By Russ Crawford
Recently baseball fans have been clamoring online to have Charlie Sheen, one of the stars of the Major League series, throw out the first pitch during a World Series game in Cleveland. There is no doubt that the antics of Sheen’s character, Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, provide entertainment and excitement to long-suffering Cleveland fans and make him one of the memorable characters in sports movies. Unfortunately, fans did not their wish, keeping “Wild Thing” in the realm of fiction. Nostalgia for fictional characters is not uncommon, however, and serious fans of sports films have their own lists of other actors and characters, such as Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky franchise, Robert Redford in The Natural (1984) and Gina Davis in A League of Our Own, that have done an outstanding job of bringing sport and the society surrounding it to life on the silver screen. Kevin Costner is arguably the best, however. As an actor, his work might be surpassed by others, and there are likely sports movies that surpass his for staying power. But for his body of work, he has no peer in the genre, and therefore deserves to be lauded as the King. In this post I will recount his many sporting roles that make him the undisputed champion of the sport movie genre. Indeed, Costner has brought to life characters in sports that range from the mainstream (baseball and football), to the fringe (cycling and cross country).
As an actor, Costner has had his hits and misses, but his sporting movies are generally counted as his best work. Five of his six sports films rank in the top fifty of the highest grossing movies in that genre of all time, from Field of Dreams (1989) at number 18 ($64,431, 625), to Draft Day (2014) at Number 44 ($28,842,237). In between, Tin Cup (1996) ranks 26th ($53,854,588), Bull Durham (1988) ranks 29th ($50,888,729), McFarland USA (2015) ranks 30th ($44, 482,410), and For the Love of the Game (1999) ranks 39th ($35,188,640). Only American Flyers (1985), his first sport movie, performed poorly, only grossing $1,420,355. At that time, Costner was a relatively unknown actor, and the professional cycling world didn’t draw in large crowds.
Costner had minor roles in other movies with sporting themes. He appeared in Stacy’s Knights (1983), a movie about playing blackjack, but is killed off early to set up the eventual revenge of the heroine. He also apparently had a cameo appearance in Chasing Dreams (1989), but the VHS cover displayed on Amazon.com features his face prominently. Stacy’s Knights was also released as The Touch with a cover emphasizing Costner’s role to presumably capitalize on his growing fame – caveat emptor! Possibly doing a favor to Ron Shelton, his director in Bull Durham and Tin Cup, Costner also appeared ringside in a fight between Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas in Play it to the Bone (1999).
In addition to his acting, Costner has also narrated several documentaries on sport. His first effort was for Laffitt: All About Winning (2006), a project that told the story of Laffitt Pincay, Jr., a Panamanian born jockey who won more than 9,000 races in a career that began in 1966 and lasted for nearly forty years. Costner then worked with the NASCAR Media Group to provide narration for NASCAR: The Ride of Their Lives (2009), a documentary on the history of the sport. He continued to narrate racing projects, lending his voice to Petty Blue (2010), a documentary on the life of NASCAR legend Richard Petty. He has also done the narration for two recent documentaries. Fastball (2016) brings together current and former players, as well as scientists, to explain how the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, along with a pitcher’s speed and a batter’s reaction time have combined to create one of the grandest spectacles in sports. The Hurt Business (2016), is a documentary on the history of Mixed Martial Arts that includes interviews with top stars in the sport. He also had parts in other documentaries including When It Was a Game 3 (2000), and Hollywood Pinstripes (2003).
Aside from American Flyers and (surprisingly) For the Love of the Game, Costner’s theatrical forays into the sports world have been financially successful. They have also for the most part been well received critically. Bull Durham, his most critically acclaimed effort, received a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and 73% on Metacritic. Field of Dreams earned an 86% and 57% on the two aggregator sites, respectively. McFarland USA had 80% and 60% ratings. Tin Cup had 69% and 60%. Draft Day came in at 60% and 54%. American Flyers had a 63% on Rotten Tomatoes, but Metacritic is silent on that film’s reception. Undeservedly, in my opinion, and more about that later, For the Love of the Game finished a resounding last, only earning a 46% and 43%.
Baseball, blackjack, boxing, cross country, cycling, football, golf, horse racing, NASCAR, and MMA. Costner has had his hand, or voice, in films and documentaries that cover a wide range of sports. Perhaps no other actor can claim to have performed in such a wide variety of projects that feature sport as a background to their stories. Despite the breadth of his resume, however, Costner is likely best known for his baseball films.
