On Sunday afternoon I stumbled upon the final scenes of A League of Their Own.
Even after his Oscars and his dramatic roles and his evolution into America’s favorite actor and a new generation’s Jimmy Stewart, the role of Jimmy Dugan remains one of my favorite Tom Hanks characters. He’s the type of manager I’d like the Twins to hire, especially now that it seems Gardy has perhaps lingered a few years too many. Dugan would scream when the Twins missed the cutoff, rip them in the press and instill some visible passion in Mauer. He’d be good for one year and maybe one pennant, a modern-day Billy Martin who would also be done in by a drinking problem or a 1 a.m. fistfight at DejaVu.
I like Jimmy Dugan. Of course Hanks is just a supporting actor in the film about a women’s professional baseball league. Geena Davis stars, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell acquit themselves well and Jon Lovitz steals the show. Enjoyable movie. Great sports film. But I hate that the Rockford Peaches lose the final game.
Sports movies follow a formula. Everyone knows this. We meet the team or individual, they struggle at some point, they win the big game. People cry, music swells. This happens in sports movies based on true stories — Miracle — and in original films like The Karate Kid. But sometimes the good guys lose. These movies teach us about life. Or they’re true to the story, the character’s and the director’s vision. And it’s true that many of the best sports movies ever end with the hero falling short (Rocky).
Still it’s always a bit of a jolt, a dose of reality in the fantasy sports movie world. I don’t always like it. And I didn’t like it with A League of Their Own. We’re supposed to be happy for Kit, the annoying younger sister of Dottie Hinson. Dottie dominates. She’s Babe Ruth in a catcher’s mask, indispensable to the league and its best player. Little Kit struggles in Geena Davis’ tall shadow. She whines. She swings at high fastballs. Finally she gets traded to Racine and faces Dottie and Rockford in the final series and the decisive game.
Kit drills an inside-the-park homer to win the game and it’s a triumph for little siblings everywhere. But damn it, Dottie deserved that title. It was her year and should have been a coronation, like Jordan in ’91 or LeBron in 2012. Worse, the game probably sent Dugan back to the bottle.
Two things bother me about that final home run, one that’s always nagged, the other being something I only noticed today during my 74th viewing. First, it seems likely Dottie dropped the ball on purpose after Kit pulled a Pete Rose on Ray Fosse. Maybe not likely, but certainly possible. Dottie’s unselfish, on the field and off it, and she could see the torturous future that awaited Kit if she failed in that game. I think those visions went through her head as she hit the ground and the ball rolled out of her bare hand (gotta keep it in the glove, Dottie). I hope it wasn’t on purpose; Dottie’s legend suffers if she did.
The second thing? Go to about the 4:30 mark of that video. Rosie, manning third base, gets the cutoff throw while Kit is still approaching third. She hasn’t even gotten there and the ball’s in Rosie’s glove. The next scene is Kit nearing home as Rosie finally fires to Dottie. This is a routine continuity error, but in the context of the movie I now blame Rosie for ruining Dottie’s title chance.
So what are some of the other more disappointing movie defeats? A few that come to mind:
* Tin Cup. It’s great that Tin Cup finally knocked in his shot from the 18th. And theatrically it’s a bit more dramatic than watching him grind out a U.S. Open victory with 14 pars and three bogeys. If anyone does a remake — and since this is Hollywood there will be a remake, possibly starring Channing Tatum — I’d like them to add a final scene, following the end of the tournament. It’s the next day’s First Take with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith — playing themselves, of course — screaming about Tin Cup’s disgraceful performance, comparing it to other chokes in golf history and speculating about the mental health of this out-of-nowhere golfer. Bayless throws out one of his annoying nicknames, perhaps “Dim Cup.” And yes, Tin Cup would also be compared to Tebow.
* Friday Night Lights. You can’t change the ending to perhaps the best sports book ever written. Except the 2004 movie does differ in one way. In reality Permian lost in the state semifinals to Dallas Carter. In the movie it happens in the state championship game. Not a big deal. When I read the book at 15 I couldn’t believe Permian didn’t pull it out in the end. Perhaps I’d been too conditioned on sports movies to accept reality.
* Finding Forrester. More literature than sports, I suppose. Another instance where the star, Jamal, probably loses on purpose, this time with missed free throws in the title game. In the movies, point shaving is heroic.
* Moneyball. Also based on the book, of course, so they couldn’t alter the ending. This is a movie where I actually enjoy watching the main team lose, since they lost to the Twins in the 2002 ALDS, which is memorable in Minnesota for two reasons: It’s the last time the Twins won a playoff series, and Denny Hocking was injured when someone stepped on his hand during the celebration.
* Brewster’s Millions. I think every American outside of New York wanted Richard Pryor’s team to defeat the Yankees in that three-inning exhibition they played.
One of the greatest sports endings ever would have been much different had it followed the source material. In the book The Natural Roy Hobbs strikes out. In the movie he hits a homer into the lights. In the book a young boy, referring to gambling rumors, says, “Say it ain’t true, Roy.” In the movie Roy plays catch in the field with his newly discovered son.
Bernard Malamud’s The Natural is a great book. Barry Levinson’s The Natural is a great movie. Why? Partly because Roy Hobbs didn’t strike out. And Dottie shouldn’t have dropped the ball.