When Bull Durham—the greatest baseball movie ever made, don't bother arguing—turned thirty earlier this month, it was feted locally in fine style. Writer-director Ron Shelton (a former minor-leaguer himself, it should be noted) threw out the first pitch at a Bulls game and commandeered the team's Twitter feed for a public Q and A. Bulls management showed the movie at its birthplace, Durham Athletic Park, in its R-rated entirety. Credit the family-friendly Bulls for that daring adults-only promotion.
It was an appropriate one, because despite its sporting backdrop, antic comedy, memorable zingers—the movie owns in perpetuity the word "lollygaggers" and has at least a minority stake in "cocksucker"—and essentially happy ending (it was loosely based on an ancient Greek comedy, after all, Aristophanes's Lysistrata), Bull Durham is meant for grownups. And not just because of the "cocksucker" scene, or anything else the movie contains. It's what's not there, an absence replete with presence, that taps baseball's deepest emotional vein and gives the movie its weighty adultness: a father.
To be sure, it contains plenty of father figures: There's Crash Davis, of course; Joe Riggins, the Bulls' irascible manager; and Max Patkin, the legendary Clown Prince of Baseball. Nuke LaLoosh's actual father makes an appearance, too, but his character is so wooden, his conduct so benighted—he sits right behind home plate with an enormous eighties-vintage video camera, recording and waving inanely at his rattled son—that it's hard to believe they're related. Shelton seems to be deliberately using the character to mock the sentimental baseball-reminds-me-of-my-father tradition; Nuke's dad is jettisoned from the story without so much as a nod.
It's the father we don't see whose presence presides over Bull Durham—haunts it, really. The climax comes when Crash demands that Annie explain her near-pathological devotion to the Bulls. Surely it isn't just to sleep with one of the players every summer? He presses her until she finally unburdens herself of a long monologue about her father, from whom she was estranged most of her life—from both her parents, in fact. Her mother left when Annie was an infant, and Annie herself ran away from home at fifteen.
Years later, she decided to make peace with her father, but that very week she got word that he had died. She drove down to Florida for the funeral, and when it was over, wracked by a double grief—over his death and her failure to reconcile with him in life—she wandered out into the afternoon and heard that unmistakable sound of bats on balls: tok, tok, tok, tok. Her ears followed the sound to the New York Yankees' spring training complex, where her eye was drawn to one player in particular: Thurman Munson, the great, doomed Yankees catcher (Crash's position, not coincidentally).
Munson, an amateur pilot, died in 1979 when he crashed his plane—another dead father. Entranced by him—and by the beautiful order and mystical tok tok tok of the baseball diamond—Annie found her religion then and there. As her voiceover opens Bull Durham with the line, "I believe in the church of baseball," the camera pans over a shrine to Munson. The script contains other references to him.
The script does, but the movie does not. That opening shot of Munson's photograph is his only appearance in Bull Durham. And if you can't remember the scene in which Annie remembers her father's death, that's because it isn't the movie, either. During editing, Shelton decided to cut it. Not because he didn't like it.
"It kept stopping the movie's momentum even though it was a great scene by itself," Shelton told me. "We kept shortening it and finally tried the movie without it, and the movie took off."
Without the scene, the source of Annie's sorrow, which Susan Sarandon's performance masterfully intimates without word or deed, is a hidden well that gives Bull Durham its unrelieved pathos and, in turn, its heft. The arrival into Annie's life of Crash, far older than the callow youngsters she's accustomed to canoodling with every summer—a man with the age and gravity of a father, and with the echo of Munson—allows her, finally, to relinquish her secret sadness, even without acknowledging it.
The storytelling expediency that informed Shelton's choice to cut the scene conceals an elemental and structural reason why the movie is stronger without it: There is a crucial absence where a scene about a crucial absence had been. Perhaps we're still watching Bull Durham after all these years because we're searching, in some intuitive way, for its—and baseball's—seminal character, powerfully present and never revealed.
When Bull Durham turns forty, then fifty, we can surely count on more celebrations of the movie that put our city on the map. Each anniversary is its own reckoning, so what does this one suggest about the state of Durham in 2018 vis-à-vis its Bull Durham mythology? Although it will never be a metropolis, Durham is currently making its case for the big leagues. Million-dollar condos are sprouting four blocks up Mangum Street from Annie's house, a generation after seven-cents-a-pound Crash grudgingly praised Nuke's "million-dollar arm." To paraphrase another Kevin Costner baseball movie—Bull Durham's mawkish counterpart, Field of Dreams—we have built it, and people are coming. For the first time since the movie was born, the real Durham can plausibly claim to measure up to its distinction as the setting for the greatest baseball movie ever made.
This is something to be proud of, no doubt, but that pride must be tempered lest it puff the Bull City out of shape. "You've gotta play this game with fear and arrogance," Crash tells Nuke, his final piece of advice to the young pitcher before he leaves for the Show. If Annie's deleted monologue is Bull Durham's psyche, then Crash's counsel to Nuke is its patrimony.
"It sums up my life view closer than anything I've ever written," Shelton told me. The line asks us to act consciously on a contradiction. We must take the mound or step into the batter's box with unquestioning confidence, but we must also remember that everything we do is in some way a response to "primal fear," Shelton says: "Snakes, tigers, homelessness, lovelessness, failure, death." Forgetting that, our command will desert us, we will make no solid contact, and we will find ourselves back in the minor leagues.
Like Annie's memory of her father, playing the game with fear and arrogance is ultimately a matter of origins and legacy. When Bull Durham was made, the Bulls were a Class A team, far from the major leagues. The modern Bulls play in Triple-A, just one level down from the Show, and most of their roster will get called up sooner or later—many already have. The hard part is staying; most wind up in Triple-A again, at least for a while. To make the best of Durham, now and in seasons to come, it's worth appreciating how high we've already risen, and how easy it can be to crash, or to become Crash.