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The Natural, Directed by Barry Levinson

TriStar Pictures, May 11, 1984 (US)

Screenplay: Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based on the novel by Bernard Malamud

Starring: Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wildord Brimley, and Barbara Hershey

The ivy on the outfield walls fills in completely by summer, covering the hard brown brick with a deceptively soft bed of lush tropical green. A few feet above, in the energetic (understated) bleachers, the party is in full bloom too. Cold beer makes its familiar trip, exchanging hands down each row as suds bounce over the rims of souvenir cups, landing to and fro before sticking their perfect landing atop foamy mustached smiles. Meanwhile, sunscreen shimmers off the radiant glow of exposed skin that has been left to cook in the summer oven, from the bare chests of rowdy frat boys to the more delicate skin of their halter-top-wearing better halves. Here, in the outfield oasis at Waveland and Sheffield, the buzz of the crowd is as consistently charged as the rays that beam down from the perfect blue midsummer sky.

All around the ballpark, a different type of game is being played than the national pastime. The game’s called hooky. A phone call in the morning lets on that you are not feeling quite up to snuff, or else it is just an early half day departure on a Friday that leads straight to the gates from the Red Line track. Whatever it takes to join the party.

Most in the crowd are dressed in Cubby blue, and are returning to the Friendly Confines for the umpteenth time. Others may even be making that first unforgettable trip, when the magic taps the veins to secure a lifelong addiction. Such is the inescapable lure of baseball, especially at Wrigley. It is a game passed on from generation to generation. If you are lucky, you saw that first game with Mom and Dad, or Grandpa and Grandma or your big brother or sister, before you graduated to the age when you were old enough to go the park on your own with your buddies and knew then that, boy, you had arrived. Soon, there were even work parties when you attended a game in a section reserved for you and your coworkers.

With all due respect to Iowa corn fields, The Natural captures the romance of the game like no other baseball film. It leaks off the screen—the voodoo superstitions, magic bats, the passed-on traditions and folklore—shooting out of the sky like fireworks exploding in the night from the broken lights that are demolished by a Roy Hobbs home run ball. Mythical, perhaps. And yet, the myth is what stole your heart away from the start. The myth of ghosts who are enshrined in record books and artifacts that rest in Hall of Fame displays. Some went out winners. Many more, losers, although such a word doesn’t seem to fit quite right here. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Such a distinction fades away as passing years turn all into legends of the game—legends worshipped by wide-eyed little leaguers, and by others that are not so little at all.

In the end, it’s really about the fans. The fans and their stories. The stories of heroes would never have been written at all if not for these other ghosts of summer—the millions of fans long gone whose indelible screams of delight and anguish lit up so many summer days and cool fall nights.

It is your time now to watch new rookies eager to make their mark, desperate to distance themselves far above the dreaded Mendoza line. There are new heroes and goats waiting to be born with each and every pitch. And you’ll be able to say you were then when it happened. You’ll tell your kids or your niece and nephew. Your parents. Your friends and neighbors. The phone calls you’ll make. The emails you’ll send.

And just as fast, the long season inexplicably ends, like it always does, like a thief in the night, disappearing into October shadows. The seats of the ball park empty, soon to be covered with winter snow. The memory of the season, the fans, the players, and all those unbelievable moments join a passing torch that burns on without end. Until we meet again to hear those joyous sun-soaked words.

Play ball!