Don’t Hate the Player

Bull Durham (1988)

Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in BULL DURHAM | Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

According to adolescent diction of the day, before modern technological and etymological advances like “dick pics” or “sliding into DMs,” the four corners of a baseball diamond came to represent a sliding scale of sexual promiscuity. The particulars of the acts might vary according to gender, generation, and general knowledge, but the goal is always the same: to round third, and get the go ahead home. 

Despite easily lending itself to innuendo, baseball is not a sexy sport. The games are long and boring, and indiscriminately so. The requisite nine innings—more if teams are tied at the end—take as long as they take. The uniforms are baggy; the dudes, beefy; and the culinary offerings, while pleasantly nostalgic (and also beefy), leave something to be desired. Throughout cinematic history, men in the throes have been known to conjure visions of America’s pastime to delay gratification or avoid arousal entirely (“Baseball, cold showers, baseball, cold showers,” recites Austin Powers as he dodges the fembots’ bulleted breasts). Still, somehow, writer/director Ron Shelton brings the lesser-known BDE—“Bull Durham Energy”—to the genre by trapping a smart, seductive, and sexy as hell romantic comedy in the body of a baseball movie. Aforementioned hot dogs and warm beer aside, the 1988 classic is refreshingly democratic in appeal. Serving up a glistening, garter belt-adorned Tim Robbins and boxer-clad, hot iron-wielding Kevin Costner alongside sultry Susan Sarandon and wonky baseball references, the film makes me wonder just exactly who is trapping whom. 

Bull Durham tells the story of Durham, North Carolina’s minor league team (the titular Bulls) and its number one fan: Annie Savoy (Sarandon), a part-time junior college teacher and full-time baseball enthusiast. She follows the team and sport religiously, even calling her devotion “the Church of Baseball.” Seated just behind the home team’s dugout, she brandishes a radar gun, pencils in box scores and player stats, and enlists the help of a batboy to slip insightful observations to struggling players. Her knowledge of the game is well demonstrated in the film and well known throughout the Carolina league, but baseball isn’t the only sport she’s mastered. 

Annie, a woman who enjoys gameplay on and off the field, legendarily hooks up with one Bull each season, and her showing interest is a mark of his skills in both arenas. “There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career,” she says. “Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250, not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle.” Predacious implications aside, her way of operating is essentially that of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused: she keeps getting older, and these guys stay the same age. A sex-positive femme fatale with honorable intentions, Annie opts to build up rather than destroy the men she ensnares. “I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty.” She wants them to perform well and links their success to hers, while also acknowledging the one-sidedness of these short-lived April-October romances: “‘Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball.” 

Susan Sarandon in BULL DURHAM | Orion Pictures

This year’s most promising prospects are the talented, undisciplined pitcher, Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Robbins), and the veteran catcher brought in to prepare the rookie for a career in the big leagues, Crash Davis (Costner). Ebby Calvin (later nicknamed “Nuke”) and Crash are presented as obvious antagonists with Annie framed between them, though tensions run deeper than who gets the girl. The threesome meets cute at a local dive where the men tussle over a dance with Annie before taking the fight outside. Recognizing his new teammate and a teachable moment, Crash challenges Nuke to fire a ball at his chest from point blank range, and delivers lesson number one to his uninitiated pitcher, “Don’t think. It can only hurt the ballclub.” Annie jumps on the display of macho male bonding to invite both new recruits to her place for what she playfully characterizes as her own version of spring training. When Crash protests his and Nuke’s lack of agency in the matter, Annie explains her definitive theory, “Well, actually, nobody on this planet ever really chooses each other. I mean, it’s all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing. Why, there are laws we don’t understand that bring us together and tear us apart.”

Over the course of the film, Annie and Crash are brought together on four separate occasions and torn apart each time as power and sexual dynamics shift between them. The first occurs during this “tryout” at her house, wherein, right off the bat, she lets Crash know this isn’t a love story, “Look, all’s I want is a date,” she tells him, “I’m not going to fall in love with you or nothing.” Who among us hasn’t expressed something similarly noncommittal in the early stages of a relationship? In Annie’s world, baseball is the romantic, soulful abstraction; meanwhile, she’s got sex and love and attraction down to a science. For its part, Bull Durham presents a classic love triangle where presumably two oppositional forces will vie for the affections of a woman. It caters to those expectations and then, quite suddenly, subverts them by having Crash remove himself from contention, giving him the upper hand and Nuke the girl by default.

On his way out the door, Crash gives the first of many poetic speeches that leave the normally loquacious Annie at a loss for words and levels the playing field. While he exercises agency in his personal life, professionally, he is at the mercy of a higher power. Having been brought to Durham not purely on his own merits, but rather to mature a kid thought capable of going all the way, Crash is also on the losing side of a bad trade, frustrated and wondering, “Where can I go?” His new manager tells him, “You can keep going to the ballpark, and keep getting paid to do it.” The response isn’t inspiring, but it’s enough for now. In this way, both Crash and Annie find themselves stuck, passed from team to team or guy to guy. They are getting too old for this shit but can’t help coming back, season after season, year after year. The game, like religion for others, is the one constant in their lives. Its routine and repetition bring certainty to an uncertain world. 