His most beloved role is as Crash Davis, the veteran catcher brought into the Durham Bulls minor league team to tutor Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a rookie pitcher with million-dollar-talent, but a ten-cent-head. Disgusted at his role as baby sitter for a future millionaire, Davis quickly antagonizes LaLoosh, and they continue to clash over how the game should be played, but also over Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). Sarandon, whose first name referred to the nickname given baseball groupies, took LaLoosh under her wing, and into her bed. She began to regret her decision when Davis delivers his “I believe” speech, which has become one of the most memorable scenes from the movie. Another memorable scene demonstrated that this was a different sort of baseball movie. The Natural (1984) presented a more heroic vision of the sport, and depicted Roy Hobbes (Redford), its main character, as a model for young boys, who idolized the star. Bull Durham, on the other hand, explored the seamy underbelly of professional baseball – the precarious existence of most minor leaguers who had dreams of playing in “The Show,” but who lacked the talent to make the jump. This realism was seen when Davis prepares to bat, and a batboy tries to encourage him by saying “Get a hit Crash!” Hobbes would have ruffled the kid’s hair and complied. Davis sneers at the boy and tells him to “Shut up,” then strikes out. Syndicated columnist and author of Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (1990), called that exchange “…the most satisfying moment in the history of movies,” contending that adults had “…sat through their fill of syrupy sports movies that are sweet enough to give a viewer diabetes.” According to IMDb Trivia, Costner ad-libbed the line, and the young actor, who didn’t know it was coming, started crying. The story also had a satisfying non-satisfying ending, when LaLoosh is finally called up to the big league and Davis is let go by the Bulls. He eventually caught on with another team long enough to set the homerun record for the minor leagues, not something to be proud of really, and then returned to Savoy, but the lack of a happy ending also sets this movie apart from its rosier competitors.
Costner defied conventional wisdom and advice from his associates by following up his success in Bull Durham with a second baseball movie – Field of Dreams. Baseball might have tied the two films, but where Bull Durham was a gritty look at the real world of baseball, Field of Dreams used the sport to spin a tale of magical realism about reconciliation. Set in Iowa, the story revolved around Ray Kinsella, a farmer who heard voices telling him to “Build it and he will come.” Inspired by the disembodied voice, Kinsella cut down a prime cornfield and built a baseball diamond. That brought the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson and some of his fellow conspirators from the 1919 “Blacksox” scandal that played nightly games only Kinsella could see. The voice continued, ordering that Kinsella Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones), an iconic writer (J.D. Salinger in the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella) to the field. They also stopped to pick up Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who is an old man (Burt Lancaster) in one scene, and then appears as a young man in the next. When the trio arrived back in Iowa, Kinsella’s brother in law threatened to have the bank foreclose on the farm if corn was not immediately returned (if one accepts that spectral voices order baseball fields be built, then one cannot quibble that corn cannot magically be replanted and grow overnight). Mann delivered his stirring “Sermon on the Bleachers,” telling Kinsella people will come to reconnect with the past, and after a series of events reveal the spectral players to everyone, the ultimate purpose of the field becomes clear when Kinsella’s estranged (and deceased) father appeared to have a game of catch with his now grown son – the “he” in he will come.
In a case of life imitating art, the field in Dyersville, Iowa where the movie was filmed did become a destination for some fans of the movie. It even has a gift shop (the mug I bought there is sitting next on my desk now). In 2013, the field, on a 193 acre farm, sold for $3.4 million to Go the Distance (another line from the movie) LLC, who planned to build All-Star Ballpark Heaven, to be used as a “youth baseball and softball complex.” On September 4, 2016, plans were to hold a Team of Dreams event on the field featuring former players such as Reggie Jackson, Ozzie Smith, and Johnny Bench.
