Coming soon to a television near you, Barry Bonds as “The Natural.”
Revolting, huh? Probably not as wincing to read as it is to write. See, “The Natural” was my favorite movie as a child.
I pored over the movie what must have been more than 30 times, picking out nuances in the plot and getting all misty-eyed when Roy Hobbs (hitch, crack!) belts that final home run into a stadium light, which for some reason makes all the other lights in the stadium simultaneously explode, which dumps glittering white light and shards of glass on the field, which injures nobody. (Yes, I had to ask my mom if this could really happen.)
Turns out the plot isn’t that complicated. Hobbs is the good but naive blue eyes and rugged, sandy hair of Robert Redford, who happens to be the most naturally talented baseball player on earth. Of course, evil seeks out good and tries to snuff it out. First, the black widowish Harriet Bird seduces Hobbs and shoots him in the gut.
Once Hobbs recovers from that and starts tearing the cover off the ball for the New York Knights, evil again comes knocking in the form of Memo Paris, as luscious and blond as evil (and Kim Basinger) can be. The soothing and shining good of Iris Gaines (could it be anyone but Glenn Close?) gets Hobbs back on track, but evil tries one last crack in the form of a bribe by The Judge. With the classic score by Randy Newman sprinkling magic on the scene, Hobbs triumphs over evil by hitting that firecracker home run and winning the Knights the pennant.
One reason I held that movie in such high regard was my love for baseball. I had the same fantasyland fascination with the Milwaukee Brewers as I did with “The Natural.” Just as my wide eyes glossed over any cheesiness in the movie, they also were blind to anything but pure joy at Milwaukee County Stadium.
Nobody knows exactly when they grew up, but for me a pivotal moment came outside County Stadium on July 31, 1996 the summer before my senior year of college. The Brewers were firmly drenched in what optimistically would be called mediocrity at that point, but after some tailgate festivities my friends and I were still pumped up about seeing if Greg Vaughn could hit his 32nd home run of the year that night.
That’s when it came across the radio that Vaughn had been traded to the San Diego Padres because he would be a free agent at the end of the year and the small-market Brewers knew they could not afford him. After the 1994 strike, I had become highly skeptical of the game. This trade about did it. What was the point of even going in the stadium anymore?
The 1998 tater duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought many fans back, but not me. That didn’t do anything to solve the competitive disadvantage of small-market teams. On July 30, 1990, when I sat at County Stadium and watched Nolan Ryan get his 300th career win, it seemed I was the only one in the park cheering for the Brewers. I didn’t care about milestones, I cared about what’s best for the Brewers. The better a Brewer does, the less likely that player is to remain a Brewer due to free agency.
That’s hard to get excited about, particularly at more than $4 a beer.
Shortly after that home run duel, I read Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural.” The movie is based upon Malamud’s book in which Hobbs has exquisite talent, but is a much more shallow character with lust for women and money. There is no firecracker home run for this Hobbs. This ruined character strikes out. Black-and-white cheesiness is replaced by the grey and sometimes dark reality of being human.
Then along came the steroids scandal. Turns out the leaguewide power surge that brought fans back to the game was fueled allegedly by steroids. While players are now tested for steroids, baseball is so ruled by greed and an absurd, boyish locker room code that there has been no widespread acknowledgement of and apology for steroid use.
That mess will have its crowning moment this summer when Barry Bonds, front and center in the scandal, breaks the career home run record that Hank Aaron set by overcoming racially fueled death threats. It will be an ugly moment, a moment Major League Baseball fully deserves.
I still watch “The Natural” from time to time, still get misty-eyed when Hobbs strikes down evil with his bat “Wonderboy.” And the Brewers are, at least for now, in first place.
But who got it right, Malamud or the movie? Malamud, hands down.
Jeff Helminiak is the sports editor at the Clarion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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