Sports are entertainment featuring athletic achievement, but too often they’re treated as a precious gemstone requiring constant polishing from sanctimonious sportswriters, an unremarkable commodity for owners, or both. The notion that the sport should be fun isn’t unimportant, but it does fall through the cracks. Chapman and Maclain Way’s documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a potent reminder that sports can be fun and freewheeling while remaining respectable and financially successful. The film provides not only a series of enjoyable anecdotes, but also a celebration of playing for the love of the game.
Actor Bing Russell grew up loving baseball, and in 1973, the Bonanza star got his chance to own a team when a vacancy opened up in Portland after the hometown Beavers were shuffled out of the city by organized baseball. While there used to be plenty of independent baseball teams, they had all disappeared as the farm system expanded and became the new model for non-professional teams. Russell built the independent Portland Mavericks through open tryouts and canny acquisitions of players that Major League Baseball had thrown out for not adhering to the rules of the old boys club. Although the people of Portland were initially skeptical, Russell’s understanding of the game led to wins, his knack for showmanship led to fun, and the team became a huge hit. However, Russell upsetting the status quo led to an inevitable showdown with organized baseball.
Along with plenty of archival footage both from Bing Russell’s acting career and Portland’s local coverage of the games, The Ways also put together a good assortment of talking heads including batboy (and future In the Bedroom and Little Children director) Todd Field, players Jim Bouton, Jim “Swannie” Swanson, general manager Carren Woods, manager Frank “The Flake” Peters, Portland sportswriters, and the team’s vice president and designated hitter, Kurt Russell. It would have been easy to lean on the famous actor since he’s the most recognizable face in the cast, but the Ways use him as much as they use anyone else. The importance is always on who can provide the best possible insight into the Mavericks’ story. So, for example, the sportswriters can say how the team related to the community and Russell can speak on behalf of his father, who passed away in 2003. The emphasis is on telling the story in the most effective manner, and the directors manage a good balance of moving through the chronology and highlighting the team’s personality.
Learning about the Portland Mavericks illuminates the timidity of professional baseball. I love baseball, and I don’t have anything against the dignity, serenity, and skill of the game, and Battered Bastards makes Russell’s love of the sport abundantly clear. He never set out to make a mockery of it, but that didn’t prevent him from embracing his colorful cast of characters and providing extravagant gimmicks. When Red Sox players refused to shave their beards during their playoff run last year, it was considered a big deal. For the Mavericks, players with unkempt facial hair were regular fixtures of the team. When organized baseball wants to shake things up, they’ll wear throwback uniforms. The Mavericks didn’t have throwbacks. They had brooms they lit on fire to celebrate sweeping the opposing team.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball honors the game not through lofty proclamations or retelling of spectacular feats. The team played to their strengths—speed and daring—instead of swinging for the fences. They played not because it was a stepping-stone to a big payday. They played because they, like Bing Russell, loved the game for the game. By writing a love letter to baseball without purple prose, the Ways have created a damn fine sports documentary that shows the Independent League as more than a bunch of outsiders. The independence of the Portland Mavericks meant freedom to have fun. As one hopeful told a reporter during open tryouts, “I don’t care about the money. I just want to play ball.”
Click here for all of our Sundance 2014 coverage, and click on the corresponding links for my reviews:
- The Babadook
- Blue Ruin
- Cold in July
- God’s Pocket
- The Guest
- Ivory Tower
- Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
- Love Is Strange
- The Raid 2
- Young Ones
And click on the corresponding links for Adam’s reviews: