Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Bull Durham’: Moving Beyond the Church of Baseball

June 4, 2020 Updated: June 5, 2020

R | | Comedy, Romance, Sport | 15 June 1988 (USA)

The hugely quotable, American-lexicon-pervading “Bull Durham” of 1988, a warm rom-com about an A-level minor league squad in the Carolina League, is widely considered to be the best, most accurate baseball movie ever made. Sports Illustrated magazine even ranked it as the No. 1 greatest sports movie of all time. Writer-director Ron Shelton, who spent five years as a second baseman in the minors, knows baseball, so it all rings true. And truly American.

Because only in America could you find this scenario: a canon-armed but inexperienced hurler nicknamed Nuke (Tim Robbins) on the pitcher’s mound, going into his windup, eyes rolled up in the back of his head because he’s trying to breathe through his eyelids like the lizards of the Galapagos.

And that would all be thanks to the advice of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a local school teacher-cum-self-styled baseball coach who’s also convinced Nuke to wear a garter belt under his uniform so he can stay all nice and loosey-goosey.

baseball pitcher in "Bull Durham"
“Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) is a talented but not particularly bright pitcher in “Bull Durham.” (Orion Pictures)

You would also never get this scene anywhere else but in America: half the team congregating out at the mound, mid-game, seriously discussing 1) the fact that Nuke is nervous because his dad is sitting behind home plate (and now his eyelids are jammed), 2) how to get hold of a live rooster to take the curse off José’s glove, and 3) what to buy the first baseman for his wedding. And the manager (Robert Wuhl), who trots out to see what the heck is the matter, advising, “Well, uh … candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she’s registered and maybe a place setting or maybe a silverware pattern. OK, let’s get two! Go get ’em.”

You can’t get such scenes in Europe, and not because they don’t have our national pastime; they’re just far too sensible. You simply have to love America to be able to revel in our extensive, delightful, deep state of cultural silliness.

Crash, Nuke, and Annie

After 12 tough years as a catcher in the minor leagues, “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner) gets shunted to this single-A, Durham, North Carolina, farm team to tune up rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, who’s got “a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head.” Nuke’s got focus issues; his scorching 96 mph fastball is more likely to bean the umpire or the Bull mascot than sizzle over home plate.

Annie Savoy is the team’s self-appointed, unofficial trainer. To label her what she really is (a glorified baseball groupie) would be to oversimplify things and also be so devoid of imagination, romance, and fun, that it would be un-American.

Woman in white, woman in blue in "Bull Durham"
Annie (Susan Sarandon, L) and Millie (Jenny Robertson) as two glorified baseball groupies in “Bull Durham.” (Orion Pictures)

Annie, a self-styled serial monogamist, picks herself a summer baseball boyfriend to mentor each spring, giving him the wisdom of her life experience, tweaking his field-of-dreams skill set, and sending him on his merry way at season’s end—hopefully to “The Show” (lingo for the major leagues). As she says, “I know things.”

After Crash and Nuke have an alpha bar-fight for Annie’s attention (actually, Crash is just using the dust-up as a teaching piece to let Nuke know he’s a dimwit in need of mentoring), Annie has both of them over to her place for a boyfriend interview.

However, after 12 years of ball playing, Crash is not about to audition for anything (including Annie’s attention), furthermore stating that he’s not interested in anyone who’s “interested in that boy.”

two men on a couch in "Bull Durham"
Nuke (Tim Robbins, L) and Crash (Kevin Costner) compete for Annie’s attention in “Bull Durham.” (Orion Pictures)

Crash is dealing with the fast-encroaching reality that his own dreams of being in “The Show” have been usurped by gigs like his current one.

And while this job of being responsible for transforming a cocky pitching prospect (whom he delights in calling “Meat”) rankles, Crash takes it because of his profound love of every aspect of the lifestyle: obviously, the magic crack of a wooden bat on horsehide, the smell of cut grass, and the glowing dusk bathed in stadium lights.

