Friday, February 4, 2011

Baseball Movies Worth Watching

One of the best gifts I've ever received is Netflix, the streaming version of Netflix.  A couple years ago, while I was away studying journalism in Ohio, Lorri bought me a blue-ray player with an internet access point.  We added the LAN device a few months later and voila, I was off to the races. As a movie lover-most movies of most genres with notable exception of horror I love-this was a huge boon.  Netflix streams about 15,000 movies from its collection, a number that continues to increase.  However, it is limited by contractual agreements with the various studios and distributors, so there are lots of flicks I can't get.  Even so it has had two very positive values for me: 1) I was a regular purchaser of movies.  Now I don't do that so much.  I'm not saying I never buy a movie, but now it's maybe six or seven a year instead of 50.  2) I'm exposed to many more movies. I probably watch four or five movies on Netflix per week (less during baseball season.) I've watched foreign films, documentaries, classics, and movies I would never have seen as well as those I missed in the theaters.  Highly recommended.

With the Mariners off-season action over, and spring training still a ways off, I've contented myself with watching some baseball movies on Netflix.  A couple I've streamed, a couple were only available on DVD.  These are very documentaryish, so not your basic TheNaturalFieldofDreamsFortheLoveoftheGame meets MajorLeagueII movies.

First on my list is The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.  This is probably the best known of the four movies I'll share.  It examines the life of the great Detroit slugger.  It's made in a documentary style biography, but it is also social history.  As the first towering Jewish baseball figure, the movie examines the effect of Greenberg's success on the Jewish Americans, particularly as the country entered the war years.  It also portrays the centrality of his religion on Greenberg's life.  Director Aviva Kempner did a fabulous job of producing the the movie in the Ken Burns style, including wonderful footage and mixing it with talking heads that knew Greenberg or were affected by him.  It is a super movie and not to be missed.  Available as streaming or on disc through Netlfix or on line at watchfreemoviesonline .  Five stars

Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey is one of those quirky movies about a baseball original, Bill "Spaceman" Lee. Lee made headlines this summer when he became the oldest player, at 63, to pitch in a professional game, winning with the Brockton Rox on September 10, 2010.  The movie depicts Lee's life, not only as a major leaguer  with Boston and Montreal, but is told very much through his eyes  as he took a group of semi-pro players on a barnstorming trip to Cuba in 2003. Lee's effort on the ballfield at age 57 reveals his competitive spirit and his interaction with the Cuban fans show his humanity.  Lee is very much as you'd imagine: smart, principled, iconoclastic, cynical and funny.  It's an interesting story of a man who truly loves the game, even if the owners didn't necessarily love him back.  Available through Netflix on disc only.  Four stars.
Bill Lee walks off the field after pitching the Brockton Rox to victory

A Player to Be Named Later is a great little movie about the 2004 season with the AAA Indianapolis Indians. It's an interesting look at the kinds of players one finds on such teams.  The most recognizable name is Marco Scutaro, who was a young Venezuelan with his stock very much on the rise, clearly the star of the team.  There were also the borderline major league players who could fill a role but couldn't stick with the parent Brewers.  Micah Franklin was an older player who was hanging on to the game, hoping to provide some power to the big club late in the season.  Kyle Peterson was a young pitcher trying to recover from major shoulder surgery.  The movie does a super job of looking at the strain of a long season, a losing season, and reveals the basic courage and humanity of players and their families as they struggle to achieve their dreams in baseball, a very difficult dream to achieve.  Available on Netflix streaming and disc.  Four stars.

Richie Ashburn:  A Baseball Life is a biopic made by the Phillies on the life of the great centerfielder and longtime baseball analyst.  The movie does a great job of reviewing Ashburn's life and career.  Narrated by Ashburn's partner, the late Harry Kalas in 2008, following Ashburn's death in 1997, it was clearly made for a Phillies fan following to honor the loss of the guy they invited into their homes 162 days a year.  I get that, having just loss Dave Niehaus.  For me the movie at 1 hr 35 minutes was about 30 minutes too long.  There is some good stuff here, but just a little too homerish for my taste.  Again, if you are lifetime Phillies fan, I can see the draw. Available through Netflix on disc only.  Three stars.

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