Monday, June 14, 2010

The Natural vs. Hoosiers

My two favorite sports movies are Hoosiers and The Natural, and in that order. In the end, Hoosiers gets the nod because it's about basketball, my favorite sport. But it's a close competition. In the past few weeks, each popped up on cable TV, one after midnight, another right before. And both times I dropped everything else to watch until the dramatic, over-the-top endings. I know practically every line from each movie by heart and use those lines in conversation the way other people reference Caddyshack and Airplane!

The teams in both movies feature grumpy, seen-it-all coaches, superstars, decent supporting role players, memorable music and boring women. A comparison:

SUPERSTARS: Jimmy Chitwood vs. Roy Hobbs. There's no doubt Roy Hobbs was a more charismatic performer, away from the game at least. Roy dated a glamorous blond woman. A femme fatale shot him early in his life. And through it all, Glenn Close apparently remained chaste, waiting for her one true love. Jimmy, on the other hand, probably never kissed a girl. The only woman he's close to is his tutor. With his soft voice and monosyllabic vocabulary, there's no way he was wooing the gals with his words. Still, he must have surely had a gaggle of farm gals waiting to offer themselves up to the local hoops star. In small town Indiana, the star basketball player ruled. And after that winning shot in the state finals, he could have had any girl in the land. But he probably simply went home and worked on the Mikan Drill.

On the court, though, the two were equally dominant. Both completely changed the fortunes of their teams. Both performed in the clutch, Jimmy hitting the winning jumper, Roy slamming the winning homer. Each awed coaches: Wilford Brimley's character, Pop, told Roy that he was the best goddamn hitter he'd ever seen. Cletus tells coach Norman Dale he's never seen a better player in 40 years than Jimmy Chitwood. High praise. Maybe a slight edge to Hobbs, since at that time there were many more great baseball players around than basketball players. Hobbs proves he can play with pain. He plays while knowing one swing could kill him. We never see Jimmy perform with a sprained ankle or injured finger. I'm sure he was a strong farm boy who would play through anything, but, again, the edge goes to Hobbs.

Both made legendary plays in their final games. Roy's was perhaps slightly more memorable - exploding lights trump a ball softly dropping through the net. Jimmy's overall effort in the championship was far superior, he completely carried the Hickory offense while Hobbs hobbled around like a 35-year-old with a bullet lodged in his intestine. His effort was so weak, the starting pitcher thought Roy might also be throwing the game for the Judge.

But still, the overall edge goes to Roy. It's the character, but maybe it's also the actor, too. Perhaps I'm just biased because Maris Valainis is no Robert Redford.

COACH/MANAGER: Norman Dale vs. Pop Fisher. A pair of classic old-school leaders. Both great coaches, certainly. But both also needed rescuing by their superstars. Pop and the Knights bumbled along in front of an empty stadium until Roy Hobbs strolled in, much to Pop's chagrin. He hated that his scouting department signed Hobbs. Coach Dale installed his patient, soul-crushing offense and discipline with Hickory, but was on the verge of being canned until Jimmy stepped forward and spoke some of his few words in the movie. Without Jimmy coach Dale's riding out of town, probably done with coaching for good. Who else would hire his tired old bones? Without Hobbs, Pop's team is dead. He loses the team to the Judge. And if Bump Bailey doesn't run into that wall, Hobbs probably remains a pinch-hitter, if that.

The edge goes to coach Dale. A basketball coach almost always has a bigger impact on his team than a baseball manager. Once the Knights started rolling, Pop settled into a Joe Torre role and had little to do, other than warning Roy away from his niece. He worked the media and massaged some egos and filled out his little lineup card but that's about it. Dale, meanwhile, led little ol' Hickory to the state title, bleeding every point out of his undermanned team and nearly nonexistent bench. He juggled Shooter's benders with the townsfolk's anger. He gave kick-ass speeches. It's still inexplicable that he called a play for someone other than Jimmy with the final shot - it'd be like Phil Jackson drawing up a play for Luke Walton in Game 7 of the Finals - but he eventually came to his senses after the team spoke up. We never learn how long Dale stayed in Hickory but I can't believe it was a long tenure. His style wears on players. He was always one bad pass away from pulling a Woody Hayes. Pop probably stayed on the bench until the day he died. They likely buried him in his tobacco-stained uniform. But give the overall edge to coach Dale.

ASSISTANTS: Shooter vs. Red. Big edge to Shooter, even with the violent outbursts and poisoned internal organs. Red's a nice enough guy, the Don Zimmer to Pop's Joe Torre. He subtly encourages Roy early, when it looks like Pop won't give the middle-aged rookie a shot. But again, a baseball bench coach has little effect on the overall product. If the Knights replaced him with an inanimate object, few would notice. He likely stepped in a few times when Pop got ejected but his main duties involved handling games of pepper and keeping up the lively chatter on the bench. Shooter's genius literally won a game, even though his madness nearly destroyed Hickory in the playoffs. Again, we need an epilogue. Red probably stayed on the bench until he was 90 and eventually retired to a small cabin in Minnesota. Shooter likely died in a single-car traffic accident or of cirrhosis. But he'll always have the picket fence.