Costner took a ten-year break before making another baseball movie, and critics panned the effort, erroneously, in my opinion. Dana Stevens adapted For the Love of the Game from Michael Shaara’s book of the same name published in 1991. Shaara is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels (1974) that was later adapted as the film Gettysburg (1993). While his earlier work fictionalized the story of the epic Civil War Battle through the eyes of actual participants such as Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Joshua Chamberlin, the latter focuses more narrowly on the last game of a now washed up former all star Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Billy Chapel. The game itself, as depicted in the film, was no less epic, with Chapel eventually pitching a perfect game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. What brought the movie down, in the eyes of most critics, was the love story between Chapel (Costner) and Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston). However, once again in my opinion, the baseball in the movie is so good that it makes up for any distraction the romance that is intertwined with the action on the field. Part of the excellence of the game is the voice of Vin Scully, the iconic recently-retired announcer who called the game. Another relationship, that of Chapel and his catcher Gus Sinski (John C. Reilly) likewise adds to the baseball fun. Chapel’s insistence that Sinski catch the game references Steve Carlton’s use of Tim McCarver as his personal catcher. One of my personal favorite scenes depicts the start of the game as Yankees fans yell insults at Chapel. Before the first pitch, the Tiger pitcher gives the mental command “Clear the mechanism,” which causes all of the background noise to fade away. This reminded me of my days as an athlete, when my focus was such that I never remembered hearing any crowd noise. As the game went on, we also see flashbacks of other games Chapel played with his teammates, and the operative word that people used to describe the star was “Old School.” He wasn’t a prima donna athlete who played only for himself, but raised the level of play among his teammates, and played for the love of the game. The movie jumps around between the present and the past, but the internal game that Chapel plays in his head, and the little touches such as the image of the Tigers’ dugout with all the players at one end of the dugout trying to not jinx Chapel’s perfect game, more than make up for that. This may not be a movie for those who prefer a lineal story, but for the baseball fan, who wishes to see all the details done right, I would argue that this one is the best of his baseball movies. I need to finish this article, but I really would like to pause and go watch it again.
Perhaps Costner’s most enjoyable sport movie, however, is Tin Cup, which follows the adventures of a down-and-out golfer who tries to win the U.S. Open. This one comes in second (not a long list) to Caddie Shack (1980) for the funniest golf movie. Once again, much of the action occurs inside Roy McAvoy’s head, as he struggles to find the discipline to compete at a high level, and win the movie’s love interest Dr. Molly Griswold (Renee Russo) from David Simms (Don Johnson), a slick logo-head style (a critique of the sameness of professional gofers by Dan Jenkins) professional. Helped by a cast of characters that include Cheech Marin as his caddy Romeo Posar, and flaky golf announcer Gary McCord, McAvoy survived a disastrous first round to lead going into the final round. The demons that use McAvoy’s mind as their playground show up at the 18th hole. When he went for the green, instead of laying up for the likely win, his shot rolled off into a pond. Rather than taking a drop closer to the green to salvage par, he again went for the green, and again went into the water. McAvoy stubbornly refused to take the safe route, and with the last ball in his bag, finally made the shot – for a total of 12 strokes on the hole. When reality set in, McAvoy was chagrined at what his pride led him to, but Griswold told him that no one would remember the winner, but everyone would remember his 12. He won at love, gained a measure of immortality, and everything looked positive for him at the end. The 12 on the last hole probably saved this movie from being a routine hero-wins-in-the-end film that would have been as forgettable as the winner of the fictional U.S. Open. For amateur golfers, the particular madness that McAvoy exhibits throughout also makes this one a keeper.
Costner revisits magical realism, (maybe fantasy would be a better description) in Draft Day, which follows Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Costner), the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns as he prepares to draft players to hopefully transform his team’s (or at least the stadium’s) image of being a factory of sadness. As with most of Costner’s characters, Weaver has a lot happening on and off the field. His girlfriend, and subordinate, (Jennifer Garner) told him she was pregnant with his child. His mother (Ellen Burstyn) was angry because he doesn’t want to take time away from the big day to scatter his father’s ashes. His owner (Frank Langella) wanted the team’s draft to make a big splash, and the head coach (Dennis Leary) wanted the GM job. Like For the Love of the Game, Draft Day weaves several stories together in an effective and entertaining way. Following a hunch, backed up by anecdotal evidence, Weaver decides to pass on the marquee quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) in the draft, and manages to make deals that secure several talented players for the Browns, while keeping the up and coming quarterback Brian Drew (Tom Welling). Drew’s character was seemingly based on Brian Hoyer, a hometown quarterback, and, with 20-20 hindsight, Callahan seems a lot like Johnny Manziel. Everything works out well in the end, and my contention this was a fantasy refers to the euphoria that swept Cleveland fans who were convinced they had all of the ingredients to be in the Super Bowl. The Cavs, and maybe even the Indians might win it all, but the Browns have shown no sign of that happening. As we now know, not long after Draft Day debuted, the Browns went for the splash and drafted Manziel. Then, after seemingly being surprised to discover that young men in their 20s drink, Johnny Football became the latest in a long line of former Cleveland quarterbacks (26 since 1999)
It has been quite some time since I watched American Flyers, but while reading about it, I was reminded of the great/awful 70s style mustache that Costner sported in the movie. I was also reminded that one of the racers was a Soviet named Belov (John Garber), who was the butt of a joke about his understanding English, but was otherwise a stereotypical Soviet athlete – i.e. probably using steroids. The movie told the story of Marcus Sommers (Costner) and his younger brother David (David Marshall Grant). The elder Sommers learned he had a cerebral aneurysm (lots happening with the character), and wanted to convince David to meet his potential as a cyclist. There were humorous training scenes, and then the action moved to the fictional Hell of the West race in Colorado. Modeled on the Coors Classic, the race was eventually won by David, after he qualified for the later stages in dramatic fashion – he crashed but carried his bike across the finish line. One of his main competitors (Luca Bercovici) interestingly gave a scathing criticism at the end of the scene about President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics, thus robbing him of a chance to compete for his nation. Good Cold War stuff!
