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Review: The Battered Bastards of Baseball

Short version: This is a fun, 70-plus-minute documentary about a strange independent-league 1970's baseball team. It is available to watch now on Netflix streaming, and eventually will be available on DVD. The long version, because I have an ego that makes LeBron James think "jeez, Mister World Revolves Around Him should take it down a notch," follows.

Long version:

There are so few good baseball documentaries. There are good baseball books and good baseball songs galore. The sport and its culture have had, and continue to have, lots of interesting characters, and characters are the stuff good documentaries (like good books and songs) are made of. I suspect this has something to do with how film financing works, which is about cretins with money only being willing to back your project if you can prove similar projects have made money for similar investors in the past. Of course, viewers like things best that are different and surprising, or blow shit up real good.

Hollywood has specialized in fictional baseball movies which conform to the "underdog wins against all odds" template, because most movie watchers are underdogs facing all odds. Whereas documentaries, which have been around almost as long as movies, are really thriving right now because most of them tell stories that don't fit into rigid formulas. They challenge accepted norms, explore strange subcultures, make angry political statements. (The Pohlads have financed some very successful ones.)

Baseball, the way Hollywood generally treats it, is neither challenging nor strange nor angry. There's "Bull Durham" and "Eight Men Out," but there's also "Field Of Dreams" and "The Natural." (Nothing against those latter two movies for those who enjoy them; still, you have to admit they fit the baseball-as-safe, iconic, heroic profile.) I looked at a few lists of "favorite baseball documentaries," and the titles that kept coming up were "For The Love Of The Game" and the Ken Burns thing -- good, sure, but safe, iconic, heroic. (Also, notably, "The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg," which I own, which I've shown to many non-baseball fans, and which is about an interesting guy/period/Jewish subculture -- it's a terrific film.)

"Petolero" was too Spanish-speaking for American audiences, "Sugar" was too depressing, and "42" -- while a well-made hit -- was safe, iconic, heroic. (Actually, "The Jackie Robinson Story," starring an aging Robinson as himself, was edgier; you sensed some of the same tension, in his performance, between what he could show in a cheesy biopic and how he felt that mirrored what took place on real-life baseball fields.) "42" even blew one of the best Robinson stories ever. The team, aware of a death threat from a self-professed sniper, discussed the safety of allowing Robinson to play. Pee Wee Reese suggested they all wear #42 to confuse the sniper. In "42," that's the end of the scene; the team's overcome its prejudices and allied around Robinson. In real life, Robinson thanked Reese, and acerbically commented that the sniper would probably still be able to figure out which one he was.

Netflix has picked up "Battered Bastards" for a reason; it thinks the documentary is different from that safe, iconic, heroic baseball-movie norm. They're right. It's more like the other newer documentaries. It's about kooky characters, not some sepia-toned homage to The Game. (Neither was Burns's "Baseball," in fact, although it looked like one and moved so slow viewers popping in for a look on PBS could easily think that's what they were skipping.)

Independent league baseball, huge in the sport's heyday, from town-ball teams to the various Negro Leagues, was dead by the 1970s. Bing Russell, a workaday Hollywood Western actor in TV and movies who'd developed a love for baseball by being exposed to Yankee players as a boy, founded a new independent team in Portland, which had just lost its affiliated franchise. The Mavericks played against affiliated single-A teams, using castoffs and weirdos who never fit in MLB organizations. They drew terrific crowds for the single-A level, largely because the goofy players and unorthodox promotional gimmicks embraced by Russell fit with the oddball self-definition of Portland residents.

If that description makes you think of Bill Veeck and the Saints . . . well, the Mavericks got a lot of national press, and I'm sure the young Veeck payed attention. They used a mascot dog to bring balls out to the umpire, sound familiar? The movie would have benefitted from interviewing Veeck; I think the filmmakers were more into the story of Russell and 1970's Portland than they were how the Mavericks helped rekindle independent ball, so they didn't think to talk to independent team owners/players today.

Too bad. The interviews we see are good (Kurt Russell, the movie guy, Bing's son, is quite charming), but they're very Maverick, very Portland-centric. This gave me a little bit of unease watching the film. I used to live about two blocks away from Civic Stadium (I'd go down after the seventh inning, when the 90's AAA team let passers-by in for free), and seeing that old field and listening to all these people talk about how the 70's team represented Underdog Portland Against The World brought back some unpleasant memories.

If you've seen the cable sketch show "Portlandia," you've gotten an image of Portland that isn't far off the mark. It isn't just that some Portlanders are into organic toilet tissue -- it's that they are incredibly defensive and accusatory if you aren't. Portlanders have a bizarre inferiority complex (it's a large fucking city, but residents act like it's a small hamlet they have to stick up for) because they don't live in Seattle or San Francisco. This trickles down to social life there; you can't be just a Person With A Job And Friends, you have to be an Iconoclast Trendsetter or you're no better than the white trash in one of Portland's many, many suburbs which make the worst locales in "Breaking Bad" look like Edina by comparison.

I fled Portland because my DNA has no shred of hip. And neither did the Mavericks, the Battered Bastards. They were low-rent and long-hair far past the point where that look was groovy. It's hard to explain to people who grew up in Minnesota, where it's completely acceptable to take your great-aunt to a church basement fish-fry and hang out with (gasp) old people, just how suffocating the Portland need-to-be-avant-garde mantra eventually became. (Which, like all avant-garde mantras, eventually boils down to Be Rich Or Be Lame.) My closest friends from high school, recruited by super-colleges all, chose sex/drugs or firefighting or playing pickup basketball in East Coast slums over being avant-garde, because the pressure and hypocrisy were too intense to handle. (Incidentally, the sex/drugs one and pickup basketball one are now rich. The firefighter isn't. Nor am I, surprise, surprise.)

The Battered Bastards embodied Portland before Portland became cool. And watching this documentary made me worry about the Saints, who used to play in a broke-dick venue almost as bad as Civic Stadium. You know that famous clip of a guy running through the outfield wall? That's Civic Stadium, and it always smelled like pee. I had good memories there. I saw my first pro game when a Twins minor-league All-Star team came to visit. The Saints are finishing a new building soon. Will it attract the old Saints fans, or only the upscale types who flock, like attention-deficit seagulls, to the newest faux-retro hotspot? Is Minnesota (shudder) becoming like Portland?

Well, 'nuff rasslin' with my past demons on your present time. "Battered Bastards" is more than moderately fun. It's got Jim Bouton! Who doesn't love Jim Bouton? (Well, his wife got a bit sick of his need to be a child forever, and wrote about this in "Home Games," but I have never been married to Bouton and hence he amuses me.) See it if you have Netflix streaming. Wait for the DVD if you don't. Netflix streaming is really too annoying to buy just for seeing one documentary. Although I dig watching old ST:TNG episodes, that probably doesn't float most people's boats.

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