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Beyond 'Bull Durham,' the Minors at the movies

Hollywood has long been fascinated with life down on the farm
In "Sugar," released in 2008, Miguel Santos pitches for Class A Bridgeton, a fictional club that occupies Modern Woodmen Park. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
April 8, 2020

In the coming weeks, MiLB.com will share a selection of motion pictures, television shows, documentaries and books that spotlight the quintessential qualities of Minor League Baseball. Batting first -- the movies.There are plenty of ways to still get a baseball fix while the game is on pause during the COVID-19

In the coming weeks, MiLB.com will share a selection of motion pictures, television shows, documentaries and books that spotlight the quintessential qualities of Minor League Baseball. Batting first -- the movies.
There are plenty of ways to still get a baseball fix while the game is on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also time to watch a few movies.
Let's do both.

On the eve of what was originally scheduled to be Opening Night, the first installment includes 10 feature films spanning six decades of cinema. There are ridiculous comedies and inspiring true stories. There are appearances from Academy Award winners and some Rotten Tomatoes scores that fall short of the Mendoza Line. They run the gamut from family films to others intended for older audiences. All are accessible on various platforms for either no cost or a rental fee under five dollars.
"Bull Durham" might be the first motion picture that comes to mind when thinking of the Minor Leagues. But here are 10 more choices and we expect seasoned baseball fans to bring up at least as many more on social media.

Kill the Umpire (1950)


In this comedy, the only thing stronger than Bill Johnson's love for baseball is his hatred for umpires. When the combination of the two loses him yet another job and causes his wife to threaten to leave him, Johnson is forced to pursue one last employment opportunity to entice her to stay. The downside? That opportunity is at an umpire academy.
After learning a valuable lesson, Johnson gets a shot in the Texas League. The Minors, after all, aren't just where players hone their craft; they're home to managers, broadcasters and even umpires working their way up the ranks. Most apt about Bill's first taste of the Minors is the fervor of the Texas fans. When he makes a controversial call in a big game, the locals hatch a plan far worse than anything Bill tried during his own umpire-hating days. It's a caricature of the many passionate communities on the MiLB landscape.

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)


When Negro League owners become too pompous for star pitcher Bingo Long, Richard Pryor's character decides to do something about it. He and Leon Carter, played by James Earl Jones, walk out on their teams to start a new one: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. They recruit a talented lineup, acquire some vibrant uniforms and travel around in two cars and a motorcycle, facing off with local and Minor League clubs. It's a blast. It's lucrative. But it starts to fall apart when the Negro League owners sabotage the team in more ways than one.
There are a lot of reasons to like baseball, but isn't entertainment at the core of most of them? Bingo and company harnessed entertainment on another level. They made throws through their legs. They donned a gorilla suit. They used fireworks. And they made it look easy. Every Minor League season, creativity like the Motor Kings' is displayed both on and off the field. That's part of what we're missing right now and what will mean so much when the Minors resume play.

Long Gone (1987)


Cecil "Stud" Cantrell lost his shot in the Majors due to an injury sustained in World War II. Now he shuffles through women and drinks at a rapid pace as the staff ace and manager of the Tampico Stogies, a struggling Minor League team in Florida. With two new players Cantrell convinced the team's corrupt owners to sign, the Stogies go on a lengthy winning streak during the 1957 season. Cantrell's habits change as well. He starts going steady with Dixie Lee Boxx, who was supposed to be just a one-night stand. But as their relationship blossoms along with the Stogies' chances at a pennant, Cantrell receives a tempting offer that might cost him both.
The weight of Cantrell's decision -- and the reaction of his roster once he makes it -- speaks to the influence so many coaches and managers have on players' paths through the Minors. They're often the ones to tell a player about his first call to The Show. Sometimes they're the ones who offer the advice that turns around a player's career. Cantrell's might have made contributions on the field, but his influence and leadership off it were just as meaningful.

Ed (1996)


Picture this: Trenton Thunder bat dog Rookie becomes the team's best player. That's not far off from what happens in this flick after the money-grabbing owners of the Class A Santa Rosa Rockets purchase a chimpanzee named Ed to be the team's mascot. An injury to the team's third baseman puts Ed in the game.
Ed has a positive impact on everyone he encounters. His teammates and coaches love him. He boosts attendance. Jack "Deuce" Cooper, the team's new pitcher getting his first taste of baseball after being discovered by scouts, even warms up to Ed after their relationship as roommates starts off rocky. Ed's beloved status is a nod to all the figures across the Minors who can transform a tiny stadium into the hottest spot in town.

