By Thom Loverro
The Gospel according to Crash Davis:
"Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once -- the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains."
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America discovered the dead sea scrolls of baseball 25 years ago, in the book of Crash Davis, the book of Annie Savoy and the book of Nuke LaLoosh, presented in the all-time classic film "Bull Durham," about life and love in minor league baseball, which debuted on June 15, 1988.
The game hasn't been the same since.
"Bull Durham," starring Kevin Costner as Crash Davis, Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy and Tim Robbins as Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, remains one of the great sports movies of all time. Sports Illustrated ranked it number one, as did the movie review web site Rotten Tomatoes. It is ranked on both Bravo's list of the 100 Funniest Movies and the American Film Institute's "100 Years ... 100 Laughs."
But the film's influence went far beyond the theater. It took minor league baseball off the farm and turned it into a growth industry that became an economic engine for both small towns and suburbs across the country.
"It had a huge impact," said Miles Wolff, who owned the Durham Bulls franchise when the film was made. "It introduced minor league baseball to a whole new population that had no clue about it."
Minor league baseball attendance grew from 21.6 million in 1988 to a high of 43.2 million in 2008. Nearly 200 ballparks have been built since the film was released. And those attendance numbers are only for the teams under the official minor league baseball organizations that is affiliated with Major League Baseball.
The presence of independent minor leagues has grown as well. Wolff is now the commissioner of two independent leagues, the Can Am League and the American Association. The Atlantic League, which started in 1998, drew 2.4 million fans last year and is expanding.
Other factors contributed as well, but the jumpstart for that growth was "Bull Durham," according to those in the industry.
"The movie had tremendous impact," said Peter Kirk, Atlantic League president and owner of several franchises in the league. "It brought awareness of minor league baseball to a wider audience, and came along at the same time we were hearing the first rumblings of applying marketing skills and facility design to make the fan experience more attractive."
"I had no idea it would have the impact that it did," director Ron Shelton said.
"Bull Durham" almost never got made.
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Major league lessons from Crash Davis:
"Your shower shoes have fungus on 'em. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shower shoes, and the press'll think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you're a slob."
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Crash Davis was a name Shelton borrowed from a 1940s and '50s minor league ballplayer for the Durham Bulls, among other teams (Lawrence Columbus "Crash" Davis became a minor celebrity after the film, and passed away in 2001). He became the best-known minor league player in history, thanks to Shelton.
Shelton is a well-known and successful Hollywood screenwriter and director who has produced a long list of critical and commercially successful films, including "White Men Can't Jump," "Cobb" and "Tin Cup."
But from 1967 through 1971, he was an infielder from Johnson City, Ill., in the Baltimore Orioles organization, playing with future major leaguers such as Don Baylor and Bobby Grich and managed by Cal Ripken Sr. and Joe Altobelli.
From Bluefield, Va., to Rochester, N.Y., Shelton lived the minor league life, and when his life in baseball ended and he eventually moved on to Hollywood, he had a story to tell.
But no one was interested.
"I could hardly get the movie made," Shelton said. "Studios said, 'Who cares about minor league baseball?' But it was more interesting than Major League Baseball.
"You could buy minor league teams then for the costs of your light bill," Shelton said. "But this was something that could compete with television as a live event, something more personal and intimate than Major League Baseball."
He drove around the Carolina League for a few weeks to see if the game had changed since his last season in 1971. "Major League Baseball had changed, and for the worse," Shelton said. "Money turned everyone into corporate jerks. But I saw that minor league baseball really hadn't changed much."
Shelton, who had written two films -- "Under Fire" and "The Best of Times" -- had never directed, but he wanted to be the one to direct this story.
It was a hard sell to studio executives. After all, before "Bull Durham," minor league baseball was invisible to much of the American public.
"The studios turned it down twice," Shelton said. "I kept going around until I didn't know what else to do."
Shelton had a strong ally in Costner, who was committed to the film. "Costner was by my side. He was telling everyone, "He can direct this.' But everyone was saying no. I was about to fold up the office, and I had no clue what was going to happen after that."
Then the Costner vehicle "No Way Out" opened, and Orion Studios came along. "Orion knew me and liked me," Shelton said. "I had written 'Under Fire' with them and they loved it, and they loved Kevin. Then 'No Way Out' came out and got great reviews, and they committed to the movie.
"If 'No Way Out" did not have great reviews in the Friday New York Times, 'Bull Durham' would not have been made," Shelton said.
At the time, the Durham Bulls were part of the sleepy Carolina League, a Class A club that had been around in various incarnations since 1913. They played in a rickety old ballpark called Durham Athletic Park, and were owned by an innovative young baseball executive named Miles Wolff, a John Hopkins University graduate who started the publication Baseball America in 1982 and had a vision for what minor league baseball could be.
"I was impressed with Miles Wolff," Shelton said. "He was turning that franchise around. He was a very smart guy, and for this movie, all roads led to Durham."
The movie premiere took place in Durham. "It came out twice for me," Wolff said. "They had the grand opening in Durham, with tuxedos and all that, and I was nervous. We watched them make this movie, but didn't know really how it would be made. I was on pins and needles on how it would be received.
"A week later, my wife and I went again to see it on our own, and the crowds were laughing and enjoying it," Wolff said. "It was realistic, and it was good."
* * *
The meeting on the mound:
[Pitching coach Larry Hockett (Robert Wuhl) goes to the mound while Crash and the other infielders are there talking to Nuke.]
Larry: "Excuse me, but what the hell's going on out here?"
Crash: "Well, Nuke's scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here. We need a live… is it a live rooster?"
[Jose, one of the infielders, nods.]
Crash: "We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove, and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present." [Looks to the other players.] Is that about right? [The players nod.] We're dealing with a lot of s---."
Larry: "OK, 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."
* * *
That classic scene at the mound almost got cut from the film.
"I loved that scene," Shelton said. "But the studio wanted to cut it out. They said, 'It doesn't have anything to do with the plot.' I said, 'There is no plot. The movie is well-structured, but there's no plot.' I had to talk them into letting me shoot it, and then they wanted to cut it out again. But the audiences loved it, and it went from everyone trying to get rid of it to a classic."
So whatever happened to Crash, Annie and Nuke? Will we ever see that story?
"The sequel has been discussed many times," said Shelton, who's collaborating with folk singer-songwriter Susan Werner on a potential stage musical of the film. "A few years ago, I had worked out a way for all three of them to come back together. Nuke was a knuckleball pitcher in Venezuela. Annie had been endowed a chair at The Sorbonne, and Crash was managing in Wyoming.
"But it would feel artificial," he said. "I never could figure out a way to open it up again and make the fable complete. And they're too old now, anyway."
The story, though, is still played out in minor league ballparks from Spokane to Pensacola, wherever you have monkeys riding dogs or Boy Scouts campout night.
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The philosophy of Annie Savoy:
"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."
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Loverro is a Washington-based writer who has covered sports in the nation's capital for two decades. He also co-hosts a sports talk radio show on ESPN 980 in Washington and is the author of 11 books.