Play ball! (On screen, that is!)

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Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball," a baseball movie without much baseball. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball," a baseball movie without much baseball. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures.

It’s spring, and you know what that means: A young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of love. Tennyson doesn’t appear to have thought of the old men or women at all, so let’s assume they’re all thinking about baseball, or as I call it at home, love.

Normally I wouldn’t put together a post on the five best baseball movies ever, but with 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic coming out next week (and not making the list for sure), I figured now is a good time to remind us which baseball movies get it right–and which don’t.

THE BEST (in no particular order)

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): This movie seems to get lost when talk turns to great sports flicks. And the one-line plot description is no indication that the movie is indeed great: A then-unknown Robert De Niro, as catcher Bruce Pearson, is dying, and he plays for a team modeled on the Yankees. Ugh. Plus, De Niro is supposed to be from Georgia, and we know how he does with accents.

But he and Michael Moriarty (as team star Henry Wiggin) bring quiet power and subtlety to this tale of friendship, and somehow it avoids maudlin territory, which the similarly themed Brian’s Song can’t quite avoid. Yes, you’ll cry, but Bang the Drum Slowly earns your tears. It’s too bad Moriarty didn’t often play leads after this film, because he’s wonderful.

Major League (1989): Hey! A comedy starring Charlie Sheen that’s actually funny on purpose. Major League won’t go down as having the most original story ever–it’s a variation on the misfits-make-good staple–but it’s genuinely uproarious.

And what’s the best line? For my money, it’s when Andy Romano, as bench coach Pepper Leach, first sees Sheen’s young, brash pitching prospect arrive at spring training and deadpans, “Look at this fuckin’ guy.” You could spend an afternoon quoting Major League, and that one-game playoff with the Yankees for the pennant is always tense, even on the fifteenth viewing.

Field of Dreams (1989): Well, you knew this one was on the list, right? For all the baseball talk and terminology, this story isn’t really about the sport. It’s about family–specifically fathers and sons–but it will resonate with anyone who’s had a difficult relationship with a parent or child. Plus, it’s a chance to see Kevin Costner act on screen before he slipped into permanent Gary Cooper-mode. Ray Liotta is great as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, even if when he laughs he sounds like Ray Liotta.

Moneyball (2011): Baseball is a game of statistics, and someone–namely director Bennett Miller–figured out how to turn those stats into emotions (along with help from screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, who adapted Michael Lewis’ book). Outside of fantasy baseball, stats are as boring as whale shit, so the fact that anyone saw Moneyball at all is a miracle.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Burke, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, and a failed pro. With a tiny budget and a fat numbers whiz (made-up character Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill), he changes the game of baseball. There are stark differences between how Burke did it in real life and how it worked on screen, but that doesn’t matter. This isn’t a documentary, even if it’s based on real people. See if you can count how often Pitt eats on screen.

Eight Men Out (1988): Like Bang the Drum Slowly, this quiet movie gets left off lots of best sports movie lists. How? It has a hot young cast (including John Cusack and Charlie Sheen), a great director (John Sayles), and a famous true story (the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series – a major plot point in Field of Dreams). Say it ain’t so, Joe.

THE NOT BEST (in a particular order)

The Natural (1984): Normally I don’t care that movies often deviate from their source material. Books and movies are markedly different media, and they have different strengths and limitations. But Bernard Malamud’s book doesn’t deserve to become a movie that changes its lead character’s motivation or life story. Plus, Robert Redford, as Roy Hobbs, just isn’t all that good in the part.

Bull Durham (1989): This is one of those persnickety critic things, maybe, but I’ve never enjoyed this movie the way everyone else in America does. Is it that Kevin Costner is so unlikeable? Or that Susan Sarandon is, too? Hard to say, and harder to find out: I’m not watching it again anytime soon.

Pride of the Yankees (1942): Because Gary Cooper. If he’s not killing Frank Miller and marrying Amy Fowler, what’s the point?

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