SOURCE MATERIAL: Hoosiers is loosely inspired by the 1954 Milan team, the small school that captured the Indiana state title on a last-second shot by Bobby Plump. The Natural comes from the classic novel of the same name, written by Bernard Malamud. It's an outstanding book, but those who have only watched the movie might be disappointed reading it, as Roy Hobbs is slightly less heroic. In fact, he strikes out to end the final game after making a deal with the sinister Judge. No exploding lights, no reunion with a glowing Glenn Close in the fields. Instead, a boy - echoing the Shoeless Joe Jackson legend - asks Roy if the papers are right, if it's true that he threw the game. Hobbs begins weeping. Edge to Hoosiers and Milan, but only because it's not as depressing (but seriously, you should read The Natural, it's superb).

BARBARA HERSHEY: The veteran actress appeared in both films. It's a brief role in The Natural. She's the lady in black, Harriet Bird, who's apparently assassinating star athletes across the country. She sets her sights on "The Whammer" until Roy Hobbs upstages him at Janesville's Hay Daze, or some other small town fair. She's sexy and dangerous. In Hoosiers, Hershey's character, Myra Fleener, is neither of those things. She's a schoolmarm, a harsh woman who has little use for games or the people who play them. Even she gets caught up in Hickory's title run, but you get the feeling that after the team got home and had their welcome home party, she pulled Jimmy aside and reminded him that his 10-page paper about Andrew Jackson needed to be finished in time for Monday's 9 a.m. history class. Harriet Bird gets the edge. I'd like to see what Harriet Bird would have done with Jimmy Chitwood. Jimmy's so robotic - such a remorseless shooting machine, who might have been afraid of females - he probably wouldn't have even notice her flirting. And that would have saved his life.

ANNOYING CHARACTER/MASCOT: We all love Ollie in Hoosiers, but he's still a bit grating. Too small, too slow, just not good enough. Yes, he wins a game with his ludicrous granny free throw but his gaffes before that nearly cost the team the game. The most annoying character in The Natural, to me, is the pudgy bat boy, Bobby. The bat he made, the Savoy Special, does come to the rescue after Wonderboy breaks. But that comes right after my least-favorite scene in the movie. After giving the bat to Roy, the bat boy stands there, dumbfounded, paralyzed, unable to move his chubby legs, looking like someone just hit him in the head or stole his chocolate bar. His slow-developing smile looks like the one Danny Glick had when he floated outside the window in Salem's Lot. Roy has to nudge him off the field, as if he's saying, "Hey, kid, mind leaving so I can take this young flamethrower deep, destroy the lighting system, save the franchise for Pop and win the pennant, all in front of my one true love and my son?" I dislike everything about this kid: his hair, his too-high pants, his ridiculous hat, his gait.

MUSIC: Randy Newman created The Natural soundtrack, which has some of the most famous songs in sports movie history. Hoosiers isn't quite as memorable, although the music that plays after Jimmy's famous shot has traces of The Natural. When I played college ball, a teammate, who was so obsessed with Hoosiers he may have named his first kid Norman Dale Chitwood, bought the soundtrack to the movie. He hoped that it contained speeches and dialogue from the movie, the way soundtracks to films like Pulp Fiction had clips from the movie mixed in with the music. Nope. No Norman Dale speeches. No Jimmy Chitwood announcements. Nothing from Ollie. All it has is the instrumental music from the movie, which, by itself, is enjoyable but not very inspiring. Edge to Randy Newman and The Natural.

VILLAINS: Not really a fair comparison, since Hoosiers is a feel-good story that lacks a bad guy, other than early in the movie when George delivers his odd and uncomfortable "There's two kinds of dumb" speech involving naked guys barking at the moon. But even George joined the coach Dale cult by the end of the movie, though I'm sure he thought he could have led the team to a title as well with a wide-open offense. He's the kind of parent that lives in every small town, a coach's nightmare, until the coach wins. The Natural had numerous villains, from the Judge to the gambler Gus Sands. Then there's Harriet Bird. And Kim Basinger's Memo Paris, who might not be evil but was certainly bad news for Roy. Even Bump Bailey was something of a dark figure, right until the moment he ran through that wall.

ENDURING USE IN SPORTS AND LIFE: How many times did you hear Hoosiers referred to this year as Butler made its stunning run in the NCAA tournament? A hundred? That was impossible to avoid. Not only was Butler an underdog, but they came from Indiana. And they had a gangly white guy who led them in scoring and had a vague resemblance to Jimmy Chitwood. But people talk about Hoosiers all the time, not just when the team hails from Indiana. For 24 years, any basketball underdog that makes a surprising run brings out talk about Hoosiers, whether they're in the pros, college or high school. Hoosiers is now shorthand for a scrappy team that overcomes long odds and captures the hearts of millions, or at least thousands, or perhaps dozens. The phrase "the natural" still lives as well, but it doesn't seem quite as prevalent. It's usually referenced whenever a sweet-swinging lefty makes a big impact early in the majors. People often called Ken Griffey Jr. the natural and it fit. But sometimes it can be a bit premature, like when Sports Illustrated splashed Jeff Francoeur on its cover. Jeff Francoeur: decent player, no Roy Hobbs. Edge to Hoosiers.

Both movies have some flaws. But the genius of the movies hides the flaws, the same way Jimmy's perfect shooting made up for Hickory's lack of depth and size. They both came out a quarter century ago but nothing since has topped them. And chances are, nothing ever will.

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