Walking Bears

The other night we watched The Bad News Bears. The original. I'm told they made a remake, but I refuse to believe it and will never see it, even though I'm told it was directed by Richard Linklater, who is completely awesome, and it starred Billy Bob Thornton, who I interviewed once and he told me he tried out for the Kansas City Royals. Those guys are fantastic. I will still never see it. Such is my loyalty to the original movie, made in 1976.

So, the other night I gathered the girls and we watched the original. Before I get to the punchline, I should point out that if you plan to do this with your 8 and 11 year old girls, you should know that the 1970s were a different time. You wouldn't expect to hear the N-word in a fun Little League baseball comedy … but, yeah, that's in there, along with several other disturbing images that made each girl at some point go: "Um, what was that?"

But the themes of winning and losing, trying your best, finding the best part of yourself … that stuff still shines through.

My daughters, as I have written before many times, do not care about baseball. At all. I'm often told by people that this could change as they get older, and I suppose it could, but there are few signs of it. The one way to get them to let me rest for five minutes is to pop on a baseball game on television. In our house, that clears the room faster than tear gas.

Basically, I had to MAKE them watch the Bad News Bears This is funny because both daughters are movie crazy. They would normally watch just about anything as long as it could loosely be called a "movie." When you ask them, especially the younger one Katie, what they remember most about our vacation to London, they will bluff and say it was seeing the Crown Jewels or the Rosetta Stone or walking through the British Library because that's what they think they are supposed to ay. In truth, it was the flight home when each seat had its own tiny television set with hundreds of movie and television choices.
Even so, the Bad News Bears didn't really interest them. I kept telling them there was a girl in it who pitched, and it was funny, and they would like it, and they rolled their eyes and grudgingly came to understand that they were not getting out of it. As I expected, they liked it a lot. But the best moment came toward the end of the movie. I normally wouldn't want to spoil any plot points here but, frankly, yove seen the movie. And if you haven't seen it, you weren't going to see it anyway, it's 37 years old. So let's spoil plot points.

The Bears are a terrible Little League team that (I never picked this before) was only entered into this exclusive California league because of a lawsuit by a city councilman. I guess the lawsuit stipulated that the league should not be allowed to exclude young players because they are not athletically gifted. I must say: This never registered with me before. Of course, I think I was nine when I saw the movie.

The city councilman hired a broken down old pitcher named Buttermaker (and played by Walter Matthau) to coach the team. Buttermaker apparently pitched some minor league ball and, he tells the kids, he once struck out Ted Williams in a spring training game. Then, he remembers, he actually struck out Ted Williams twice. I love this scene more than probably any other because Matthau was so amazing in it; you could almost look into his brain as he's telling the Ted Williams story and see gears clicking and winding.

  1. Maybe he did strike out Ted Williams. Maybe he didn't.

  2. There would be no way for these kids -- even the sabermetrician of the team, Oglivie -- to find out.

  3. Eh, why not make it two strikeouts.

Having interviewed many, many former ballplayers, I've seen this fascinating and oddly touching dance many times.

Anyway, back to the plot. The team is beyond terrible, and nobody wants them in the league, and they are ready to quit. But Buttermaker finds something surprising about himself. He likes coaching these kids. He's such a rundown shell of a man -- he cleans pools and scrapes by -- and he only took the baseball job to get a little cash. But then,maybe coaching baseball reminded him of something he liked about himself. He won't let the team quit. Then he goes out and recruits Tatum O'Neal -- with the classic baseball named Amanda Whurlitzer -- to pitch for the team. Buttermaker had dated Amanda's mom for a while, and he was sort of a surrogate father to her -- he taught her how to pitch. She's very good. He also taught her how to be an operator, so she works out a deal where she will pitch and he will buy her ballet lessons.

Then, pushed by Buttermaker, Amanda goes out and tries to recruit Kelly Leak -- played by Jackie Earle Haley -- who is the 11-year-old town rebel complete with a motorcycle and cigarettes and whatever else represented "rebel" in 1976. Leak is an amazing ballplayer, but he has no interest in playing baseball. It's not cool. That is until the manager of the league's best team (named the Yankees, of course) calls him a bum and a good-for-nothing and chases him away from the field. Leak, in anger, joins the Bears.

There are numerous story lines and lessons learned from here on out, but I do want to get to the point of all this. As everyone here knows, I despise the intentional walk. I despise it as strategy almost every time. But, more, I despise it as a part of the game. It's anti-competitive. It's no fun to watch. It denies us as fans the opportunity to see great match-ups. No other sport offers quite that level of copout -- I've heard people make various comparisons (Hack-a-Shaq, double-teams, tackling a player for pass interference, etc.) but there is no just-add-water way to avoid competition quite like the intentional walk. I've written many times that the problem is the sanction for an intentional walk -- a single base -- is simply not severe enough to discourage it.

My daughters do not know, nor do they care, about my feelings of the intentional walk. But at the end of the movie, the Bears play the Yankees in the championship game. And Kelly Leak comes to the plate. He's the best hitter in the league and by far the best hitter on the Bears. So you know what happens. The Yankees manager, Vic Morrow, orders his pitcher to intentionally walk Leak with the bases empty. This led to the following discussion.

Katie (8 years old): "What are they doing?"

Me: They are intentionally walking him.

Elizabeth (11 years old): "What does that mean?"

Me: It means they will throw four balls far away from him so that he can't hit them.

Katie: "Are they allowed to do that?"

Me: Yes.

The girls discuss this amongst themselves for a second. And finally Elizabeth says: "That's unfair. They should not be allowed to do that."

So true. So utterly true.