TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

Inside Baseball
Written by Denis Faye

(October 15, 2012) 

WHERE TO LOOK

If you’re looking to get your batting averages and RBIs sorted out, there are plenty of stat-tastic sites out there, most notably Sports Illustrated, ESPN and, lest we forget, Major League Baseball and its little brother, Minor League Baseball. 

Rick Cerrone, however, is partial to the aptly titled Baseball-Reference.com, where you can find not only current major league stats, but biographical information dating back to the 1800s, as well as tidbits on the Minor Leagues and just about anything else you can think of. 

The Baseball Hall of Fame is another great historical resource. All of the inductees’ acceptance speeches are archived, giving you a chance to read these legends in their own words. 

Finally, if you prefer your research in print, Rick recommends The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter, an oral history of the early years of the sport as told by those who played it; Eight Men Out by Elliot Asinof, about the 1919 World Series scandal; and Pinstripe Empire by Marty Appel, a history of the New York Yankees. 

Back in 1983, Rick Cerrone, a former catcher for the New York Yankees, was working as an Assistant Director of Public Relations for Major League Baseball when the phone rang.

“It was just a blind call,” he recalls. “A man who identified himself as Mark Johnson. He told me he was producing a baseball movie with Robert Redford based on the Bernard Malamud novel, and they needed some help.”

Johnson explained that the film was going to be based in 1939, and they wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Cerrone immediately responded, "Well, then all the players will have to wear the Centennial Patch."

When pressed for details, he went on to explain, “Baseball was said to be founded in 1839 by Abner Doubleday, which made 1939 baseball's centennial. That's when they opened the Hall of Fame, and they all wore this patch.”

After a stunned silence, Johnson responded, “You’re our guy. How’d you like to be technical advisor on The Natural?”

For Cerrone, who had long been disillusioned with the lack of accuracy in baseball movies, it was an amazing opportunity to help someone do it right. “I wanted to see a baseball movie that portrayed honestly, accurately and with great detail. The Natural [Screenplay by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry] did that, and I’m proud to be part of it,” says Cerrone, who would go on to serve as the Yankees’ Senior Director of Media Relations from 1996 to 2006 and advise for Billy Crystal’s *61 [Written by Hank Steinberg] and (unofficially) for Sam Raimi’s For Love of the Game [Screenplay by Dana Stevens]. “Did they make mistakes? Yeah they did, but for the most part I got what I wanted and finally I had a movie that didn't take shortcuts.”

As the World Series approaches, Cerrone took a little time to talk with Technically Speaking about how to hit a home run when writing that baseball script. Hint: It’s in the details.

What does Hollywood get right about baseball?  

First, let me say that baseball is a very tough game to film because it's not like football or basketball where you can use almost continuous shots because of the nature of the game. You show a pitcher, a batter, the ball is hit, the ball has to be fielded, things like that.

When I was retained to be a consultant on The Natural back in 1983, Hollywood got very little right about baseball, from the uniforms to the way that the games were portrayed. Today, they do a much better job of filming the action, but I'll tell you one thing today, they still rely greatly on clichés. Even one of the most highly regarded baseball movies, Bull Durham [Written by Ron Shelton], it really has every cliché that you can imagine in that one movie. You know, "You were in the show? I didn't know you were in the show," and they just really rely on a lot of clichés to describe the game.

What about all the superstition that shows up in baseball movies? Is that cliché or is that accurate?  

No, I don't think that's cliché because players do have a great deal of superstitions. And even when I go back and I talk about Bull Durham, you know I understand that there are superstitions in baseball, and you can portray them, but you can overdo it, and you put too much of a good thing into one film, and it kind of puts it a little bit over the top.

I understand when you're making a movie, you're providing entertainment, right? You're not providing an historical document. If you provided a historical document you might take away from the entertainment value of the movie, but…

Take the most recent movie about baseball, Moneyball [Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin]. It relied a lot on clichés, a lot on stereotypes. You have a story of a couple of men, Billy Beane, a real person, and another one a conglomeration of other people in the Jonah Hill character. They used things like counting cards where you're going to have all these damaged goods, one-dimensional players because they can get on base and somehow you're going to be successful. So you start off with this “Island of Misfit Toys,” bringing in the Scott Hattebergs, the David Justices, the Chad Bradfords, right, you tell your story and you culminate with the actual true, factual thing of Scott Hatteberg getting a 9th inning home run to help you set the American League record for wins. Now what they left out was they never mentioned that the Oakland A’s that year had the American League's most valuable player; that they had the American League's Cy Young Award winner; that they had one of the best starting rotations in major league baseball.

So they didn't want the truth to get in the way of a good story.  

Right, they really didn't let the truth get in the way of a good story.

So, you're saying baseball movies tend to be much more black and white than the actual sport?  

Yes, because it has to be a story for an audience that's not a baseball audience. I mean first of all you're not going to be successful if you design a baseball movie and strictly go after baseball fans, right?

Whereas the book Moneyball was largely read by people who have an interest in baseball, you can't make a movie for the same audience. So you've got to have a much more general audience for your movie.

You have to do things differently. If you portrayed baseball for baseball's sake, no one would see it. The new movie that's coming out, Trouble with the Curve [Written by Randy Brown], with Clint Eastwood – that movie’s going to have more to it than scouting in it, you know what I'm saying?

People are not going to watch a movie about, no matter who's in it, the intricacies of scouting. Obviously, you're reaching a broader audience than would be interested in baseball scouting, so you have to use caricatures.

In Moneyball, even the way they portrayed the media featured caricatures, when, before a game starts, they go up to a player with a camera in the clubhouse, they were more aggressive than someone would be pre-game in real baseball. Even if it was after the game, a reporter would not be that aggressive with you in his or her first question.

Why do you think there are so many more baseball movies than there are football movies or basketball movies?  

It's amazing. The other thing about baseball, look at all the movies where there are references to baseball, characters wearing a baseball cap or making some reference. Some movies have nothing to do with baseball, like City Slickers [Written by Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel], but they're sitting around a campfire, and they're talking about who played third base for Pittsburgh in 1960. I bet you more than 50 percent of the movies have some reference to baseball.

Why do you think that is?  

Because it's part of our culture. Football is entertainment. I know how small the World Series ratings have become, and I realize you can't compare TV ratings but with football it's kind of like served up on a plate. You know, playing on a winter afternoon where it's perfect for a big party and betting. But baseball is more part of our everyday life, it's more likely to show up in our everyday life year round than any other sport.

You mean in terms of references?  

Yeah, just being a casual part of your life. Because in the last three or four years, most people, a large percent, have gone to a baseball game. For some reason they all got tickets.

It's more accessible.  

It's more accessible, there's more games, whatever. Most people don't go to NFL games or even NBA games or NHL games. I'm not knocking football. I'm a Giants season ticket holder, I get it, right, I get it – but baseball's more a religion.

Do you think movies should try a little harder to appeal to the diehard baseball fanatics?  

Yeah, for both, for both. Because to 90 percent of the people who go to a movie, that stuff doesn't matter. I'll give you a perfect example in Bang the Drum Slowly [Screenplay by Mark Harris]. They’re playing on a fictitious team, but that team is playing against real teams, right? There’s a road trip to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore in 1970 or '71 – but that’s not possible with real teams because there are two different leagues.

But will 99.9 percent of the people in the audience jump up and say, “That’s not accurate!” Does it really matter? No, but still…

What’s one piece of advice you have for anyone embarking on a baseball script?  

I would talk to more than one person that has actually been there. It's very important to get someone who's actually been part of it. You’ve got to rely on yourself to tell the story, but you need experts to get the facts right, even if it’s not a historical document.