(Ed. Note: Due to a technical snafu, my second post of the day got eaten by the digital dog. Athenae was nice enough to let me post a “re-do” version with some updates tonight. I’ll be back at the regular slot on Friday. Thanks for your indulgence. -Doc)
On this Valentine’s Day, what did it take for you to really come to grips with how much you love the one you’re with? Was it flowers, candy or a nice dinner? Was it a touching card that hit the sweet spot of human emotion? Or was it you and your partner simultaneously sneering at the “Hallmark holiday” that you don’t need to use to justify your love to anyone?
For me, it’s all about Billy, Jane and the love of Mickey Hart.
If you’ve never seen the movie, “For Love of the Game” this is going to need some explanation. If you’ve seen it, you probably wouldn’t mind the refresher course.
Kevin Costner is Billy Chapel, a 40-year-old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who is closing out his Hall-of-Fame career with an 8-11 season and a bit of lousy news. He’s finally come to the point in life where he realizes the game is leaving him behind, not just because of his age but also because of its values. (He thinks kids buy baseball cards for the gum, that his friend Davis Birch should have stayed with the Tigers instead of taking the huge free-agent money to go to the Yankees and that clubs should be owned by nice old men instead of corporate conglomerates. Yeah, he’s a bit behind the times…)
He is headed to pitch in New York, where his on-again, off-again girlfriend of five years, Jane, lives and he is hoping to start the next chapter of his life with her. Instead, she tells him she’s moving to Europe and that she always knew he didn’t need her.
“You and the ball and the diamond, you’re perfect… You can win or lose the game all by yourself,” she tells him before heading off to the airport and sending him off to his final start at Yankee Stadium.
For the first six innings, she’s right. He’s pissed, he’s reliving their life together via flashbacks (big tool in this movie, almost to a fault) and he’s firing smoke. He’s got eight strikeouts and everything caught behind him has been pretty routine. He doesn’t need anyone.
In the seventh, an old arm injury flares up. Jane, her flight delayed at JFK, has been trying to avoid the game all day, but she catches this part of the game in the airport bar. She knows he’s not going to win now because he’s hurt and he’s stubborn and he won’t tell anyone (parallels anyone?) so she heads to the gate, where her flight is finally boarding.
Chapel makes it out of the inning somehow and retakes the mound in the eighth with a one-run lead (courtesy of catcher Gus Sinski, played brilliantly by John C. Reilly). It’s at this point Chapel looks back at the scoreboard and realizes he’s been throwing a perfect game. He asks Sinski if anyone’s been on base and the two finally have “the talk:” Yes, Billy, you’re throwing a perfect game and now that you realize it, you’ve got to work even harder not to blow it. Billy staggers off the mound dejectedly, telling Gus, “I don’t know if I have anything left.” Gus props him up with the great “We don’t stink right now” speech, which has to be among the most inspirational things ever put to film. “Just throw whatever you’ve got, whatever’s left. The boys are all here for you. We’ll back you up. We’ll be there.”
Of course, the first batter is Davis Birch and suddenly, Billy can’t find the plate. He throws three god-awful pitches and he’s one pitch away from a walk that would kill the perfect game. Birch is also a huge hitting threat, so he can’t just groove one either. Billy rares back, finds inspiration in a flashback (this time he flashes back to dad playing with him in the front yard as a kid: “Billy, you can do it. Just calm down. Throw the ball to the glove. Just play catch.”) and throws a frozen rope across the inside corner. (Several cuts of Jane at the airport heading to the gate are interspersed here.)
So he’s 3-1 to Birch and still in serious trouble. Announcer Vin Scully notes, “Well they put the handcuffs on him 3-0, but he’s such an aggressive hitter, you know they’re going to green light him 3-1.” (Side note: has there ever been a better play-by-play guy that Vin Scully? He can make something epic without screaming like an idiot. Half the play-by-play guys in baseball make a routine fly to center sound like the Invasion of Normandy. Scully’s always metered and yet engaged.)
