Friday, September 03, 2004

'Out' Pitch

It's tempting to watch a film such as Eight Men Out and shake your head and think about how different baseball in 1919 was from today's game.

There were no television broadcasts, or night games, or batting gloves, or steroids, or charter flights. The only people of color were the folks cleaning the stands after the game. Baggy uniforms; tiny, beaten-up gloves used by both teams; shabby ballparks; a largely compliant media corps -- if not for four bases set 90 feet apart, you might struggle to recognize the game as played in 2004.

But Eight Men Out was made by the peerless John Sayles, whose palette comprises infinite shades of gray, each one a particular, unique tone of the human condition. And as Sayles well knows, people are people. Squint your eyes so that the images blur, and just listen to the words, and suddenly the Black Sox scandal peals with a sadly contemporary ring.

Corrupt owners. Greedy players. And kids who don't want to believe that their heroes are tainted.

Working from Eliot Asinof's book of the same name, Sayles offers the players' willingness to throw the '19 World Series as a function of their animosity toward Charles Comiskey, a tyrant of an owner who squeezed his charges for every last dime. For example, with pitcher Eddie Cicotte, hardly the rough-hewn type many of his teammates were, bearing down on 30 wins, a mark that would trigger an incentive clause in his contract, Comiskey ordered Sox manager Kid Gleason to sit him, ostensibly to rest his arm for the playoffs. As a result, Cicotte missed his 30th win, and in an era when salaries were much more in line with what working stiffs earned, the lost bonus was hugely significant. Compare that with the Orioles' treatment of Rafael Palmeiro this season and suddenly 1919 seems much more recent than it is.

The movie is bursting with razor-sharp performances; John Mahoney, whose Gleason gradually becomes aware that his guys are on the take but is unable to stop it, and Sayles staple David Strathairn, quietly wonderful as the reluctant cheater Cicotte, stand out. John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, and Christopher Lloyd are also effective, and Sayles himself pops up as an arch Ring Lardner. As for Shoeless Joe Jackson, possibly the greatest natural hitter the game has ever seen, D.B. Sweeney plays him with expected confusion and a bit of pathos.

Sayles is hardly the flashiest filmmaker working, but he manages, like no other director, to locate and exploit a common humanity in myriad settings. Eight Men Out is no exception. Ballplayers may be moneyed superstars now, but they are also men, not much different from those who toiled in considerably greater anonymity nearly a century ago.


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