Film Nerd 2.0 finds the heartbreak at the center of the original ‘Bad News Bears

05.18.15 2 years ago

Paramount Home Video

Toshi tends to start a movie night with a sort of weird meditative state he goes into while standing in front of the bookcase full of his Blu-rays. He can stand there for a half-hour reading titles and asking me questions, and it always entertains me to hear him slowly circle in on the thing he wants to see.

Just because there have been some R-rated titles in the mix recently doesn't mean it's become a free-for-all, and there are plenty of things Toshi would like to watch that I still believe he's not ready to see, leading to some tense negotiations. What I find most interesting about those negotiations is how vividly I remember holding them from the other end of the equation. When I wanted to see a film as a kid, if my parents had any problem with it, I would turn into Clarence Darrow. I would bring in evidence to back up my claims, and I'd make emotional pleas, and I'd do my best to convince my parents I only wanted to go because they would enjoy the film. Whatever it took, I'd try. It worked best with my grandmothers, but every now and then I'd just wear my parents down until they finally let me see whatever it was I was obsessed with.

Sometimes, though, Toshi simply seizes on a title, and he will quiz me and watch my reaction to decide if he wants to see something. Early on Saturday, he was browsing my Netflix queue and he stopped on a film I'd mentioned a few times to him several years ago.

“Daddy, would we like 'The Bad News Bears'?”

I looked over to make sure he had the 1976 film on the screen and not the remake. “I don't know.”

“Do you like 'The Bad News Bears'?”

“I do. Very much.”

He continued searching the queue and the shelves, but when we finalized our plan for the evening, he announced that he wanted to see “the baseball movie.” I was excited to show it to them, but I'll admit some hesitance before the screening. Not because of the content (although we'll talk about that in a moment), but because of Toshi's relationship to baseball, and the way that relationship changed in the last year.

Our attitude towards sports in our family is simple: there is great value, both physical and emotional, that comes from playing sports, but we're not hyper-focused on winning, and I'm not willing to endanger the kids in any significant way. No football for them. Nothing that involves taking shots to the head. We tried a few things before settling on a rotating schedule of basketball and baseball for Toshi. We found a couple of different basketball options, but nothing we loved. With baseball, though, we got lucky. We found an amazing league that was about fifteen minutes from our house. Toshi started in T-ball, but quickly worked his way up to actual baseball, and we signed him up for both the spring league and the fall league.

What I found most exciting about watching him play was seeing how he progressed as a player, how he began to think about what he was doing, how his skills became stronger every season. As he started to recognize his own progress, it was a pretty tremendous source of confidence for him in general. Toshi's got my genes, and we tend towards the egg shaped end of the spectrum, so one of the things that's most important about him being athletic is making sure that he gains control over his metabolism early in his life. As long as he was active and having fun, we were excited to watch him play. When I took him to see “42,” the film about Jackie Robinson, he sort of lost his mind for it. He started stealing bases, he got more aggressive about his playing style in the field, and he talked about “Jackie” frequently. As he got taller and stronger, he started tearing the cover off the ball when he got a hit, and the frequency of the hitting went way up.

For the last two seasons, though, Toshi has refused to play. He made the decision between seasons, and he was never difficult about it. He just informed us that he wasn't going to play any more. He offered to try soccer instead, but we're still trying to find a program he likes. It's been tough, because so much of our year was built around Sunrise Little League, and we had grown fond of the families we met through the program. Toshi's first coach had stayed a constant presence in our experience, always checking in and getting excited as his players made progress. We volunteered for various jobs, and we looked forward to the opening day festivities every season. Even so, we were careful not to put pressure on Toshi to play for our sake. I had a few conversations with him about why he stopped, but he could never really explain.

I wondered how he would respond to the film, and I was curious about how the style of the filmmaking would work for both of the boys. I love Michael Ritchie's film because it such a rough-hewn thing, very much a product of 1976. When I think of my childhood, it looks like “The Bad News Bears.” When I think of my own time in Little League, it feels like it was pure chaos, nothing like the smooth and professional experience that Toshi had. When I saw “The Bad News Bears,” it was at a drive-in, and I was eight years old. I was one of those kids. I fell in love with Tatum O'Neal at the drive-in that night, since the second film on the double-bill was “Paper Moon.” She and Jodie Foster were my '70s crushes, the “older ladies” I aspired to. It cracks me up looking at “The Bad News Bears” now because O'Neal is playing 11. She seemed grown-up to me when I saw the movie, though, and Walter Matthau as Buttermaker looked like he was 1000 years old.

