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Keith Law Wants You to Watch Better Baseball Movies

For some of us, Opening Day in Major League Baseball is a sacred thing—the unofficial start of spring, the launch of another season of the world’s greatest sport, that special time each year when we still believe that our crummy team might actually win the pennant. Sure, those are romantic notions, but most people who love baseball tend to be romantic about such things—it’s woven into the game we adore.

Baseball has been around for more than a century, and so have the movies, with the National Pastime often the subject of films. Some baseball movies have been nominated for Oscars (“Moneyball,” “The Natural”), some are family classics (“The Sandlot”), and a few of them star Kevin Costner. So as a new season gets underway, I decided to talk to someone who has opinions about baseball movies but isn’t a movie critic—he does, however, know a thing or two about baseball.

Keith Law is a senior baseball writer at The Athletic, where he breaks down teams’ top prospects, analyzes trades and free-agent signings, extensively covers MLB’s annual draft, and ranks clubs’ farm systems. He’s also written two great books, Smart Baseball and The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves, which push aside the biases and faulty thinking that often lead to bad baseball decisions. A former special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, Law loves the game and thinks about it critically—both in terms of assessing players and calling out the sport’s ethical and moral shortcomings. (It should hardly be a controversial opinion, but he thinks players allegedly involved in domestic violence have no place in the game.) Outside of the world of baseball, he’s just as outspoken, taking to social media and his blog, The Dish, to defend trans rights and decry the death penalty. Tellingly, he ironically titles his weekly blog roundup of important political and cultural stories “Stick to Baseball.”

On The Dish, Law also flexes his non-baseball muscles by writing about his other passions. He reviews books and restaurants. He writes about songs and albums. (In addition, he frequently publishes board game reviews at Paste.) And he digs into movies—blockbusters, documentaries, countries’ official entries for the Best International Film Oscar—to give his thoughts. His favorites of recent years have included “Burning,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Amerikatsi.” He’s one of the people I most enjoy talking about films with, specifically because he doesn’t come from the same background as so many of my colleagues. 

But what about baseball movies? Which do Law thinks hold up? Last week, over Zoom from his home in Delaware, he and I had a long talk about the best and worst of the genre. This conversation doesn’t include every supposed classic—he’s never seen the original “Bad News Bears”—and he makes no apologies about not being a completist. As he puts it, “If you tell me a baseball movie is not very good, why would I waste my time on that?” 

Ultimately, what I was aiming for was a larger discussion regarding what baseball movies mean. What makes them work? What makes them fail? And, seriously, why is “Trouble With the Curve” so awful? Batter up.

You’ve loved baseball since you were a kid, raised in a Yankee household. Where did movies fit into that?

My parents are not movie people. We would go to some movies as kids—I remember going to see “Grease” when I was five or six. I remember seeing “Star Wars” in the theater. But those were cultural events, it was different—we were not folks who just went to movies. 

In high school, and particularly in college, I was a big newspaper guy. We had Newsday, and I’d often read it close to cover to cover. I got into the film critics—I don’t even remember who the main one was, but he had standards. I was like, “Oh, this is interesting—this is why this movie is good, this is why this movie isn’t good.” I remember him giving a four-star rating to the Kenneth Branagh adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which I still adore. As Shakespeare adaptations go, it’s pretty spectacular—his particular brand of overstated is exactly right for that character Benedict, so it works really well.

Do you remember the first baseball movie you ever saw?

I think “Major League.” Well, “Max Dugan Returns” has a strong baseball element in it, and I did see that as a kid—I love that movie, saw it several times. I mean, it’s quaint, it’s a kid’s movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “The Bad News Bears” start to finish because my parents just weren’t into that kind of stuff, so we didn’t go see it.

“Major League” has a ton of problems, obviously, but there are also pretty good parts that are endearing. There are parts that still get quoted around the backfields. Nobody’s quoting “Trouble With the Curve,” but they’re quoting “Major League.”