A new crop of players arrives in Durham each season, though no one stays for long. The really talented ones are called up to the majors, and those less so must decide between making a go of it somewhere else, becoming a coach as those who often can’t do, or abandoning the sport altogether. Playing in the minor leagues is temporary by its very nature, and such an arrangement suits Annie just fine. With these young men, she avoids commitment and complications, and maintains some semblance of control. She’s drawn to surface-level connections that let her keep the players—and her feelings—at safe distance. And without the promise or expectation of a future, these relationships predictably play out the same way each season. That is, until Crash throws Annie off her game. 

Bull Durham (1988) | Orion Pictures

Going head-to-head in the batting cage during their second meeting, he digs in while illuminating the more self-preservational aspect of her noncommittal relationships, “The fact is you’re afraid of meeting a guy like me, ‘cause it might be real so you sabotage it with some, what is it, bullshit about commitment to a young boy you can boss around.” They want each other—something deeper—but are scared to admit it, especially to one another, and least of all to themselves. For they know such emotional imbalances are already at play in their lives. In baseball, they love something more than it could ever love them, and neither dares expose the same vulnerabilities in their personal life.

Baseball, like love or religion, requires a leap of faith, which means accepting any good outcome the same as a bad one: as something that was meant to be. By reframing fandom as tried and true romance, showing characters committing under the best and worst circumstances, Bull Durham raises different stakes than both traditional sports movies and traditional romantic comedies. Formally, the film toys with the notion of narrative and emotional foreplay, drawing the audience in by promising one thing and delivering another. Locker room talk is traded for poetry readings. A high-stakes pennant race is replaced by low-stakes lust objects. We’re meant to want Annie and Crash to come together. Even though (or perhaps because) Sarandon and Robbins famously became a real-life couple during filming, this other relationship is the underdog we’re rooting for. Bull Durham teases this tempting prospect, plays with our desires, and then rechannels that energy into sport with the well-matched pros successively daring the other to make a move. 

Crash and Annie denying themselves this thing they really want—while in pursuit of something else entirely—aligns with the film’s religious overtones and allows them each the moral high ground. As does Annie’s effort to instill self-control and restraint in her star student. During their courtship, she suggests Nuke abstain from sex and focus on rechanneling that energy into his pitching. The plan works and, much to her dismay, the Bulls are unbeatable throughout the summer months. While the montage of June and July’s win streak is a fun diversion, we’re invested in the outcome of a different game. When Annie and Crash meet for the third time, now at his barely-furnished apartment, she admits to wanting him, not Nuke. In her loosely monogamous way, she subconsciously sabotaged her relationship with Nuke in order to devote herself to Crash. Faced with the prospect of something real, he dismisses her advances, and causes her to lose all faith in the process: “This is the damnedest season I’ve ever seen” she says. “The Durham Bulls can’t lose, and I can’t get laid!” Annie desires two things in this world, but now realizes she can’t have both at the same time. Annie has always been prepared to score while watching the Bulls lose. But now, for the first time, her fundamental beliefs no longer hold true. Her powers of seduction are failing, and her love of the game is finally reciprocated.

Bull Durham (1988) | Orion Pictures

In spite of existing at peak physical hotness, neither Crash nor Nuke, nor even Annie, is framed as the ultimate object of desire. For the boys, that unabashed chase is reserved exclusively for “The Show.” An elusive pinnacle that few ever reach, the major leagues are the quintessential thirst trap, and Crash and Nuke mustn’t take their eye off the ball. Crash rose to such heights once before, and it was everything he imagined: “Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once–the 21 greatest days of my life.” Nuke eventually gets there, as well, but he’s only shown once in that world–giving a platitude-laden postgame interview. Baseball is a sport obsessed with myth making and discovering greatness in unexpected places, but the film has no interest in players who go all the way. The primacy of Crash’s humble endings in the minor leagues, rather than Nuke’s ostentatious beginnings in the majors, makes clear the film is more focused on the hero’s journey than the destination. 

Between baseball and going to bed, the film’s two significant settings are the ballpark and Annie’s house. The guys stay and listen to her poetry readings, not because they are sweet (and not even because they are tied to the bedposts), but because they have nowhere else to go. Beyond the stadiums, Crash and Nuke are homeless studs running perpetually towards a pentagonal symbol of what they’ve left behind. In its absence, Annie’s place becomes a home away; somewhere they run to for a hot meal or a quick score. 

After Crash’s mission is successfully accomplished (Annie’s, too, for that matter) and Nuke is off in the majors, the ballclub no longer has any use for him. He turns up at her door, now ready to profess those three small words: “I got released.” She replies in turn, “I heard already.” They are, of course, speaking about baseball, but saying so much more. You can have a hold of something or let it have a hold of you, and for Crash, baseball was always going to be the latter. While he may not see it just yet, this release will usher in a welcomed sense of freedom. Deprived of a choice in the present, he’s given options for his future. He can finally stop running. Their fourth, though not final, encounter brings Crash safely home to the place he knows Annie will be when the game is over. When everyone finally gets what they want, the montage set to “Sixty-Minute Man” (“There’ll be 15 minutes of kissing / There’ll be 15 minutes of teasing / And 15 minutes of squeezing / And 15 minutes of blowing my top…”) is well worth the wait.