Sure enough, Billy leaves too much of a fastball out over the plate and Birch hammers it to deep right field. It’s gone without a doubt, the music is this sad, slow piano and strings combo and to make matters worse, you’ve got Mickey Hart back there in right. The only thing Hart was ever known for was his “Canseco Catch” at Fenway where the ball hit him in the head and went over the wall. He was the guy Gus said “just could never catch a break.”
Hart is racing back, looking over each shoulder frantically, showing no sense that he’ll ever get there. Scully’s voice is covering the action “…to the track … at the wall…” And then you see it. Hart goes up, his glove just above the wall, and the ball smacks just into the webbing. He crashes to the ground holding the ball aloft. Scully: “… and LEAPS UP AND ONE-HANDS IT!”
Billy reacts with metered joy (hey, it’s Costner, he’s not going to go all “I just won the ‘Price is Right’ showcase on anyone), while Gus is screaming “YEAH! YEAH!” Birch stops half way around first and just stares at Mickey Hart with a “Jesus, if you could have played that way when I was here, I might not have left” look on his face. The Detroit manager, played by J.K. Simmons (another great casting move) is clapping and screaming from the dugout, “I love you Mickey Hart.”
Meanwhile at the airport, Jane’s practically to the gate when she hears the Yankee fans reacting to the catch with varying levels of groans and “how the hell did that happen” mutterings. She pauses and looks back at the TV, as Scully’s gleefully chattering: “He took a home run away from Davis Birch and the perfect-o is still alive!” Meanwhile, the lady at the gate is saying, “Ma’am, are you coming? I’m sorry, you’ll have to board now…” Jane freezes for a second, and then starts walking toward the TV as the ticket lady keeps calling after her, “Ma’am? Ma’am?” She reaches the group of people watching the game, drops her bag and calls back to the ticket lady:
“Give my seat to somebody else.”
The first time I watched this movie was about 10 years ago when it first came out on DVD. At the time, I didn’t have a DVD player and the movie folks were staggering DVD and VHS releases, trying to drive more buyers toward the DVD market. I was at Target, shopping with the future Missus during a weekend visit while we were dating. She had come down to visit me (we were living several states away and were very much like Billy and Jane: on-again, off-again and in that “OK how does this work” area). Buy it, she told me, you can watch it on your computer. I hemmed and hawed but she kept poking me. It’s your birthday, she said. I’m down here, and we’ll watch it together.
So we did and I bawled like a schoolgirl with a skinned knee when Mickey Hart made that catch. I still do. Two days later, I had to take the future Missus back to the train station so she could take a 9-hour trip back home. I got her set up, we said our goodbyes and yet I couldn’t watch her leave. I put her on the train and got into the car and just sat there completely broken in half. I waited until the train started to move. I waited until the last car had pulled out of sight. I waited for ten minutes after that. I didn’t want to leave.
I wanted to know if she’d given her seat to som
ebody else. She hadn’t.
I must have watched that scene 1,000 times in the next week and each time I thought of her. I had no idea what would happen next, but every time I saw that movie, it brought back that emotion and that feeling of curling up with her in a plastic office chair while watching that movie on a Blueberry iMac. I knew I needed that for the rest of my life.
She eventually moved down and when I decided to propose, I took her back to that same train station. After she said yes and put the ring on, we drove back to our local bar so she could have a drink and stop hyperventilating. After that, we went home and I watched that movie again. It’s been a symbol for me of how close you have to come to losing something before you really know you want it badly enough to do anything for it.
I return to the film from time to time when life is hard or I want to go back to that moment in time where I locked in on love. I popped it in early this morning after a beautiful Valentine’s Day celebration. It helped me remember that we’re in this together, no matter what the circumstances or how hard things get. It reminded me of the little things like buying that movie in Target or how she eats the breakfast I’ll make for her, even though I’m the world’s lousiest cook. It always helps me remember that no matter how close to perfection I try to get, that nothing is ever perfect without her.
I also smile and know that she’s a special woman who doesn’t mind sharing my love with Mickey Hart.