Watching the film now with my kids, it's a completely different movie, of course, and I think Michael Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster deserve credit for what is a genuinely impressive and emotionally complex movie that has kids in it, but that I would never describe as a “kids movie.” It's much more than that, and it may actually feel more transgressive now than it did when it was made. So often, you hear people say “you can't do that now,” but it's true when you look at how they define Buttermaker in the film. He is a raging alcoholic. He drives drunk with kids in his car. He swears incessantly. He is allergic to responsibility. He makes the kids work for him during practice times. And when he talks Amanda (O'Neal) into pitching for the team, he doesn't care at all what might happen to her as a result.

The boys laughed at a lot of the film, but Toshi grew quieter as the film played. For Allen, all it took was Tanner (Chris Barnes) calling someone a “booger-eating moron” and he was all aboard. He laughed at the baseball errors, he cheered for every terrible thing Tanner said, and he told me Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) was “awesome.” When Buttermaker had his big breakdown and tells Amanda that he doesn't want to see her between seasons, Toshi moved from the chair where he was sitting to the couch next to me. He was still quiet, but he looked upset by it.

There's a moment in the film where Buttermaker hands out athletic supporters for the kids, and Miguel (George Gonzales) says something in Spanish as he hands it right back. Ogilvie (Alfred Lutter III) translates it for Buttermaker. “He says he can't wear it because he's Catholic.” Toshi stood up and shook his head, angry. “That's not what he said, stupid. He said it hurts. And it does.” He marched off to take a bathroom break, still shaking his head. I started laughing at the idea that the movie mistranslated Miguel's line in such a particular way, wondering if that was an intentional joke or not.

The final stretch of the film, the boys had radically different reactions. Allen thought it played largely as comedy, and he was confused when the Bears did not win the big game at the end. He thought that's how movies worked, and he had a hard time processing the loss. For Toshi, though, the entire last stretch seemed to sort of upset him. He watched it with his arms crossed, scowling a bit. In particular, the moment when Roy Turner (Vic Morrow) slaps his kid and knocks him down had him shifting and uncomfortable. And when Joey Turner (Brandon Cruz) completely defies his father and allows Engelberg (Gary Lee Cavagnaro) to score a home run, Toshi lit up. He looked genuinely emotional about it.

After the film, it was time for showers, and I sent Allen to take his first. I asked Toshi if there was anything he wanted to talk about after seeing the film. “No, I'm okay,” he said.

“Would you mind if I asked you about something that the movie made me think of, Toshi?”

“Okay.” The look he gave me didn't sound quite as sure about it, though.

“Why don't you play baseball anymore?”

He didn't answer me at first. He looked anywhere but at me for a moment, before he sighed and spoke so quietly that I almost couldn't hear him. “Coach Tom was a dick.”

This was something I'd suspected, but Toshi had never actually confirmed it. I gave him a moment,  afraid that if I pushed him, he might clam up again.

“He only cared about his kid. He was really mean sometimes. And he got so mad if we didn't win.”

He thought about it again. And he spoke even more quietly.

“It wasn't fun.”

I had to help Allen out of the shower, and then it was Toshi's turn, and then we hung out and played for a while, and then finally Allen went to bed I read to them once it's lights out, and Allen never lasts long. He fell asleep quickly, but Toshi was wide awake on the bottom bunk.

I went back to “The Bad News Bears,” and specifically, his comment about how it wasn't fun anymore. He talked about how much of his last coach he saw in Morrow's character, and how he might be willing to try baseball again sometime, but how he wouldn't want to ever be coached by that particular guy again. He made it clear that he never felt pressure from us about winning, but that he always felt great when he won because of how we cheered him on. We had one of our best talks ever, and one of the things that struck me is that he's starting to display some real maturity in the way he thinks about things. He talked about Buttermaker's decision at the end of the film after watching Turner hit his kid and how much he liked him as a result. “But he made Amanda really sad,” he said. “He stopped going to see her.”

“That's right. That hurt her feelings, didn't it?”

“Why did he stop going to see her?”

The movie doesn't explain the end of that relationship, but it's clear that Buttermaker and Amanda's mother just didn't work as a couple. Buttermaker's alcoholism is played honestly enough in the film that you can infer that he's not built for relationships. But looking at Toshi laying there in this new bed in this new house that the three of us are still learning to live in, it didn't look to me like he was upset about Amanda and Buttermaker as much as he was upset about the idea of someone who just stops showing up.

“I don't know, buddy. Because I would never do that.”

He fell asleep curled up against me for the first time in a while.

He's ten in a few months, tall for his age, and I am starting to see signs of the man he will be in him. But Saturday night, I felt like I saw my little boy very clearly, and like I said goodbye to the person he was, a process that will continue in stages for the rest of our lives.

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