For Love of the Game
starring Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, John C. Reilly, Jeana Malone and Brian Cox
writtenby Dana Stevens
directed by Sam Raini
Based on a novel by Michael Shaara, this is another Kevin Costner baseball movie. I say “another” because it follows such films by him as Field of Dreams (co-starring Amy Madigan and based on the Canadian novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella about the plight of the disgraced eight members of the 1919 World Series Chicago White Sox team), and Bull Durham (co-starring Tim Robbins and Susan Surandon, about life on a Minor League team.) Each of those previous films was great, and so when I saw For Love of the Game in my video shop my fist thought was that he had over-done it. But I was wrong.
Instead, I thought it was a great film depicting the angst of a 40-year old pitcher, a life-long Detroittiger pitching the last game of is 19-year Major League career against the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium. The Game is his life, and now it’s over. He doesn’t know it’s his last game until after it starts.
In Bull Durham, Costner played the canny, experienced catcher who prepares the young super pitcher with little control and lots of attitude, Tim Robbins, for the Majors. In For Love of the Game the situation is reversed. Now Costner is the seasoned veteran with the chronically aching throwing arm, Billy Chapel, desperate to hold his own against a new generation of young, strong hitters with lots of attitude who see him only as an old man who ought already to have retired. Well, maybe the two stories aren’t so different after all.
Buoyed by the skill and support of his catcher, played by John Reilly. You may know his face if you don’t know his name. With him the old pitcher does the near impossible to top off his career. He pitches the perfect game.
But this is not the feature of the film. The game itself - I thought it was exciting - is just the frame for the constant interruptions of Chapels’ reminiscences on the mound, thinking back over his life, his parents, his career, and the girlfriend who announced that she is leaving him just hours before he takes the filed. All these things conspired to deliver him to where he is now, alone on the mound of Yankee Stadium before a hostile crowd. The girlfriend is important because it is this catastrophe in his love life in combination with the team owner’s revelation that he is selling the team and that Chapel will probably be traded as a result that spurs him to the un-premeditated decision that this is the end of his career.
It is a human drama of a higher order, and I kind of took a fancy to Costner’s world-weary, love-sick visage on the pitcher’s mound. In addition to a great soundtrack, including the mournful tones of Bob Dylan’s “I threw it all away” (1969) the effect was very moving.
Baseball if often called America’s Pastime. I can’t help but wonder if Costner just accidentally falls into roles that feature him in powerfully symbolic form, or if he is so in love with America and its mythology that he intentionally seeks out these kinds of roles. His great success in Dances With Wolves is the best example. It created a whole mini-industry of Americana. Oliver Stone’s JFK was a similar attempt to tap a rich cultural vein, as was (I think) Costner’s first appearance on film in The Big chill. (Costner’s role was completely cut from that movie. All we saw of him was his wrist in a coffin. He was the 1960s classmate who killed himself before the movie began.)
But he has also made some flops as well, notably Waterworld, and The Postman. The latter harbored the symbolism of sentimental American patriotism, but it failed to take off. It was just a silly ting. The former, about the adventures of a gill-breathing fish-man mutant in the future maybe should never have been made.
For Love of the Game provides an interesting window into professional baseball, a sport that is always under close scrutiny by statisticians. Everything in baseball is measured and counted. To win his perfect game Chapel has to enter‘the zone,’ that mental state that all athletes experience when they are at the height of performance and the power of concentration in total harmony with tier physical prowess completely isolates their minds from the world . It’s the place from which victory is drawn.