“I remember those cheers, they still ring in my ears,” he says.
He accents the rhyme, so’s we don’t miss how clever a bum he turned out to be.
“After years, they remain in my thoughts. Go to one night, I took off my robe, and what’d I do? I forgot to wear shorts.”
Robert DeNiro plays LaMotta, his voice like rocks rattling through a sieve.
“I recall every fall, every hook, every jab, the worst way a guy can get rid of his flab. As you know, my life wasn’t drab. Though I’d much . . . though I’d rather hear you cheer . . . when you delve . . . though I’d rather hear you cheer when I delve into Shakespeare.”
Like he’s Olivier, with his nose busted flat.
“’A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.’ I haven’t had a winner in six months.”
DeNiro as LaMotta lights a cigar, and next we see him in flashback, a raging bull let loose in the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson.
I have a friend who says, “Everything I know, I learned at the movies.” An exaggeration, but there’s truth in it. Movies take us places we’ve never been and put us with people we’ve never met. Write about sports long enough, you begin to notice recurring themes – and if you wonder why you so often write about the athlete grasping at flawed, faded fame, you may remember Jake LaMotta in the Martin Scorcese film. And when it’s going bad in an interview, you may flash back to the second-best sports movie ever, “Bull Durham,” where the been-there/done-that catcher Crash Davis tutors flamethrowing pitcher Ebby Calvin (Nuke) LaLoosh . . .
“It’s time to work on your interviews,” Crash says.
“My interviews? What I gotta do?” Nuke says.
“You’re gonna have to learn your cliches. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down. ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.’”
“’Got to play . . .’ It’s pretty boring.”
“’Course it’s boring, that’s the point,” Crash says.
Gee, thanks, Crash.
(Reminds me of a conversation with Curtis Strange. The year the two-time U.S. Open champion became the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, the PGA of America put him through media training. One thing he learned was silence. “They taught me that when you’ve answered the question, shut up,” he said. “Don’t be tempted to go on.”
(“Curtis, please don’t spread that around,” I said. “I’ve made a living by sitting there and waiting for a guy to fill the dead air.”)
Everything else about “Bull Durham” thrilled anyone who cared about baseball, certainly everyone who cared about baseball and women who loved baseball players, especially Susan Sarandon, the unforgettable Annie Savoy, whose voiceover prologue ought to be memorized by all boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 91….
“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard 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. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring – which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250, not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle.
“You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. ‘Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe and pretty. ‘Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake? It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ‘em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”
So, you say, a rosary has 59 beads.
I say, so what?
I still like Annie’s symmetry.
Crash, Annie, Nuke, Skip and baseball as it’s played by dreamers have appeared in my stuff, disguised, yes, but no less real, for a long, long time – just as Fast Eddie Felson has, the memory conjured every time I’ve been entranced by the magic of an athlete’s transcendant moment.
Fast Eddie was the protagonist, played by Paul Newman, in the best sports movie ever, “The Hustler,” based on a novel by Walter Tavis. Early in the film, Fast Eddie, the straight-pool phenom, is resting on his side in a field, his thumbs broken and in casts, talking to his girl friend, Sarah Packard . . .
“Just hadda show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s REALLY great. You know, like anything can be great, anything can be great, I don’t care, BRICKLAYING can be great, if a guy knows, if he knows what he’s doing and why, and if he can make it come off.”
Fast Eddie has his thumbs in casts because the creeps cracked them as payback when he couldn’t be content with winning and he had to show ‘em.
“When I’m goin’, I mean, when I’m REALLY goin’ I feel like a . . . like a jockey must feel. He’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him. . . . he’s comin’ into the stretch, the pressure’s on ‘im, and he KNOWS . . . just feels . . . when to let it go and how much. Cause he’s got everything workin’ for ‘im: timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right and you KNOW you’re right.”
There’s music in his voice.
“It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood, it’s got nerves in it. Feel the roll of those balls, you don’t have to look, you just KNOW. You make shots that nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way . . . NOBODY’S ever played it before.”
The movie’s about character. About winners and losers.
Fast Eddie has hunted down Minnesota Fats, the best there is. For hours he has him beat. But Eddie empties a bottle of bourbon. Fats disappears into a men’s room while Eddie slouches, drunk, on a stool. Fats reappears, fresh-faced, powdered, on the balls of his feet, and says, “Let’s shoot some pool, Fast Eddie.” Whips him bad then, and a gambler watching it all says . . .
“Eddie, is it alright if I get personal?”
“Whaddaya been so far?”
“Eddie, you’re a born loser.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“First time in 10 years I ever saw Minnesota Fats hooked, really hooked,” the gambler says. “But you let him off.”
“I told you,” Eddie says, “I got drunk.”
“Sure you got drunk. You have the best excuse in the world for losing; no trouble losing when you got a good excuse. Winning . . . that can be heavy on your back, too, like a monkey. You’ll drop that load too when you got an excuse. All you gotta do is learn to feel sorry for yourself. One of the best indoor sports, feeling sorry for yourself. A sport enjoyed by all, especially the born losers.”
And Fast Eddie says, “Thanks for the drink.”
By movie’s end, after unspeakable tragedy, Fast Eddie finds the strength of character necessary to move from loser to winner.
We’ve all written a hundred variations on that theme, and we all owe a beer to Walter Tavis.
Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295