Baseball speaks to me. The U.S. is still a blip in the long course of human history. We cobbled together our identity from bits of preceding cultures, but baseball is one thing we claim as uniquely ours. Annie Savoy, Susan Sarandon’s character in Bull Durham, put it well:
“Walt Whitman once said, ‘I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.’ You can look it up.”
I never go very long without giving Bull Durham another look and, with the Majors moving into the stretch run, it’s been on my brain. Bull Durham serves you a tale of life at baseball’s lower rungs; the spring, summer, and fall rhythms of my adopted Carolinas; and the humor of dime-store philosophy. It’s also irreverent and bawdy, which naturally holds my attention. (I still laugh at the Little League coaches back in the day who took their teams to see the movie without doing their due diligence; those kids got an eyeful and an earful.)
Bull Durham is also a story of molding talent and potential into professional success, which is an angle I suspect interests our readers. The movie’s wise sage, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), is a veteran minor league catcher with not-quite-enough talent but a Hall of Fame professional bearing. His apprentice, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), is a flamethrowing trainwreck of a young pitcher who’s as outlandish as his name. The big league club dispatched Crash to school Nuke in the ways of elite baseball and basic adulthood, and the two soon threw off a bit of a Yoda/Luke vibe (if Yoda were a switch-hitting whiskey aficionado and Luke had the maturity of a drunk baby).
Even still, it worked. Nuke caught on, learned to harness his wild pitches, and the big club pulled him out of the bus leagues up to the majors. Why? I think we have to credit Crash’s unconventional, wild, and uncompromising approach, which mixed odd philosophy with practical advice and forced Nuke to fail (and thus learn).
Consider the following examples that we can all adapt from time to time:
- During a conference on the mound, Crash ordered Nuke, “Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls—it’s more democratic.” Very good advice. We all have other people around us to carry the load. If Nuke didn’t slow down, he may have killed his arm and spent the next three decades selling encyclopedias.
- By that point in their lives, Crash had forgotten more baseball than Nuke might ever learn; still, he waived off Crash’s pitches—a huge no-no for just about any pitcher. Sure enough, the next batter blasted a home run. Again on the mound, Nuke wondered, “God, that sucker teed off on that like he knew I was going to throw a fastball!” Crash turned and said, “He did know … I told him.” Lesson given, lesson learned. Nuke dutifully threw the pitches Crash called from then on. Recognize that advice is meant to channel your potential, not to hold back your supposed natural brilliance.
- Crash didn’t limit Nuke’s lessons to baseball. There were tips on handling the sports media. There were tips about life in the majors. And there’s this gem, which isn’t all that meaningful but is too good to leave out: “When you get in a fight with a drunk you don’t hit him with your pitching hand.” Hey, you never know what advice is going to come in handy when.
So, dear readers, which one are you? If you are Crash, are you willing to take some time and give someone the chance to fail, all in the service of making them a better person on the other end? If you are Nuke, are you willing to recognize experience and wisdom, take your lumps, and emerge better for it? I’m willing to bet that the most successful mentoring, managing, and training occurs when one is Crash, the other is Nuke, and both are crazy enough to make it work.
I just don’t think I can look that up.