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Say It Ain’t So, Jose

The remarkable pertinence of two pre-steroid-era classics: Bull Durham and Eight Men Out.

The indelible memory of the 1988 baseball season will always be the storybook home run hit by limping Dodgers pinch hitter Kirk Gibson to win the opening game of that October’s World Series. It’s a moment that ranks among the greatest in baseball history. For very different reasons, fans are also unlikely to forget the muscle-bound Oakland A’s right fielder who watched the ball sail over his head into the Dodger Stadium bleachers. Jose Canseco hit .307 with 42 home runs and 142 RBIs that season, good enough to win the American League MVP award. In his eponymous report, Sen. George Mitchell unsurprisingly identified 1988 as the first marred by “public speculation” about a player’s use of steroids.

With regard to baseball movies, though, 1988 has a far less ambiguous legacy. Two of the best ever made—Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham and John Sayles’ Eight Men Out—were released that year, and both films have just been rereleased on DVD in 20th-anniversary editions. Neither Shelton nor Sayles could have anticipated that baseball was on the cusp of a new era. Yet watching both movies today, it’s hard to ignore how strikingly they foreshadow, and illuminate, the protracted crisis that was about to hit the sport.

Eight Men Out offers the more obvious parallels. The film depicts baseball’s seminal scandal, the true story of how eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the 1919 World Series. Sayles’ stellar ensemble cast—including John Cusack, David Strathairn, and Charlie Sheen, among others—all make for more than credible ballplayers. It’s a testament to the quality of the actors, but also to the fact that in 1919—indeed, as recently as 20 years ago—most professional baseball players did not resemble someone minding the door of a Las Vegas nightclub.

Sayles meticulously reconstructs Jazz Age Chicago, a milieu in which gamblers and ballplayers freely associated. Together with the relentlessly tightfisted tactics of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, it was a moment ripe for a fix. Sayles takes great care to render the players’ various motives, many sympathetic, for participating in the conspiracy. Eddie Cicotte hoped to use the money to send his two daughters to private school; Shoeless Joe Jackson was an illiterate Southerner, desperate to fit in. Buck Weaver’s .324 batting average and flawless fielding in the series suggest he in fact played to win.

In the wake of the scandal, though, no one but the players is inclined to acknowledge degrees of culpability among them. The eight are indicted and tried as a group, and though acquitted of criminal wrongdoing, they are issued identical lifetime bans by the newly appointed commissioner of baseball. Sayles knows, if “the Black Sox” did not, that they would never shake off the ignominious nickname they were given by the press. Nearly a hundred years later, it is still how they are collectively remembered. Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte, two steroid-implicated players big enough to admit they did wrong, may yet one day reappear as sympathetic characters in a millennium-era baseball movie. The fate of the Black Sox, however, suggests their careers will be defined not by their statistics or regret, but by what they share in common with the other players named in the Mitchell Report.

The year 1919, like 1988, was a transitional moment for baseball. It was the end of the dead-ball era, and the last days of the legal spitball. Eight Men Out captures this air of change in a scene between veteran pitcher Eddie Cicotte (Strathairn) and legendary sportswriter Ring Lardner (played by Sayles himself). Lardner tosses Cicotte a “ball they’re thinking of using next year. It’s wound tighter.” Between the new balls—and the new bans on tampering with them—Lardner warns him that “things will be tough for pitchers.” Cicotte shrugs and tosses the ball back. “Things are always tough for pitchers,” he replies. If only they knew what lay ahead.

Though it’s ostensibly set in the late-’80s, Bull Durham today feels nearly as much of a period piece as Eight Men Out. This is not to say the movie hasn’t aged well—it has. It feels evocative of a bygone era because it’s impossible, after the last 20 years of baseball history, to consider the film’s central theme without thinking of steroids.

Bull Durham isn’t as baldly sentimental as Field of Dreams or The Natural, two other standout baseball movies released during the genre’s mid- to late-1980s heyday. But the minor league ballplayers at the heart of the movie are beloved baseball archetypes, as familiar today as at any point in the game’s history. To borrow Shelton’s shorthand, pitching prospect “Nuke” LaLoosh (a baby-faced Tim Robbins) is the rookie “with a million dollar arm and a five cent head,” while journeyman catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is “the player to be named later.” In exchange for helping Nuke reach the next rung of the minors, Crash is given the chance to keep getting paid to play baseball. By this point in his long career, Crash estimates that “all my limbs put together are worth seven cents a pound,” but the revelation that he once had a brief stint in the majors leaves his younger teammates awed. Toward the end of the film, Crash becomes the all-time career leader for minor league home runs, a bittersweet record if there ever was one.

Crash knows from experience that the only thing harder than making it to “the show” is staying there. Talent is of course the most important element of success, but as Crash and baseball muse Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) try to drum into Nuke’s head, it’s hardly the only one. Nuke won’t reach the majors on the strength of having memorized bland platitudes to feed reporters, or by wearing fungus-free shower shoes, but lesser failings have proven the difference between the proverbial cup of coffee and a big league career.

Baseball has always been a game of inches, as Crash’s sermon on the capriciousness of hitting .300 lays bare:

Of course, as we’ve learned since Bull Durham was released, a bit more brute strength—enough to add a few more feet to a few warning-track fly outs—can’t hurt your chances either.

According to the Mitchell Report, when baseball first tested minor league players for steroids in 2001, 9 percent of the tests came back positive. Some of those players surely made it to the majors, where they encountered veteran teammates as desperate to hold onto a roster spot as the AAA guys were to seize one. Retired Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville recently wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times about “the moment when a player is faced with the choice between aging naturally or aging artificially.” Glanville points to the brevity of most major league careers, combined with the relentless pressure from younger competition, to explain the temptation of steroids to veterans desperate to mitigate the physical toll of another long baseball season. Given his own career trajectory, Crash would have related to both camps: those on the verge of making it, and those trying to hang on for one more year.

It’s hard to imagine Crash Davis, so testily protective of the game, resorting to steroids. But it’s even harder to imagine a player in the steroid era hitting 247 home runs in the minors and never wondering what else he might do to get himself over the hump. In one of Bull Durham’s most memorable scenes, Crash delivers an impassioned creed advocating, among other things, a constitutional amendment to outlaw AstroTurf and the designated hitter. A condemnation of steroids would seem a logical third tenet, but the topic doesn’t come up, in his speech or anywhere else in the movie.

Had Shelton written the screenplay just a few years later, the omission might have been glaring. Instead, its absence feels refreshing, a reminder that it wasn’t always normal for fans to harbor suspicions about who might have taken a shortcut on their way to the bigs. Sadly, the question that hangs over the waning days of the Steroid Era—What would have transpired in the last 20 years of baseball, if not for steroids?—will remain as unanswerable as how Shoeless Joe Jackson would have hit in the first year of the live-ball era.