"You know, a lot of little bottles makes a big bottle, Chapy." -- Gus Sinski
Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Michael Shaara, Dana Stevens
Principal cast members:
Anyone who is familiar with Kevin Costner's body of work is well aware of Costner's love of the game of baseball. If 'Field of Dreams' and 'Bull Durham' weren't enough to convince you of that, 'For Love of the Game' would certainly finish the job. This 1999 Sam Raimi film is less about baseball than it is about baseball players. In particular, it is about a baseball player who is making one last bid for immortality as he takes stock of his life.
Costner plays Billy Chapel, an aging pitcher with the Detroit Tigers who has had a long and productive, if not outstanding career. Over the previous five years of his career, he has carried on a long-distance love affair with Jane Aubrey, an independent single mother who can't stay with Chapel, but can't figure out how to stop being in love with him. Now, at the twilight of his playing days, he makes the last start of his career. His opponent for the game is the New York Yankees. Chapel knows that after the season, the club will either want to trade him or pay him much less. He must contemplate retirement from the sport he loves.
The film takes a very unique approach to telling Chapel's story. The entire film takes place during the course of the game. It opens with Billy in New York for a big game waiting in a hotel suite for another rare meeting with his lover. This time, Jane doesn't show up until the next day when she tells him she is moving to London, effectively ending their distance-challenged relationship. The rest of the story is told in a series of flashbacks as Chapel recalls all his past mistakes and tragedies and evaluates whether or not it is worth it to keep playing. As he reminisces, he is also throwing a perfect game. We are kept apprised of the game's progress by announcers Vin Scully and Steve Lyons as the action wears on.
During the course of the game, Jane is stuck in JFK airport waiting for her flight to get out and finds herself joining a growing crowd of spectators watching the game on a television at the airport bar. As Billy pitches the greatest game of his life, Jane also relives every moment she has spent with him and makes evaluations of her own.
As each inning begins, the hostile Yankee crowd is making itself heard in the stadium and as he prepares to pitch, we hear Billy's inner voice chant, "Clear the mechanism." Instantly he is enclosed in a wall of silence where all he hears is the ball slamming repeatedly into his catcher's glove. This device gets Billy through inning after inning and allows his mind to float through the history of his relationship with Jane.
The catcher at the other end is Gus Sinski, played by John C. Riley who has an outstanding repertoire of sidekick roles. Here, he plays a veteran catcher who is the friend and playing partner of Billy Chapel. Through the flashbacks and through his interactions during the game, we get the sense of Gus as a true friend and protector upon whom Billy has relied for many years.
The game chugs through inning after inning with a tour of Billy's past and his psyche. As the game wears on, Billy wears down. Each pitch starts to inflict a little more pain on his shoulder. But even as he begins to fade, his teammates step up turning in one stellar defensive play after another. Eventually, we reach the bottom of the eighth and the crowd in the stadium, like the cluster of fans at the airport, is growing anxious and excited about the possibility of seeing a perfect game from a most unlikely pitcher. As he finishes his warm-up pitches, Billy looks at the scoreboard and seems to realize for the first time what is about to happen. Turning to his catcher he asks if anyone's been on base. Gus replies that no one has and adds that he's never seen this before.
Billy struggles through the order, retiring an old friend and former teammate and then prepares for the bottom of the ninth. His last three outs are agony and now Billy finds he can no longer tune out the roaring Yankee fans. Facing his final batter, he finds himself face to face with a young kid just up from the minors and eager to make his mark in the league, a kid that reminds Billy of exactly what he was like 19 years earlier; a kid who also happens to be the son of a former teammate.
'For Love of the Game' isn't exactly a sports movie. It doesn't focus as much on athletic achievement as it does on why men seek such achievement. It doesn't focus on a baseball game as much as it does the game of baseball and its role within lives. It is a love story every bit as much as it is a sports story, if not more so. More than anything, it is a deeply personal inspection of how a man justifies spending so much of his life playing a child's game.
Costner turns in his usual outstanding performance of an everyman doing something extraordinary. It is so easy to see oneself in Billy Chapel as he stands on the mound inning after inning as he has done thousands of times before and clears that mechanism. Kelly Preston gives us an absolutely believable turn as a woman who loves a man she obviously cannot be with no matter how much she loves him. John C. Riley adds some delightful warmth and humor as Chapel's pal.
It isn't sports action and it isn't classical romance. But 'For Love of the Game' is a film that brings back warmth and humanity to those millionaire ballplayers, if only for 27 perfect outs.
Coolness factor: 6
Overall entertainment: 7