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The Gospel of ‘Bull Durham,’ According to Ron Shelton

The director of what many consider to be the greatest baseball movie of all time reflects on the fisticuffs that took place on set, getting edit notes from Donald Trump and what Crash Davis would think about the National League now having a designated hitter

There are certain words and phrases that if you know, you know. In honor of hanging curveballs, soft-core pornography and opening your presents on Christmas morning rather than on Christmas Eve, I’m going to drop one on you right now: “LOLLYGAGGERS!” 

It’s the perfect word for a perfect scene in Bull Durham, the greatest sports movie ever — all manner, not just baseball — according to no less an authority than the Sports Illustrated brain trust. The sarcasm and disdain dripping from Skip’s (Trey Wilson) mouth as he browbeats his underperforming team is perfectly matched with his yappy assistant Larry’s (Robert Wuhl) take on a word that in the shower means dawdling, but also used to refer to humping, another fountain of conversation throughout this sultry summer classic. 

If you haven’t seen Bull Durham, here it is in a nutshell: It’s a love triangle between local baseball nut Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), hot young phenom pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a veteran catcher closing in on the minor league home run record and the end of his long, inglorious career. Annie picks one — but only one — player to make love to and read poetry to throughout the season. Let’s leave it at that because the plot isn’t all that important, really. The joys of Bull Durham are found in well-defined characters, languid pacing, literary references, goofy asides, killer one-liners and answers to age-old country hardball questions such as: Will a live rooster take a curse off an infielder’s glove? 

Released in 1988, Bull Durham was the directorial debut of Ron Shelton, a writer with a knack for stripping away the artifice, grandiosity and predictability of sports movies and getting down to their grubby, horny essence. Shelton, 76, has a new book out about his directorial debut: The Church of Baseball, The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings and a Hit. To quote his man Crash, Shelton was dealing with a lot of shit, starting with the fact that the powers-that-be didn’t want him at the helm and weren’t big fans of the lead actors (which begets a world-class Kurt Russell prank).

Shelton is a natural-born storyteller, a raconteur of the first order, and the movie was based on his own minor league career, so The Church of Baseball is filled with all kinds of lively anecdotes — e.g., tales of the minor league manager with a major league ballsack, the time the actual real-life Crash Davis showed up with a simple request after Shelton “borrowed” his name without asking and why Bulls Stadium was filled with presumably stoned Pink Floyd fans. 

I recently spoke to Shelton from his L.A. office about why the soul comes before the body, what Crash thinks of the new designated hitter reality in the National League and what it’s like to get film-editing notes from noted movie scholar Donald Trump.

Anyway, quit lollygagging, and get to reading. 

I want to start by asking about your evangelical upbringing, which from your descriptions of your family life, seemed generally reasonable. But by the time Bull Durham was released, the Moral Majority was shaping American society into the theocratic minority we have today. As someone who was raised in it, I’m curious what you think of modern evangelicalism, and are you surprised at how powerful it’s become?

My father, who worked at a Christian college, used to say, “We’re evangelicals, not fundamentalists,” but I don’t think that distinction exists anymore. I’m surprised, but mostly disturbed, because the evangelical world I grew up in was rather forgiving. It may have been myopic and perhaps I’m a bit naive since I was just a kid, but it didn’t seem so judgmental and ruthless. Martin Luther King was an evangelical, but as I write in the book, I’m horrified it’s predominantly come to stand for racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, anti-science, etc. It’s not just evangelicals either. They used to be at odds with Catholics, but no longer. Catholics make up the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court, and they seem really comfortable with one another. 

For me, the most important part of being an evangelical came in 1957, when I was 12. We were Milwaukee Braves fans because their star third baseman, Eddie Mathews, was from our hometown, Santa Barbara. It was Game Four of the World Series, and my dad took us out of Sunday services early to watch the game, a moment of incredible gravity in my young life. Mathews hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning to tie up the Series. After that, we started going to services less and less, and thus, the seeds of the Church of Baseball were planted. 