Those problems you have with “Major League”—did you notice them at the time or when you were older?

No, when I first watched it, I just loved it. It was a baseball movie that was really about baseball. “Bull Durham” is not about baseball—“Bull Durham” is a movie that is set in baseball, but it is not a baseball movie. “Major League” is a baseball movie. The problems it has are the ones we see now where [Tom Berenger’s character] stalks [Rene Russo’s character]—the way he just shows up at her apartment, none of that is okay. The baseball stuff, I actually feel like holds up reasonably well.

Field of Dreams,” I actually do have a soft spot for that movie, and I know a lot of people [have] come around to hating that movie. I really wish Michael Schur had gotten his chance to do the TV series based on that and just retell the whole thing in a totally different way—a less sentimental spin, I think he would’ve done that. That’s not a great baseball movie, either, but that at least is a movie about baseball history.

I’m curious about this distinction you’re making: Some movies are set in the world of baseball, while other movies are baseball movies. 

When I say “not a great baseball movie,” I’m talking about, “Are we seeing baseball—actual baseball?” Sports movies generally get the sport wrong, and if you know the sport at all, it’s really frustrating to watch and think, “That wouldn’t happen. That wouldn’t happen. That’s wrong." You cannot watch “Trouble With the Curve” with me because I’m not going to shut up for the whole—10 hours is what it feels like—where it’s like, “That’s wrong, that’s wrong. They made Amy Adams really unlikable, and that’s wrong, too.” Oddly enough, that’s a movie that tries to be a baseball movie—it just fails. 

“Bull Durham” has very little baseball in it, and what there is is very tangential to the storyline—which, to me, is more about this small cast of eccentric characters. Which is fine. If you’re a screenwriter and you aren’t really making a baseball movie, just do that: Set it in baseball, but don’t have too much on the field and I’m not going to care. 

So, using that distinction, what’s a good baseball movie—it’s about baseball, we see actual baseball and gets the baseball correct?

Sugar” is No. 1 for me. It’s a great movie. It’s such a small movie, but they clearly put in so much work into getting the baseball stuff right. It’s also a great assimilation story—or failure to assimilate, in a way. “Tragic” might be a little too much [to describe the film], but it’s certainly bittersweet.  

For folks who don’t know, it’s about a prospect [named Miguel “Sugar” Santos, played by Perez Soto]. I don’t know if they ever explicitly say he’s from the Dominican Republic, or if it’s just strongly implied, but he is a hard-throwing teenager who gets money that, from a Dominican standard, is a lot—but it doesn’t get you very far once you move to the United States. He comes to play in the low minors in the United States and really has trouble assimilating, particularly in an era where teams did [not do much to help international players]. They do far more today, at least in terms of educating players, teaching them English, teaching them some basic life skills so that they can succeed when they come over to the United States—especially since they’re now in the United States and playing in the minor leagues sooner because we’ve lost a whole level of the minor leagues. The Sugar of today is playing in the Midwest League a year sooner than he might otherwise have been. 

[The filmmakers] cared about getting the on-field stuff right, and they cared about getting the culture right, and they cared about getting some of the processes around baseball right. That is a lot to ask of a movie—it’s a level of research that we would expect from a science-y movie where it’s like, “Oh, you got to get that stuff right.” And it allowed me to get far more invested in the character and in the storyline. 

I do think “Major League” gets a lot of the baseball stuff right. I absolutely love “Everybody Wants Some!!”—I wish that movie had found a much bigger audience. They get the baseball stuff right, and it being Richard Linklater, he’s got this great cast of characters, and he gets the camaraderie right. How can you watch that movie and not think, “Man, I wish I’d played baseball at some random college in Texas”? But, also, it looks like real baseball—he made the effort and had some understanding, and it just makes such a difference.

I love “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Sugar,” too. “Sugar” premiered 16 years ago—how much has changed about the world of international players since then?

