Once the calendar turns the page to a new year, it’s now officially time to think about next baseball season. One of my favorite baseball quotes comes from Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who famously answered a question about his offseason activities by saying, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
Luckily, there are a few more diversions in the modern day.
If I were snowed in for an extended time, I’d want to make sure I had the most recent year of APBA Baseball game cards, along with the dice and charts that control every action on the field. I got addicted to APBA as a junior high school student, thanks to my newspaper adviser, the late Tom Wessells. It’s the best recreation-style game out there (sorry, Strat-O-Matic fans), and good friend Paul Milton and I used to drive to Millersville, Pa., outside of Lancaster, to pick up the previous season’s player cards as soon as they were available in January. To this day, one of my best baseball memories came when I spoke at length with the late Ernie Harwell about his gig with APBA after the 1994 baseball work stoppage. The Hall of Fame broadcaster voiced the computerized version of the game, and was thrilled to hear from a player who used the product.
And I’d want a TV, especially now that MLB Network will begin airing classic baseball films, starting Jan. 14 at 8:30 p.m. Their leadoff hitter is “Cobb,” an underrated 1994 biography starring Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb (and featuring Jimmy Buffett as a heckler). It’s a pretty good telling of Cobb’s story, warts and all, that shows both his incredible passion for the game and the many problems he had during and after his career (racism, alcoholism). You wouldn’t think of Jones as a baseball player, but he does a pretty good job as Cobb.
I’ve got no idea what the rest of the diamond-oriented lineup will feature, but you can pretty much guess some of the cinematic baseball efforts that will show up on Monday nights in the dead of winter. Back in 2008, MLB.com held a 64-flick March Madness style tournament on its Web site to crown the best baseball movie of all time. Its brackets featured comedy, drama, old school and a catch-all category called “Left Field,” and “Field of Dreams” came out of that grouping to triumph over “Major League,” “The Natural” and “Pride of the Yankees” in the tournament’s final four.
When it comes to baseball films, my favorite is “Bang the Drum Slowly,” a 1973 story of a slow-witted catcher who is befriended by the star pitcher of the New York Mammoths, in whom he confides his terminal illness. Robert DeNiro plays the catcher, Michael Moriarty is the pitcher and other cast members include veteran character actors Vincent Gardinia, Phil Foster and Danny Aiello. While there are some stretches in the film - a hotshot minor league catcher named Piney Woods and a contractual detail that the pitcher forces the club into - I loved the scenes in the clubhouse and hotel lobbies, which give a glimpse into real baseball life. Tegwor, anyone?
“Bull Durham” is another standout, and not just because I’ve long been an admirer of Susan Sarandon and her work. Ron Shelton’s 1988 comedy is firmly rooted in real life and depicted minor league life in the Carolina League. The Durham Bulls were a North Carolina institution, not some Hollywood creation, and Shelton used plenty of locals in the production (including those wonderful scenes where the games were recreated in a radio studio based on reports filed from afar). Who could ever forget Crash Davis’ “I believe” soliloquy or Annie Savoy’s wide-eyed “Oh, my!” response. The baseball scenes were top-notch, too. But whatever became of Jenny Robertson?
I loved “The Natural” and tolerated “Major League” - though I enjoyed chatting up Dennis Haysbert at Hooters of Harborplace when “Major League II” was filmed in Baltimore, Camden Yards standing in for Cleveland’s ballpark in the 1994 release. And while we’re on the subject of sequels, 1998’s “Major League: Back to the Minors” - the forgettable third installment of the series - was one of the worst sports sequels of all time (but not as bad as as the second or third bites of the “Slap Shot” franchise). As a kid, I learned baseball history from “Pride of the Yankees,” which was a Sunday morning movie staple on my family’s black-and-white TV.
Those are my favorite baseball flicks. What are yours, and why?
While you ponder those cinematic achievements and, in some cases, dubious efforts, I’ll leave you with these Orioles-related film trivia tidbits:
* Ex-Orioles pitcher Jay Tibbs plays one of the title character’s teammates in “Cobb.”
* Shelton was an O’s farmhand from 1967-71, playing for Rookie League Bluefield, Single-A Stockton of the California League and Double-A Dallas-Fort Worth before topping out at Triple-A Rochester in 1971.
* Ever wonder why Ray Liotta and the rest of the 1919 Black Sox who invaded Ray Kinsella’s corn field played so well? Longtime Orioles player, coach and minor league manager Don Buford was one of the film’s baseball coaches, joining his former Southern California skipper, Ron Dedeaux, at putting actors through the paces.
* Most Orioles fans know former Birds pitcher Kevin Hickey played Schoup in “Major League II,” where he was cast as a left-handed hurler. But did you know that Dave Boswell, who ended his career pitching for his hometown Orioles, played an umpire in the same movie?
* Jim Dedrick, an Oriole for six games in 1995, portrayed a White Sox pitcher in “Major League II.” Former O’s catcher John Stefero was one of his teammates. Jim Crowley, the son of longtime Orioles player and coach Terry Crowley, also had a bit part in the film. Jim Crowley spent 1995 as an O’s farmhand after playing for three seasons in the Red Sox’s minor leagues.
* In the 1993 film “Rookie of the Year,” longtime Oriole Tim Stoddard played a Dodgers pitcher and served as a baseball adviser on the film.