I re-watched Bull Durham, Tin Cup and White Men Can’t Jump while reading your book, and I was struck by how the characters in your films are generally decent people who are up against it in completely relatable ways.

The villains in my movies tend to be off-screen — institutions and organizations you can’t really fight back against. I think regular people on the margins trying to claw their way into the spotlight are more interesting than people who are actually in the spotlight. All the characters I write are flawed, of course, but they remain dreamers in a world that’s been a disappointment. I like writing characters at a moment of reckoning in a life that hasn’t turned out the way they thought it would, which is a universal feeling. 

They aren’t anti-heroes either, which puts them at odds with so much of The Sopranos prestige TV streaming era of the 21st century. 

It’s probably the reason I haven’t gotten anything made in a long time. People who finance films and television want a sort of cartoonish approach. But I was raised on Chekov and Twain, and I’m more interested in reading between the lines, the cracks between people I recognize up on screen. I grew up in an age of irony that feels dead to me, in the marketplace anyway. I enjoyed The Sopranos, but so many characters in its wake are coming from extreme places at all times. I like everyday folks at a crossroads. 

Another thing you don’t see much anymore, but is central to all your movies, is good-looking adults having sex for pleasure, a la Annie, Crash and Nuke. Why have joyous movie-star romps fallen by the wayside? 

Ask the people who turn down my scripts. Sex used to be fun, and people used to enjoy it. 

In the Church of Baseball you do explain why you think sex scenes should be fun, and whenever possible, funny.

When I’m directing a sex scene, I think funnier is better, but not if an actor is trying to be funny, that doesn’t work. It’s about being relaxed and not taking it too seriously because filming sex scenes isn’t sexy at all. They can be tricky. While making Blaze, Paul Newman told me he was petrified at the prospect of filming one because he’d never done one before. I said, “You’re literally considered one of the sexiest people who has ever lived.” Paul reiterated that he was embarrassed and terrified; so I just said, “Well, I am too, so let’s just try and have some fun.”

The Church of Baseball has one great anecdote after another. Was there a process for recalling all of the stories?

Fortunately, I have a John Dean-like memory. So for the parts of my personal life leading up to Bull Durham and the writing of the screenplay, it was all there. When it came to the shooting and selling of the film, I would call certain people involved to see if their memories matched my own. For example, I had a distinct memory of flying to New York to meet with Anthony Michael Hall — whom the studio was dead-set on playing Nuke — and he showed up with an entourage and hadn’t read the script. So we gave him another day, and he still didn’t finish it. I called producer Mark Burg who reminded me that he was the one who calmed everybody down after I walked away from the meeting. Bull Durham was my first film, and so much of the book is about the wars I was fighting everyday. The studio wanted me fired, Robbins replaced, and someone had the gall to say Susan Sarandon wasn’t beautiful. The battles remain vivid all these years later. 

Speaking of Mark Burg, you got violent with him after finding out he told Susan Sarandon that due to lighting she didn’t look good in a particular close-up. How did you survive that and stay on as director?

If the studio found out, I certainly would have lost my job. They were looking for any excuse. I survived because Burg never reported it. We remain friends, and like I said, I called him to talk through what happened while writing the book — and of course, thanked him for saving my career. I shouldn’t have done it, but I wanted to put context around what happened and all the various outside pressures being put upon the movie itself. I did learn my lesson then and there; it was a one-time thing. If it happened today, 25 people would’ve filmed it and posted it online, and I would’ve been fired by the end of the day. Thanks again, Mark. 

The book is a master class in how the movie sausage gets made, but also of its time. Are things different in the streaming era?

I wish the system that existed during the book still existed. Algorithms, committees and mega mega corporations have taken over the studios and the networks. As far as I can tell, the business is run by people who don’t like movies or watch television. The book details all the stupid fights I had while making Bull Durham, but at least there were still human beings involved to argue or drink with to get a movie in the can. Now, demographic studies dictate what gets made, so fewer and fewer places are rolling the dice on a good story. It’s why so much out there is dull and predictable. 