Major League 3: Back to the Minors (1998)


Gus Cantrell, a struggling veteran pitcher playing for the Fort Myers Miracle, is offered a new job just prior to retirement. Minnesota Twins owner Roger Dorn asks Cantrell to become manager of the organization's Triple-A affiliate, the Buzz. Reluctant at first, Cantrell accepts and is thrust into guiding a cast of oddballs. When the team begins to figure things out, an argument between Cantrell and Twins manager Leonard Huff results in the two pitting their respective teams against each other.
Sure, a lot of this is just not how the game works in reality. The Twins and Red Wings -- Minnesota's actual Triple-A affiliate -- will not be playing any high-stakes games in Rochester any time soon. Yet there are some spot-on traits of real characters in the Minors. A top prospect needs some tinkering at Triple-A before making the leap to the big leagues; a baseball lifer becomes a natural at teaching young players the little things; everyone on the field is trying to get to the game's highest level and stay there.
Then again, there's a reason Major League 4 doesn't exist.

The Rookie (2002)


After his Minor League career fizzled out because of injuries, Jim Morris doubles as the baseball coach and chemistry teacher at a high school in West Texas. When he tries to inspire his team to chase their dreams, they turn the speech around on him and wager that if the team wins the district title, Morris will try out for a Major League club and try to turn his dream of pitching in The Show into a reality. His squad holds up its end of the deal, so Morris tries out for Tampa Bay and throws 98 mph -- way faster than he threw back in the day. The Rays sign him, he climbs from Double-A Orlando to Triple-A Durham and finally pitches in front of family and friends when he makes his Major League debut at age 35.
The best part about the whole story? It's true.

"Sugar" director Anna Boden (right) discusses a scene with Algenis Perez Soto at Modern Woodmen Park. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Sugar (2008)


Miguel "Sugar" Santos impresses at the Kansas City Knights' academy in his native Dominican Republic, continues to excel during his first trip to Spring Training and earns a spot on the pitching staff at Class A Bridgeton, a fictional club that occupies the Quad Cities River Bandits' Modern Woodmen Park.
But injuries, elevated competition and life with his host family in Iowa present obstacles that didn't exist for Sugar back home, most of which are further complicated by the fact that he doesn't speak English. It all serves as a reminder that more than a quarter of the players on Major League Opening Day rosters and inactive lists at the start of last season were born outside of the United States, and many of them traveled a challenging road to get there.

Moneyball (2011)


Yes, this is a movie about the Oakland Athletics, not a Minor League team, and the A's forward-thinking roster construction under Billy Beane. But a scene at the tail end of the film exemplifies the spirit of the Minor Leagues.
After another crushing playoff exit, fictional assistant GM Peter Brand begs Beane to sit in for a film session despite his poor spirits. They watch 240-pound Visalia Oaks catcher Jeremy Brown decide to dig for second base on a deep fly ball. Brown usually stopped at first no matter what. He stumbles and crawls back to first while everyone laughs. Then the first baseman and first-base coach try to tell him to get up and keep running.

"Jeremy's about to realize that the ball went 60 feet over the fence," Brand says. "He hit a home run and didn't even realize it."

Parental Guidance (2012)


Artie Decker loves his job as Fresno Grizzlies broadcaster, and the movie opens with his final call of the season. "Top of the ninth at Chukchansi Park and a beautiful night," Decker says. "We can actually feel that fall is finally on its way. It's a rather crisp 107 degrees but dry. So we've got 15,000 sweaty and bloated people all pumped up on churros rooting on our Fresno Grizzlies. And, Brad, this is why I love announcing Minor League Baseball, because I get to say names like River Cats or the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes."
After the game, Decker gets fired. In the immediate aftermath, he and his wife travel across the country to look after their grandchildren for a week. But finding a new job weighs heavily on Decker, who still wants to chase his dream of calling games for the Giants. A chaotic week garners him just that -- sort of -- and a deeper connection to his family. The story parallels the part of the Minors that is a pursuit of something greater. It's a non-complacent arena rewarding those on the field, in the booth and behind the scenes who work the hardest.

The Phenom (2016)


When stud prospect Hopper Gibson falters in the Major Leagues and is sent back to Triple-A Gwinnett, a sports psychologist tries to figure out why. The story flips back and forth between their sessions and Gibson's path to the pros, which was tainted by a harsh and distant father and resulted in a broken psyche.
The film is an appropriate look at the mental side of baseball, which MiLB.com highlighted in a recent piece on Mets pitcher Rob Whalen. Talent and ability are paramount in professional baseball. But to deal with travel, hundreds of games, the pressure of prospect status and other stressors, Minor Leaguers have to take care of their minds just as much as their bodies..

Joe Bloss is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.