It”s been more than 20 years since Ron Shelton wrote and directed “Bull Durham,” the definitive movie about minor league baseball and perhaps the definitive movie about baseball, period. And at least once a year at the start of baseball season, I put that movie on (first on VHS, then on DVD, and perhaps one day via the chip in my brain) to relive moments like veteran catcher Crash Davis teaching wild pitcher Nuke LaLoosh the words to “Try a Little Tenderness,” or manager Joe Riggins tearing into his team for being a bunch of lollygaggers.
So when ESPN first announced some of the directors signed to participate in the “30 for 30” documentary series, there was no movie I was looking forward to than Ron Shelton”s “Jordan Rides the Bus,” about Michael Jordan”s surprising decision during his first retirement from the NBA to play minor league baseball. Here was a perfect match of filmmaker and subject: the man who created an indelible portrait of life in the minors chronicling the brief career of the most famous minor leaguer ever.
“30 for 30” has aired irregularly for most of this year, with films popping up at random intervals in random timeslots. But the series is about to settle into a consistent Tuesday at 8 p.m. schedule from tonight through most of the fall, and “Jordan Rides the Bus” is the first one up.
And unfortunately, the film doesn”t live up to my expectations.
It”s not necessarily that it”s bad. One of the great things about the “30 for 30” series is that each filmmaker has chosen a story so innately compelling that the movies tend to work even if the execution isn”t that spectacular. (Jimmy the Greek”s life, for instance, was so interesting that the film about it was able to overcome the director”s misguided decision to have it narrated by an actor playing a ghostly version of the Greek.) The idea that the greatest basketball player of his era (who would, not long after returning from baseball, establish himself as the greatest ever) would retire in his prime was shocking enough, even if people understood that Jordan was struggling with the murder of his father. But that this aerial artist would then decide at the age of 31 that he wanted to play baseball – a sport he hadn”t played in an organized fashion since high school – professionally? That just sounded crazy.
So the story – including subplots like the enduring conspiracy theory (which the film tries to debunk) that Jordan”s retirement was actually a top-secret suspension related to his gambling – is strong enough to carry even the most generic treatment.
And in part because Jordan declined to be interviewed for the film, generic is about what Shelton provides.
Jordan was always famously competitive, but perhaps none of us realized quite how competitive until his infamous Hall of Fame induction speech last year, in which he rattled off a list of all the people who had ever wronged him – stopping just short of the obstetrician who gave him an innie instead of an outie when he tied the umbilical cord. And the story of that guy – the one who remembered every slight and accepted nothing but the best from himself at all times – trying to adapt to a sport where he was way too old and underqualified to be a rookie could have been riveting. But Jordan doesn”t explain himself except in old soundbytes, and while his minor league coaches talks about the amount of effort Jordan put in towards improving his awful hitting (he ultimately became at least mediocre), neither they nor his ex-teammates really gives a sense of what it was like to have this guy in their midst, and trying something he wasn”t anywhere near the best in the world at.
And Shelton doesn”t really put much of an authorial stamp on things. He collects all the appropriate old footage and links things together from James Jordan”s death all the way through the baseball players strike that would pave the way for Jordan”s return to basketball, but the film feels impersonal. You would never know it was directed by the man who made “Bull Durham” if you didn”t recognize Shelton”s name in the credits, whereas the best films of this series have felt like passion projects that only these specific directors could have made in the way that they did.
If you don”t clearly remember that strange period in the career of one of the most-chronicled athletes of our lifetime, there”s definite value in revisiting it with “Jordan Rides the Bus.” But just as Jordan was never able to fulfill his late father”s dream for him of becoming a baseball star, the movie doesn”t meet the (perhaps impossible) hopes I had for it.
Fortunately, there are many more “30 for 30” films to come over the next few weeks. (Here’s the schedule.) This one didn’t work for me, but I expect lots of others to.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org