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Top 5 Cinematic Homeruns
1. Roy Hobbs stops time in “The Natural” (1984)
When I first watched this movie in 1984, after reading the Bernard Malamud novel upon which it’s based, I cringed near the end, anticipating Roy Hobbs striking out and getting smeared in the press and the kid saying “Say it ain’t so, Roy” — as it is in the book. Instead Old Testament morality was replaced by New Testament morality (and a Hollywood ending), and Roy hit the ball out of the park and into the lights and lit up the night. The good guys won and the bad guys got theirs. Made me momentarily happy but somehow it still doesn’t feel right. I still prefer the blast midway through the movie, when Roy breaks out of a mid-season slump (caused by a bad girl, and ended by a good girl) by shattering the clock above the scoreboard at Wrigley Field. He stops time. How cool is that? Even the next afternoon, time isn’t fixed. It’s the most mythic moment in a movie of mythic moments. I also dig the old dude in the crowd tracing the ball’s trajectory with his hand. Movie’s sappy, but man if I don’t cry every time I watch it.
2. Crash Davis sets a minor-league record and no one notices in “Bull Durham” (1988)
If Roy Hobbs is the myth, Crash Davis is the reality. He’s the guy just good enough not to be good enough. A career minor leaguer with a cup of coffee to his credit, he finds himself in A-ball, more teacher than player, and when the student moves on, he’s moved out. But at the tail-end of another season, which is at the tail-end of a fizzling career, he catches on with the Asheville Turists, and hits his 247th minor league home run, setting a record no one notices. It’s a bittersweet moment in the fading fall light, and Annie, in voice-over, quotes Thomas Gray: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.” It’s why Crash is us. The best things we accomplish generally go unnoticed. You do it just to do it, and if you’re lucky, like Crash, there’s an Annie waiting at the end of the day.
3. Roger Maris beats the Babe and the boos in “61*” (2001)
A-Rod was hardly the first great Yankee whom Yankee fans booed. In 1961, as Roger Maris battled Mickey Mantle to see who could break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable record of 60 home runs in a season, it wasn’t enough that the new champ was a Yankee; he had to be the right Yankee. That meant Mickey over Roger. Mantle had always been a Yankee — the heir to DiMaggio, Gehrig and Ruth. Maris? He’d been an Indian and Athletic. Yuck. Sure, the year before, as a Yankee, he’d been named AL MVP (just as A-Rod was AL MVP last year), but he wasn’t a “true Yankee.” Thus the cheers for Mantle and the boos for Maris. This HBO movie documents it all — even the irony that Maris, the family man, lead a more exemplary life than Mantle, the alcoholic ladies man, but was still pummelled in the press. Longtime Yankee fan, director Billy Crystal, gets every freakin’ detail right, and both Thomas Jane (Mantle) and Barry Pepper (Maris) are perfect. The pressures on Maris are intense, and this final home run, before only 23,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, is like exhaling a breath after a long, hard season.
4. Bobby Thomson hits the shot heard ’round the world in “Ken Burns’ Baseball” (1994)
OK, a bit of a cheat. This is footage of a real home run in a documentary, not a cinematic recreation in a feature film, but, with apologies to Bill Mazerowski, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Carlton Fisk, and Kirk Gibson, it’s the most famous home run in baseball history, and it’s in the most comprehensive baseball documentary ever made. Fans know the story. In mid-August, the Giants were behind the Dodgers by 13½ games but incredibly went 37-7 the rest of the way (with the help of some sign-stealing, the Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Prager recently reported), forcing a 3-game playoff. The teams split the first two games and played the third on October 3, 1951. In the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers were winning 4-1, but the Giants got a run, and with two on and one out, Bobby Thomson faced new relief pitcher Ralph Branca. On the second pitch, Thomson went deep. What else makes the home run memorable? Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges goes nuts: “And they’re going crazy, they’re crazy, OHHHHH!” If you ever need to cheer up, listen to this broadcast. It’s pure joy.
5. Scotty Smalls lines a Babe Ruth-autographed baseball into the Beast’s lair in “The Sandlot” (1993)
This fifth slot was tough, mostly because nothing stood out. Should I write about one of those melodramatic “called shots” in the two crappy Babe Ruth biopics, or the home runs promised the dying boy in the overrated “The Pride of the Yankees”? What about Kelly Leak’s near inside-the-parker in “The Bad News Bears,” which, while not technically a homer (it’s an out, and a defeat for the Bears), will give me a chance to quote Roger Kahn’s great line: “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat”? But in the end there’s this: a little boy, trying to fit in, finally hitting one over the fence and into the lair of “the Beast,” a big mean dog, and only retroactively realizing that the ball, which he stole from his stepfather, was autographed by Babe Ruth, and was thus, in the words of his friend Benny, “worth more than your whole life, man.” Of course the homer leads to further adventures, and, through the person of Mr. Mertle, a greater understanding of baseball history. That ain’t bad. At the least, it will have to do until Hollywood gets the Babe right.
—This piece was originally published on MSNBC.com.