There are minor things that have changed. He would probably spend an additional year in the Dominican Summer League, whether he’s Dominican or not. The way it works now is if you’re signed internationally as a free agent, you can sign at 16—if you sign from essentially any country that is outside of the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, but still in the Americas, you are probably going to go play in the Dominican Summer League for at least one year while you’re 16, 17. Usually by the time you’re 18, you’re either coming to the United States or you get released. So his actual path might change a little bit. 

The one thing that’s actually better today is, I believe, every team is doing more cultural assimilation. It’s education—it’s understanding that most of these [prospects], they’re 16, they’re not finishing high school. The level of English varies very wildly depending on the country of origin. For players who come in without the language skills, without the education, it’s making sure you’re okay in the world.

[What’s shown in “Sugar”] you just don’t think about unless you’re in the industry and then start to see some of that. And that’s a very specific thing to baseball because we sign them so young—we sign a lot of players out of countries where there’s just no English whatsoever. Players who come over from East Asia, they may not speak English either, but they come over and they get a couple million bucks—or a lot more—and then the team hires an interpreter. But you can’t have one interpreter for every Spanish-speaking player you have in your entire system—they can do that for the three Korean-speaking players they might have. 

Also, in the modern “Sugar,” he gets to 18, has his first Tommy John surgery, and then by the time he’s 23, he has to have the internal brace because it started to tear again. That would be the modern story of baseball.

Because pitchers are now trained to throw as hard as possible—everybody wants the prospect who can hit 100 mph on the radar gun.

Exactly, that’s what gets you paid, and that’s always been true with the international free agents—it’s just more so. If you don’t throw hard enough, you get nothing. If you’re right-handed and you’re not throwing 94 or 95 at age 16—I may be exaggerating slightly—but you’re not getting more than 50 grand. The big money guys, they throw hard, and we keep making the same mistake. I would rather have the younger guy who shows he can pitch—he can spin the ball, I like the delivery, I like the athlete—and you can add velocity as he grows. The guy who throws super-hard right now, he might need three surgeries before he is 24, but he gets paid.

Is part of your love of “Sugar” based on the fact that it speaks to something in baseball that you feel very passionate about: How international players are treated when they come over here? 

I’m sure there’s some subconscious bias: I like that they’re portraying the inherent exploitation of international free agents in our industry that does still exist. Am I fist-up pro-labor? Yes, absolutely, I am. So that’s going to resonate with me. But, also, movies have to hold my attention. We are in a world where it’s like, “My phone’s right here, my computer’s here, I have two kittens.” There’s all these things going on to distract me. A movie might drag, and if they get something wrong on the baseball side, it pushes me out. The best movies are the ones where you can’t stop [watching].

Kinda like the Beatles versus the Stones, I think a lot of baseball fans are either “Field of Dreams” people or “Bull Durham” people. One movie is very sentimental, the other is much more sarcastic. I’m going to cheat and say I really like both movies. But what kind of person are you? 

I am a “Field of Dreams” person, and I say that with the recognition that the movie’s manipulative. Generally, I don’t respond that well if I know I’m being manipulated, but I’m like, “Yeah, that one got me.” 

What is it that gets you in “Field of Dreams”?

There’s a lot of little things that do. The Moonlight Graham subplot works. Basically, anything James Earl Jones does in that movie, he’s fantastic. 

I’m still close to my parents—we went to lots of baseball games as a family. My dad is also a big sports fan. My mom was very much “We are watching the Yankees,” and so was her mom, and so was her mom’s father. My great-grandfather was on his deathbed and he wanted the Yankee score—that’s us. There’s something about baseball being shared across generations—most baseball fans, I think we watched from an early age, and we associate [baseball] with something positive about family. 

I think the baseball stuff [in “Field of Dreams”] is fine—other than the whitewashing of Joe Jackson. He was a cheat—he knew, he knew. I don’t think Costner is anything special in that movie—he’s fine. I’ve never been the biggest Kevin Costner fan, so that may also be a factor, but [his character] is a bit of a cipher. He’s a very generic character at the center of this, and the action happens around him.

