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Imperfect Game
Steve Rushin
September 27, 1999
The baseball miscues in Kevin Costner's new film would be forgivable if it had a few yuks
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September 27, 1999

Imperfect Game

The baseball miscues in Kevin Costner's new film would be forgivable if it had a few yuks

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Kevin Costner's new film is neither a breathtakingly bad nor a very good baseball movie (a sentiment that will surely appear in print ads as "breathtaking...a very good baseball movie!"—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED). As such, we were prepared to discreetly avert our gaze and let For Love of the Game pass without comment into the inevitable oblivion of westbound screenings on Delta. Until, that is, CNN aired an interview with Costner in which entertainment reporter Mark Scheerer hyperventilated, "The film defies the sports fan to find one inaccurate detail!" Costner concurred, and—deliberately provoked—we became duty bound to respond.

So F.L.O.G. opens with Billy Chapel ( Costner), a 40-year-old Detroit Tigers pitcher and certain Hall of Famer, settling into a team charter with Studs Terkel's My American Century. The one time I ever flew with a baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, pitcher Jesse Orosco was not reading a 532-page oral history of the United States. Rather, he was spitting tobacco juice into airsickness bags and periodically passing them to a flight attendant for disposal. But fair enough. We'll give Costner this intellectual indulgence.

Still, one doesn't often find cardboard cutouts in the stands at a real major league game, with the occasional exception of Bud Selig. Yet in F.L.O.G., 2,000 to 8,000 extras portrayed a crowd of 56,000 at Yankee Stadium, where much of the film takes place during Chapel's final big league game—a perfect game at that. The game is nationally televised on Fox, whose announcing team is Vin Scully and Steve Lyons, a pairing slightly less plausible than Olivier and Pauly Shore. So be it. But why does Scully announce that the Tigers have been held to two hits after three innings, when the Fox line score and the scoreboard show the Tigers as hitless?

Virtually every member of the Yankees wears a uniform number in the 60s or 70s. Starting pitcher Jack Spellman wears 83. Had the game gone into extra innings, we surely would have seen a Bomber with three digits on his back. The game ends when Yankees manager Bobby Mack sends rookie Matt Strout (wearing number 61) to the plate for his first major league at bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a perfect game. Not that he wants to traumatize the kid, already in awe of teammates like Davis Birch and Matt Crane. (Most of the ballplayers have the sort of names that studios used to give actors.)

To be fair, most of F.L.O.G. is a love story. But it's marketed as a glove story, and thus its greatest inauthenticity is this: There is no humor in it. Baseball is a funny game, as Joe Garagiola has pointed out, but F.L.O.G. plays everything so earnestly. We get nothing unexpected. There are literally no curveballs. Chapel is baseball's first assless, peg-legged power pitcher, and though his fastball appears to top out at 67 mph, batters miss wildly, as if the Tigers still have some of the wood-repellent chemical that Ray Milland applied to baseballs in It Happens Every Spring. Now, that was funny. Whereas one entire scene in F.L.O.G. consists of this exchange between Chapel and his girlfriend.

Girlfriend: "Do you believe in God?"

Chapel: "Yes."

Compare that with Sleeper, in which Woody Allen is asked the same question.

"I'm a teleological existential agnostic," Allen replies. "I believe there's an intelligence that governs the universe—with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey."