“For Love of the Game” is the rather uninspired title for the third movie in the triumvirate of renowned Kevin Costner-as-baseball-player movies. The other two films are “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams.” The better title would be something like, “Choose the Girl, Stupid.”
Basically, what you’ve got here is the story of a super-alpha and the woman who loves him. This kind of alpha male is almost always a canine-like pack animal, and that means his all-consuming passion and talents are tied up in 1) sports teams, 2) war-fighting teams, and 3) today, rock bands. Any situation involving dudes in “All for one and one for all!” mode, with a pecking order. Wasn’t that the Three Musketeers? That was a sword-fighting team. Which is a subset of a war-fighting team.
It’s quarantine time: I binge-watched all three seasons of “The Unit,” which is about the U.S. Army’s Delta Force teams, and also all three seasons of “SEAL Team,” which is the Navy’s version of the same thing.
The Army and Navy wives therein depicted constitute a rare breed of women who will willingly compromise in matters of love. They know better than to try to force their spec ops soldier or sailor to make an either/or choice between them and his high-adrenaline military job, because he will always choose his wolf pack first.
This is a bitter pill for women to swallow. Because many women want an alpha; they’re hard, tough, manly men—forces of nature. They provide power, safety, humor, excitement, adventure, often dashing good looks, and they can make an excellent baby and provide for it.
And yet no woman wants to play second fiddle to anything else in her man’s life. But these guys are wired to choose the team first. So what’s it gonna be, Billy, the team or the girl?
When It Rains It Pours
One horrific, soul-crippling day, Detroit Tigers 40-year-old veteran and star pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) is informed by the owner (Brian Cox) that the team has just been sold to a corporate conglomerate, whose first item of business will be to sell Billy to the San Francisco Giants. Billy pitched 4,100 innings, over 19 years, for Detroit exclusively.
That’s Billy’s Hiroshima. His Nagasaki (on the same day) is Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston), Billy’s soulmate-girlfriend of five years, telling him that she’s leaving him and moving to London to upgrade her journalism career.
All that … and then Billy has to go out on the mound and pitch the last game of the season against the very cocky, World Series-bound New York Yankees.
And so, during this seemingly meaningless game against the Yanks, we learn via numerous flashbacks of the life and times of Billy Chapel. It turns out Jane and Billy meet cute on an off-ramp. Her rental car’s broken down just as he’s driving his rental car into New York for a game. Jane’s a freelance writer for cosmetics magazines. She’s clueless of the fact that Billy’s a future Hall-of-Famer because she’s completely oblivious to the world of baseball.
Billy, used to vapid baseball groupies, is thrilled by Jane’s intelligence and independence. Jane surprises herself by a momentary lapse into groupie-ness in the face of Billy’s megastar wattage, not to mention being bowled over by the fact that underneath all that hunky-ness is humor and gentleness.
The flashbacks chronicle the relationship from its see-each-other-when-Billy’s-in-town-for-games beginnings, to Billy’s complete acceptance of Jane’s daughter (whom she didn’t tell him about for a good long while), and on into the fights and problems, and ultimately the round-peg and square-hole, war-of-the-sexes dilemma of the alpha who refuses to put the nest before the wolf pack.
And even though Billy did display a rare capacity in an alpha—the largesse and lack of knee-jerk territoriality to consider raising another male’s offspring—he still insists on having his cake and eating it too. So—the team. Right Billy?
Hold on There …
I mentioned it was a meaningless game used as a vehicle to pitch us numerous flashbacks. Well, at the top of the seventh inning, Billy looks at the scoreboard and suddenly asks his catcher, Gus Sinski (John C. Reilly), “Were there any base runners tonight?” And Gus says, “No.” Can you say: “Will Billy pitch a no-hitter?”
Earlier, the owner had asked Billy to think about whether he had anything left to prove, seeing as how he’d already secured a place for himself in Cooperstown. The great ones don’t flail around, embarrass themselves, and need to be told when it’s time to quit.
And so here comes a deus ex machina: If Billy pitches a no-hitter, it’ll be just the Shangri-La an elite athlete hopes for—to give it his all, leave it all on the field, make his mark, go down in history, and walk away with no regrets. Is it a bit too picture-perfect? Well, sure. But this is one of the reasons we do like Hollywood.
“For Love of the Game” of 1999 steals from 1988’s “Bull Durham” with its sotto voce inner and outer monologues and brain-chatter of the players (here mostly Billy’s) and the reverse of the catcher-pitcher dance Costner did in the earlier film. “Durham” is the more powerful movie, so I’m inclined to say that Costner’s more believable as a catcher than a pitcher, but the fact is, Costner is simply and utterly baseballic. Baseballeriffic.
Costner and Preston’s chemistry together is as outstanding as the chemistry between Costner and Susan Sarandon in “Durham,” because—pffffft—what actress wasn’t going to have major chemistry with Costner in his baseball-portraying prime?
Probably, if you interviewed couples out on a movie date after seeing “For Love of the Game,” the guys would say it’s a dude movie and the gals would swear it’s a chick flick. And they’d both be right. Which is normally a difficult party trick to pull off, but not that difficult if the no-hitter game allows the alpha dog to tie a neat bow, leave the pack behind, and choose the nest. Bingo. Everybody’s happy.
‘For Love of the Game’
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, John C. Reilly, Jena Malone, Brian Cox, J.K. Simmons
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 17, 1999
Rated: 4 stars out of 5