You and I always enjoy making fun of how terrible “Trouble With the Curve” is. I know one of your complaints is that it gets the baseball wrong, but let me play devil’s advocate for a second: Why does that matter? It’s not like it’s supposed to be a documentary. 

That movie’s extremely lazy across the board. The movie’s supposed to be some kind of defense of scouting. I’m friends with scouts, I talk to scouts all the time, I defend scouting constantly—I argue that teams are now employing too few scouts, and the teams that employ more scouts tend to be much more successful, particularly in the draft but also in trades. Why are the Dodgers constantly finding guys in the 12th and 15th rounds and getting a guy in a trade who turns into a star? Because they have better scouts—more and better scouts—and their scouts work well with their other departments. But that movie does a really lousy job of defending scouts.

Also, the characterization is extremely lazy, it takes a lot of dumb plot shortcuts—some of which are baseball-related and some of which are not. It panders to the audience. It gets less from all of its actors. Clint Eastwood is like a billion years old, but Amy Adams is never bad, and she’s bad in that movie. It’s the movie we all love to hate because it just fails on so many levels—it’s a thing of beauty. I haven’t seen a worse one.

I feel like “Moneyball” versus “Trouble With the Curve” is the modern “Field of Dreams”/“Bull Durham” debate—they’re two baseball films that have wildly different perspectives on the game. But even though “Moneyball” is more analytics-driven than “Trouble With the Curve”—so people might assume it’s closer to your heart—you don’t like that film much, either. 

Yes, I hated the movie. I always tell people, “Read the book, the book is good. The book has its issues, but the book is good.” The movie was such a disjointed mess. Trying to build this whole story around an in-season winning streak, I understand that’s what actually happened, but it points to the problem with turning that book—which is a book about a process—into a movie. A movie demands results—you need an outcome, you need “We’re heading towards this thing, and this is the denouement”—and [the book] doesn’t have that. 

The movie also does some sloppy and lazy things. The way that it mocks scouts is not accurate, and it’s really derogatory towards the actual scouts who worked for the A’s in that time period. And there’s also the very clear baseball [problem] where they don’t mention that [the A’s] had the best rotation in all of baseball [which is a big reason why they were so good]. I think the [subplot] with Billy Beane’s daughter was also very manipulative.

There was a simpler movie to be made in there, but maybe that doesn’t get nominated for Best Picture. Maybe that’s not big enough for Brad Pitt. There are things in there, like [the line] “It’s very difficult,” that live forever—that scene is an all-timer, and I say that as somebody who sees [Chris Pratt’s character] Scott Hatteberg, because he’s a scout, a couple of times every spring. I’ve never, ever said that [line] to him—I’m sure he’s sick of that, but you know I think that.

Here’s my argument for why “Moneyball” is good, despite the things you mentioned that it leaves out: I think it does a great job of hitting on the eternal poignancy of baseball—how it’s a children’s game played by adults, who eventually have to let that dream go. The impermanence of a player’s career—the inevitability that it will end—really gets to me. 

“Everybody Wants Some!!,” there’s a lot great about that movie, but it is also very much a “Youth is wasted on the young” [film]. “Do you appreciate how amazing this is that you guys have this?” I know it’s based a little bit on Linklater’s own experiences, but to find that group, that camaraderie, that connection—and they come from slightly different backgrounds. “We’re all coming together over this one thing,” but it’s not going to last. And it’s college—three, four years, you’re all gone, you’re scattered to the four winds. 

When you find [a bond] like that, it’s hard to appreciate those moments. Obviously, there’s baseball mortality and then there’s just mortality. We have a finite time here and you’ve got to learn—it’s a hard skill to learn—to appreciate what you have. This is a very American thing, we’re constantly looking forward: “What’s next? What’s more? When’s the next promotion, the next raise, the next big life thing?” You’re always wishing time away. But “Everybody Wants Some!!” [says,] “No, stop and look at what you have. This thing right here, there’s something magic.” 

Some baseball movies tell inspirational true stories, like “42.” I’m not a fan of that film, but I was curious how you felt. 

“42” was a tough movie to criticize even before Chadwick Boseman died. It exaggerates a lot of things. Jackie Robinson’s life had plenty of drama and tragedy and controversy—you didn’t have to gussy it up to the extent that they did. I don’t know that that’s really the biography he deserved—it might be the biography people wanted, but I don’t think they did a particularly good job with the baseball in that one.

That movie also does the thing, it’s got to hit some of the more famous incidents—the problem with a lot of biopics is that you have to connect the dots. These dots are already in ink, so you just have to get us from one to the next. Those don’t work for me—tell a smaller portion of a subject’s life. Find the incident or short period that is most interesting, most illustrative that allows you to tell broader points. 

What I also don’t like about a movie like that is it too easily assures the viewer, “Don’t worry, racism is gone now thanks to Jackie Robinson.”

“42” should have been an angry, political movie—and we know, from Boseman’s other work, he could have done it. That movie is like a celebration of Jackie Robinson—it backed off from confronting some of the more serious [issues around racism]. Getting the N-word yelled at you repeatedly on a field, I’m sure is horrible—he took a lot of verbal abuse in his time through the Majors, I’m not trying to diminish that. But that is not all of racism—just because no one’s yelling that [epithet] at him and he played well in the Majors, racism isn’t gone. There’s a lot more subtle aspects to racism that continued well into his career that the movie just isn’t prepared to confront. 

In terms of tackling sexism, the most popular baseball movie to do that was “A League of Their Own.”

That’s actually a good movie that does have much broader themes. Let’s face it: Women are wildly underrepresented in all baseball fiction. But “A League of Their Own” does something really great in that they’re telling the story of the All-American Girls League—that’s going to get into much bigger issues and larger themes just naturally. That’s, to me, a hallmark of a lot of great fiction: Whether you’re telling a true story or a made-up one, you find the little that exemplifies the large that helps shed light on a larger story or opens up much larger questions. You could argue “Sugar” does that by telling one player’s story—issues of exploitation, assimilation, prejudice, immigration policy come into it. It’s a shame that “A League of Their Own” stands so much on its own—a lot of times, [women] either don’t exist in baseball movies or they’re the generic love interest.

Are there certain nonfiction stories that you think would lend themselves to a good baseball movie?

We haven’t discussed “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” which is the documentary about the signing of Miguel Sanó and Jean Carlos. That exposed a fair bit of the corruption involved in the process—there was a lot of sketchy stuff happening around [then]. I mean, it’s still the Wild Wild West in international free agency, but this was 13, 14 years ago, and it was much worse then. It’s a great documentary—could that story or a similar one be turned into a fictional one? Yeah, I would say so.

I mean, the problem with Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, the Jimmy Breslin book about the expansion Mets [who were terrible], is that the story probably has to end with the Mets suddenly getting good in ‘69. You could do a really good movie about a truly incompetent baseball team, except isn’t that the plot of “Major League”? That’s kind of what Seasons in Hell, which was [about] the Ted Williams-managed Rangers, [does] because they don’t get good at the end, either. That could be really fun and funny.

We haven’t talked about baseball documentaries. I have to confess: I have never been able to get through Ken Burns’ “Baseball.” Something about his sepia-toned approach to the game just leaves me cold. 

What I have seen of that documentary, it feels like he’s telling one side of the whole story, and that’s hard to do. It’s like this Ohtani story that’s happening now: How well is this going to get covered? MLB Network, which is one of the major purveyors of baseball news and employs a lot of people who get baseball news, how much are they going to cover it? This is deleterious to the sport as a whole, so maybe they’re not going to. Especially if you want to use team logos or the Major League Baseball logo [in a film], well, okay, you can’t be too negative—you can only tell the things that are favorable to Major League Baseball. So there are obstacles involved.