I love characters who can’t get out of their own way. There doesn’t seem to be much call for them these days. Today, I would get a note saying, “Annie and Crash have been apart too long,” even though it’s making their desire for one another — and our desire as viewers for them to get together — richer, deeper and stronger. 

Speaking of those longings, I noticed something new in the “I Believe” speech. The first thing Crash says he believes in is the “soul,” then “the cock, the pussy…” Soul is what connects him and Annie. Her dalliance with Nuke is strictly about the other two. So basically you set up the core of the love triangle, which I caught as a washed 51-year-old man but totally missed as a horned-up teenager.

Saying “soul” first also allows Crash to say “cock” and “pussy” without being totally shocking, to be disarming. What ballplayer on Earth is talking about the soul? The kind that would fall in love with Annie Savoy. Costner casually rendered the speech, which is how it should be, tumbling out with no overlay on it. Here’s a guy talking about cock and pussy, but also the soul and how he doesn’t believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart. Crash isn’t your everyday ballplayer. And Annie knows it. 

Crash also says he believes there should be a constitutional amendment outlawing astroturf and the designated hitter. The former is gone from ballparks and the latter is now in both the American and National Leagues. What do you think Crash would make of baseball in 2022?

He would consider the designated hitters in both leagues like giving up the Donbas to Russia. Some changes to the game he’d be fine with, but not the DH one. He’s a purist, but not a fundamentalist, in that regard. 

In the book and in conversation, you mention a lot of projects going “sideways,” is that something you’ve made peace with knowing you only have so many years left?

No, I will never make peace with it. I fight the fight, not so successfully as of late, but I never stop writing. I have scripts out there as good as Bull Durham, but as the book lays out, it took extraordinary synchronicity and luck coming together to get it made at all. Every movie is a minor miracle. 

Bull Durham was such a big deal for Costner, Robbins and Sarandon. Do their long, successful careers resonate with you given that it’s such a significant film in each of their trajectories?

If I was a mercenary, I would’ve made a lot more money, but I can’t just hop onto a project. I get invested in the actors I love. So absolutely their careers resonate with me, but that’s true of the actors in all my movies. For a short amount of time, you develop very intimate relationships. After filming, you may only see those same people at the occasional social function. I recently had a reunion with Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson and Rosie Perez for the 30th anniversary of White Men Can’t Jump. We hadn’t been together in all that time. Woody said the movie changed his life. It was very emotional for me. 

Last question, about a line from Bull Durham that feels even more relevant today than it did when it came out in 1988. It’s when Annie says, “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”

In the movie, the line is in a generous sense. It’s Annie explaining why she isn’t worried about Nuke’s future. He’s a sweet, good-natured, innocent guy. So for Nuke, it’s a term of endearment, truly a man who isn’t concerned about what others think about him. Crash is, of course, cursed with self-awareness.

On the other hand, having no self-awareness in the thoughtless, heartless cruel way of fucking Donald Trump is a whole other thing. I have a story about that. It was at the New York premiere of Tin Cup. The movie tested badly — mine always do — so the studio tried to get me to change the ending to what everybody had seen before. Anyway, the premiere goes well, and afterward at the party, a studio PR person comes up and tells me Donald Trump is there and he’d like to meet me. This is before The Apprentice, so at this point he’s basically just a blowhard real-estate dipshit with a terrible reputation. I actually developed a very funny script about a real-life battle Trump and Steve Wynn had over an Atlantic City landfill, but this was the one and only time I met the man out to destroy democracy. 

He comes over with Marla Maples. I reach out to shake his hand, not knowing he’s a germaphobe, so of course he doesn’t reciprocate. Then without any preliminary introduction of any kind, he says, “Let me tell you how you could have a better picture: Have your editors change it so that Roy McAvoy hits his first shot into the hole for an eagle three and wins the tournament. It’ll be a much bigger hit for you.”

I looked at him and said, “If Humphrey Bogart walks off with Ingrid Bergman nobody remembers Casablanca.” Without responding, Trump turned and walked away.