Critically acclaimed writer, director and editor Aaron Katz was born and raised in Portland, OR. His movies include Land Ho!, Cold Weather and Quiet City.
I wish The Battered Bastards of Baseball were half as rowdy as its subject matter. The film examines the Class A Portland Mavericks of the Northwest League, a team of wild men on the vanguard of modern independent baseball in the mid ’70s. Having grown up in Portland somewhat after the Mavericks’ demise, and having become a baseball fan over the past ten years, I was eager to love this movie. It is therefore with some reluctance that I write what follows. It’s obvious to me that co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way know a good story when they see one, but the movie feels oddly restrained and, at times, out of touch with the rootin’ tootin’ spirit of Bing Russell, the free-thinking owner of the team.
Bing, a veteran of countless Hollywood westerns (and Kurt Russell’s father), came to Portland and launched the team in 1973. In the wake of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League Beavers’ departure from town the previous year, the city was hungry for a team, and Bing, having always loved baseball, felt he was just the man to start one. Instead of affiliating himself with a big league club, he established the Mavericks as the only independent professional baseball team in the country at the time and held open tryouts to fill the roster. He signed oddballs, rejects and bearded weirdos too out-there for baseball’s straight-laced culture at large. Everybody assumed that these guys wouldn’t be able to compete. Instead, Bing’s squad embarrassed the rest of the Northwest League so badly that their opponents had to send down players from higher up in the minors just to make sure the Mavs didn’t win the pennant.
All this has the makings of hot stuff. One interviewee proclaims that the content of Ball Four, the bridge-burning baseball memoir by former Yankee flamethrower Jim Bouton, is nothing compared to the antics the Portland Mavericks got up to on a daily basis. The problem is that Battered Bastards rarely treats us to anything really juicy. Most pages of Ball Four are brimming with back-of-the-bus, pill-popping, skirt-chasing tomfoolery. (The rest of the book is filled with Bouton’s intensely candid reflections on being a pitcher, a husband and a human being.) Of course, it sets an impossibly high bar for ribald stories and unapologetic honesty, but if you’re going to reference it and assert that the Mavs make it look like child’s play, then you had better deliver the goods. Sure, we get former players, Kurt Russell, and Oscar nominee and former Mavs bat boy Todd Field telling us what a crazy time it was, but precious few tall tales about the one time so-and-so did such-and-such and nobody could believe it. Worse, we’re almost entirely deprived of personal revelations, the film settling instead for sometimes touching and sometimes tedious reminiscences on matters of public record.
Game footage doesn’t help as much as it should. The majority of the available material is silent and fragmented, which is understandable, but it’s frequently presented without enough commentary or context to get excited about it. What should be blistering footage of star player Reggie Thomas stealing base after base is hard to follow and frustratingly low-energy. The aforementioned Jim Bouton, who mounted a comeback with the team, debuts without much fanfare. The Mavs’ final appearance in the league championship comes and goes before we understand what’s happening in the game. The bizarre invention of Big League Chew (created by Mavs pitcher Rob Nelson and sold to Wrigley’s by Bouton) comes almost as an afterthought, with no insights offered into how such a thing actually came about. As each new bit of archival footage came onscreen I wanted to be on the edge of my seat, wondering how and if this ragged crew was going to come out on top against all odds, but I was ultimately left cold by most of it.
I sometimes find contemporary documentaries to be obnoxiously stylized and bombastic, but recent films as disparate as 5 Broken Cameras, Sweetgrass and Over Your CitiesGrass Will Grow have set a standard in my book for capturing events of the here and now. Capturing events of the past is a much tougher assignment but, even so, I wanted the film to do more to sweep me up in the zeitgeist of a long-gone heyday. From the kinetic delirium of When We Were Kings to the wistful history lesson of Ken Burns’Baseball to the thrills of Man on Wire, there are powerful means to make the past feel as dynamic as the present. In Battered Bastards I was left feeling that, by the time I got to the party, all that remained were the crumbs of the cake and a few people telling me how good it had been.
Adding to the feeling that I had missed out was the frequent use of text, often in the middle of a sequence, to sum up events. It reminded me of the kind of life-summarizing coda you see just before the end credits in a movie inspired by real events. Each time it came onscreen I felt deflated, and perhaps doubly so because of the meandering, low-key score that accompanies throughout.
The movie still has its moments and, as a baseball fan and Portlander, the story is irresistible. It introduces us to a rich cast of characters who all deserve the spotlight and it does so with tender affection. Archival interviews with guys who traveled from all corners of the country to try out for the team are fascinating. A sequence about one player’s broom-wielding shenanigans whenever the Mavs swept a series is magical. Unfortunately, moments like these are too few. In the end, The Battered Bastards of Baseball doesn’t much resemble the raunchy, trouble-starting, one-last-chance band of misfits that it celebrates.