage in the movie, and much of it features Bing in full uniform in the dugout, so we have suspicions about who the manager really was).  On opening night, Portland pitcher Gene Lanthorn threw a no-hitter, and the Mavericks were off and running.  They beat teams full of highly touted prospects from affiliated teams, and before long, the national media picked up on the phenomenon going on in Portland.  Even broadcaster Joe Garagiola came to town, and came away with enough material for not one, but two features for NBC's "Game of the Week" Saturday broadcast.

   Directed by two of Russell's grandsons, the movie was released directly to Netflix, and deftly weaves the story of the Mavericks around the footage, and first-hand accounts from Kurt, former players, the team's bat boy, and local sports writers who covered the team.  The movie attempts to portray the team as overachieving underdogs, representing the last vestiges of an independent minor leagues, all but buried by the corporate interests of Major League Baseball.  To be sure, the team drew spectacularly well (in a league where most teams drew less than 1000 fans a night), setting both the single-game and season attendance records for the NWL to decrepit Civic Stadium, which was a multi-use bad dream with astro turf.  Russell kept a 30-man roster in order to give more players a chance, and had at the time the minors first and only female General Manager in 24 year-old Lanny Moss.   The Mavericks usually dominated their division standings, but never took home a league title - the movie claims that the affiliated clubs would send some of their best players from higher leagues down to stack their NWL club, the story goes, to keep Portland from winning.

   All of this is well and good, but it flies in the face of some obvious facts.  The Mavericks were, on average, several years older than the other NWL teams.  Major league teams kept only 4-5 farm teams in those days, compared to 6-7 today, and for several, the NWL was an equivalent to complex ball.  Today, the league is stocked mostly with recent college grads and high school players who have had a season or two of rookie ball under their belts.  At that time, the league was much younger, and was filled with many recent high school grads.  Lanthorn, who threw the inaugural game no-hitter, was at 22 a college grad (drafted and let go by the Giants) with a year of NWL experience.  Reggie Thomas, the club's best player and most colourful character was drafted in 1965, and had played as high as AA before joining the Mavericks at the age of 27. In a league where the average age hovered just under 21, the Mavs had a veteran roster almost 3 years older.  Russell boasted that the affiliated clubs did their best to beat his club, citing how Bellingham had thrown Rick Sutcliffe twice against them in one series - Sutcliffe had been a Dodgers' first round pick, but at 18, was all of several weeks out of high school.  In their final season, the Mavs had an average age over 4 years older than the league average.  That the Mavericks never won a NWL title may owe more to the fact that the younger but higher ceilinged opposition was starting to play more to its potential after three months of pro ball than any conspiracy to keep the unaffiliateds from winning.

  Another issue we have with the movie is the lionization of Manager Frank Peters.  We're all capable of redemption, but the movie fairly lionized Peters, and to us, he's something of a disgrace.  We can overlook his heavy drinking (he admits in the movie to being tossed out of his own bar at least three times), his descent into the world of drug dealing when he fell behind on his taxes, but we have trouble getting past the fact that he was arrested in 1989 on numerous sex-related offences involving underage girls.  This guy was something of a reptile - maybe he has reformed, and he was a character (Thomas once threatened to shoot Peters for pulling him in the first game of a doubleheader - turns out Thomas had a gun.  In the dugout.), but we're a little uneasy with the movie's deification of him.

  The Mavs only had one player in their lineup who would go on to make the Major Leagues.  Infielder Jeff Cox played a handful of games for the A's in the early 80s.  Portland did boast of one former and soon to be future major leaguer again in knuckleballer Jim Bouton.  The author of our favourite baseball book of all time, Ball Four,  the former Yankee took a vacation from his sportscasting job in 1975 to play a few weeks for the Mavericks, then quit in order to pursue his comeback full time in 1977.  Bouton had called around looking for a team to start his comeback bid with, and only Russell offered him a trial.  The movie did feature some great archival footage of Bouton on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson discussing his attempt to return to the bigs via Portland.  Sadly, Bouton did not make a modern-day appearance during the film to talk about his time in the Northwest League, which culminated with his appearing with Atlanta as a September call-up the following year.  Bouton did do a voice-over just before the credits, and maybe he wasn't available and/or interested in the project, but to us, his absence was a huge disappointment, and took away from the movie a great deal.

   In the end, Organized Baseball "rediscovered" the Portland market, and made plans to take control of the territory from Russell after the 1977 season.  Minor league baseball offered Russell a paltry $5 000 for the franchise rights, while he asked for over $200 000, which an arbitrator eventually agreed with.  Russell may have won the battle, but he lost the war.

   The archival footage of this film does make it an interesting watch. The clip of Bouton with Carson was pure gold.  It would've been interesting to hear what players and management of other NWL teams from that time period had to say about the Mavericks, but we only get the Portland perspective.  Russell's grandsons have spun the tale to fit the outcast/castoff theme.  So be aware that you're getting a one-sided view.  In the end, they may have been well-travelled, but we're not sure the Mavericks were as battered as the movie would have us believe.

   By the way, if you haven't had the chance to read Ball Four, we strongly suggest you do.  Bouton changed the way many fans looked at the game, and how the media covered it.

Jim Bouton
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