Costner’s last, so far (Costner has hinted that he may have one more about the Cubs left to do), sports movie depicted the now aging star as a coach, rather than as an athlete. McFarland USA told story of Jim White (Costner), an actual coach, who began recruiting Latino students to run for the McFarland, California High School cross country team. With the help of those students, who White had seen running to and from school, the team won the state championship and started something of a dynasty. As with any movie purporting to depict actual events, the story was Hollywoodized, but reportedly got the big themes right. This is the only Costner sport movie that I have not watched, but it is on my list. The story seems to be the most straightforward of Costner’s works (his character does not seem to have as many flaws as many of the others), so it may not be as entertaining, but we shall see.
For thirty years, Kevin Costner has been pitching, catching, riding, dealing, and coaching on the silver screen, and his career has demonstrated that movies about athletes and their games are powerful tools to explore the role of sport in American society and create nostalgia for historical moments or ideas using fiction. Many of Costner’s works have had both critical and box office success, and when his career is given a retrospective one day, it will certainly focus heavily on those moments when a farmer heard voices, or when a Cleveland GM actually made correct decisions. He might not be the greatest actor in movies about athletics, but he has brought so many memorable characters to life that he deserves our respect. Hopefully, the Cubs recent World Series appearance will give impetus to getting his next movie made, and further cement his kingship.
Change a few words in the scene from Field of Dreams dubbed the “Sermon on the Mound,” and one might capture a bit of the magic that has caused Costner to return to the sports genre so often. Kevin, people will come, Kevin. They’ll enjoy your movies for reasons they can’t even fathom…They’ll pass over the money at the megaplex without even thinking about it, for it is money that they have, and a vision of the best possibilities that sport can generate that they lack…And they’ll watch your movie, and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. Memories will be so thick; they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. They will leave believing that magic can happen; that an aging veteran can be perfect, that a loser who wrestles with demons can nearly win it all, and maybe, just maybe, that the Browns can have a winning season. Perhaps other actors have made better individual movies, but none can match Costner’s body of work, and that is why I no qualms about calling him the King of the Sports Movie.
Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. The Edwin Mellen Press published The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, in 2008, and Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.
 Chris Erskine, “Kevin Costner in ‘McFarland USA,’ returns to a film genre he’s owned,” Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-erskine-20150212-column.html (Accessed 23 October 2016)
 “Tin Cup,” Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=tincup.htm (Accessed 2 November 2016)
 “Sports Drama 1976-Present,” Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?view=main&sort=gross&order=DESC&pagenum=1&id=sportsdrama.htm (Accessed 23 October 2016)
 “American Flyers,” Box Office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/search/?q=american%20flyers (Accessed 23 October 2016)
 “Chasing Dreams,” (read customer reviews) Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Dreams-Roche-Therese-Conte/dp/B00063H5I6 (Accessed 23 October 2016)
 George Will, Bunts, New York: Touchstone, 1998, 102
 “Iowa’s ‘Field of Dreams’ sale completed; development to begin,” Twin Cities Pioneer Press, January 1, 2013 http://www.twincities.com/2013/01/01/iowas-field-of-dreams-sale-completed-development-to-begin/ (Accessed 23 October 2016)
 “Team of Dreams 2016 Event at the Field of Dreams,” Field of Dreams Movie Site, http://www.fodmoviesite.com/event/team-of-dreams-2016-event-at-the-field-of-dreams/ (Accessed 23 October 2016)
 “Field of Dreams,” American Rhetoric: Movie Speech, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechfieldofdreams.html (Accessed 2 November 2016)