Baseball is a sport, in general, where people are like, “I come to baseball to get away from politics and division and all this other stuff”—we all know what hat those people wear. But I’ve argued constantly there is no separation—politics and sports are inextricably intertwined, not least because we constantly, as taxpayers, pay for the sports stadiums. There is no separating baseball from the most controversial aspects of American life—from exploitation of immigrants to exploitation of labor in general, from the way that minor leaguers have been chronically underpaid, to the waxing and waning powers of unions, to racism, to sexism, to cartel-like behavior. I mean, baseball is a legal monopoly, essentially. There are so many things you could shine a light on through a baseball story, and most baseball stories choose not to do that. They just want to have a feel-good baseball movie.

To that point, I wonder if we’ll ever get a “Spotlight” or “All the President’s Men” about the investigation into the steroid era of the 1990s.

We are far enough past it. The most visible manifestations of PED usage, those are past us. All those players are retired—most of them are out of baseball. You’re probably at the point now where someone could do that. Someone could tell that story.

But MLB would never allow the logos to be included, so it would feel inauthentic and cheap. 

Major League Baseball doesn’t want to confront it. You know who else doesn’t? The Hall of Fame, they really don’t want to confront it—they don’t want to talk about the possibility that there are Hall of Famers who took PEDs. They have done everything they could to just try to squeeze those guys off the ballot. I am a Hall of Fame voter—they have never given us one iota of guidance on how to address players who were accused of PED usage, who tested positive for PEDs, or simply played in that era. These are complicated questions without easy answers, and people have asked the Hall of Fame to provide guidance, and the Hall of Fame has, through multiple regimes, declined. 

Are there certain baseball movies you hear quoted a lot on the ballfield or around the folks you work with?

“Major League” definitely comes up. Bits of “Moneyball” do get quoted—even though, obviously, a lot of scouts, not incorrectly, have strong feelings about that movie. It’s funny, “Field of Dreams” almost never does. But no extended mound visit can go by without somebody saying “candlesticks” thanks to “Bull Durham.”

In the world of arthouse films, there’s a term called “slow cinema,” which is given to longer movies that usually move at a more deliberate pace—maybe not a lot happens, plotwise, in them. Among my friends who love international cinema and baseball, we talk about the similarities between slow cinema and baseball: how they both require patience as a viewer, but the rewards come from the intense concentration you apply to both. 

I know you’re not a professional film critic, but you’ve seen some slow cinema: Do you think the comparison makes sense?

I have always thought baseball and literature go well together because they’re meditative. For me at least, baseball isn’t a sport that can be rushed, and I don’t say that as a criticism. 

One thing I always loved about ice hockey, indoor soccer and indoor lacrosse is that those are fast and exciting, and you can never really turn away—that’s great, too. But baseball, there’s often a slow build, and it gives you time to think about what’s happening in front of you. It also gives you time to not think about what’s happening in front of you—just enjoy your beer and talk to your friends, and that’s fine. No criticism—you enjoy baseball the way you want to enjoy baseball. 

Two things I particularly enjoy doing is reading and watching baseball. But slow cinema does have a bit more of that literary quality: “We’re taking our time, we get there when we get there.” I don’t know slow cinema super-well, and sometimes I’m not along for the ride—sometimes I’m like, “Can you hit the gas already? Because we’re not getting anywhere”—but I feel that way at baseball games sometimes, too. 

I’m often struck by the fact that you and I both have jobs where people want to come up to us and talk about them. Lots of folks watch movies and baseball, so we cover subjects that everyone can have an opinion about—and have no problem sharing those opinions with us.

Baseball is just part of the fabric of [my] family. Baseball is very tied into daily life for me and for all of us. I often go out with friends and friends around here who know what I do. They generally want to talk about the Phillies, and they’ll often apologize: “I’m sure you don’t want to talk about work.” And I’m like, “You know what? I’m used to it.” I have a job that people like to talk about. I’m pretty lucky.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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