But also the road-tripping bus ennui, small-town squalor, half-empty ballparks, rundown motels, and the low-rent Americana of mascots, hotdogs, Cracker Jacks, and ball-park gimmickry. Gimmickry? Yeah, like if the ball hits the plywood bull at the park’s edge, the player gets a free steak. All of which is presided over by that 1940s spirit of American baseball, skating rinks, and church—the Hammond B3 organ.

The Good Stuff

The real fun of “Bull Durham” is the unique artifice of using nonstop inner and outer monologues that put us directly inside Crash and Nuke’s heads when they’re facing down enemy pitchers: “You’re not gettin’ that cheese by me, Meat” (Crash calls everybody who annoys him “Meat”) or running their private self-pep-talks and hilarious, snarky putdowns of opposing team members, or trying to outguess each other from the strike zone and the mound, respectively.

Ultimately, it’s these hysterical on-field scenes of the ongoing education of Nuke, by Crash, that constitute the brilliance of “Bull Durham.”

Two baseball players arguing in "Bull Durham"
Nuke (Tim Robbins, L) and Crash (Kevin Costner) vehemently discuss why Nuke should not “announce his presence with authority” by throwing a predictable fastball, in “Bull Durham.” (Orion Pictures)

When arrogant goofball Nuke shakes off Crash’s signals, Crash (knowing Nuke better than Nuke knows himself) blithely tells the opposing team’s batter exactly what Nuke will throw next, which of course causes an instantaneous home run. Thus, Nuke is slowly brought to heel and enlightened to the understanding that it’s always the catcher who calls the shots.

The Heart of the Matter

Men love this film, but the ladies do too: the reason for that being that Costner’s Crash is the classic, cocky (but sensitive) alpha; and a well-read, very funny, mysterious, hard-to-get, soulful, experienced-in-the-game-of-love, wise, dedicated, manly beard-stubbled baseball jock. Very swoon-causing. He also carries that enticing, thoughtful sadness (because he knows he is not destined for greatness). Very irresistible.

man in bomber jacket in "Bull Durham"
Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) stars in “Bull Durham.” (Orion Pictures)

Most people think “Bull Durham” is about Crash’s baseball journey, but what it’s really about is belief systems. All of the characters in the movie are driven by their various beliefs, sometimes religious and sometimes superstitious (mostly having to do with the desire to maintain or correct the state of their skills and equipment). Annie’s monologue at the movie’s outset puts the topic of belief front and center:

“I tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But, it just didn’t work out between us; the Lord laid too much guilt on me—I prefer metaphysics to theology. See, there’s no guilt in baseball. … I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out—is the church of baseball.”

woman in white skirt lights candles in "Bull Durham"
Susan Sarandon stars as Annie Savoy in “Bull Durham.” (Orion Pictures)

Crash also has a classic, epic rant about his beliefs which, though highly quotable, is, er, a bit too inappropriate to repeat here. But what’s really at the heart of “Bull Durham,” beyond all the baseball and rom-com silliness, is the promise of these two soul mates.

man in bomber jacket and woman in white shirt in "Bull Durham"
Crash (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Susan Sarandon) play soul mates in “Bull Durham.” (Orion Pictures)

They both know their time is up (his fading athleticism and her fading beauty). As they cozily (and with a shared sense of the ridiculous) discuss why people always think they were famous people in their past incarnations, one gets the feeling that by the conjoining of their intellects, curiosity, and quest for excellence, these two seekers, sooner than later, will discover things like why 108 is a sacred number in Buddhism too.

And why the guilt that Annie fears and avoids is essential to belief: Without it, people won’t learn the laws that govern human existence, and so they must return ad infinitum to painful, meh, Joe-schmo incarnations. They’ll have to move beyond the Church of Baseball to figure that out. One gets the sense they eventually will.

‘Bull Durham’
Director: Ron Shelton
Starring: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Jenny Robertson, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl, William O’Leary
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Release Date: June 15, 1988
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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