It must be tough to get so close to your dream only to fail. You finally get that date with the hottest girl in school, but you show up with a shit stain peeking through your khakis like a puppy dog covered in sewage. She has her father, a prominent neurosurgeon, give you a change of clothes and cab fare. As you listen to the taxi driver speak fondly about his time in the big house, you look down in the plastic bag on your lap that contains your clothes and realize your life might get as messy as your fruit of the looms. Mom always warned you about your nervous stomach, in between zealous drags of her generic brand cigarettes. You shuffle in the house like a zombie, holding your clothes bag like a severed head, and kick over an opened box of Pop Tarts. Tonight’s dinner. Your mom snaps her fingers and points to the television with yellow fingers, mummified from tar residue. She is Good Housekeeping’s very own Imhotep. You walk over to the tv, hoping a meteor falls on your house while you are home, and turn the dial three notches.
Jerry Lewis must be on The Mike Douglas Show. Your mother coughs her approval and spits thanks into her coffee mug filled with something that gets housewives through the day. You pull your dragging ass into your room, close the door behind you, and masturbate to the picture on your Linda Ronstadt album cover. When you have cleaned up, you fall onto your bed and immerse yourself in your very own Blue Bayou.
Another guy might have a cannon for an arm, blazing fastballs by perplexed hitters and bruising bones on his catcher’s hand. He manages to strike out the immortal Ted Williams—he is like a really great baseball player for those who don’t know baseball history—in a spring training game. As he jogs off the mound, an American Adonis glowing in the golden sunlight, the crowd cheers his name. Buttermaker, Buttermaker!!! The beautiful blonde in the front row hands him her phone number as he enters the dugout and grabs a Louisville Slugger. He can envision his plaque in Cooperstown. Morris Buttermaker will adorn the hallowed halls next to Yogi Berra, Stan Musial and Sandy Koufax.
Then he wakes up, eyes bleeding like a hemophiliac, surrounded by empty beer cans and pool cleaning paraphernalia. As a 90 proof belch escapes his mouth, he wonders where the last 25 years went. He reaches into the cooler in the backseat of his piece of shit convertible and pulls out a morning brew. Nothing better than hair of the dog to take stock of your life. Your personal Dow Jones is talking great depression, my man. Throw some chlorine in your eyes so you can wake up and get to work.
Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears is a realistically profane and funny comedy about a bunch of misfit children who beat the odds and play for the championship of a California little league. Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a washed up, boozy, has been ball player who scrapes out a living cleaning pools. One wonders if Buttermaker looks up from the pools he is cleaning at the well maintained houses and is reminded of what might have been had he made it to the major leagues? At least the grumpy bastard can smoke his cheap cigars in the warm California sun.
A smarmy local politician pays Buttermaker to coach a little league team that will be comprised of a bunch of kids that no other coach wanted. One of the kids is the politician’s son, who seems to be one of the more normal of the children. We are also introduced to the fat kid, the feisty loudmouth, the encyclopedia who barely has the strength to carry one volume of Britannica’s slimmest edition, the black kid who is not the athletic star like his brothers, the booger picking loser and Rudy Stein, who reluctantly takes one for the team while complaining like Woody Allen at the dawn of his puberty.
The intelligent script by Burt’s son Bill Lancaster doesn’t shy away from the more serious moments either. Especially showing the borderline tyranny of coaches and parents who seem to forget they are watching children playing a game. The fleeting glimpses of the machinations of how the league is run are realistic and interesting. Back room deals, friendly extortion and corporate cronyism are all on the roster. Joyce Van Patten is especially entertaining as the league’s slimy equipment manager, Cleveland. As she lovingly slithers up the leg of Vic Morrow’s Roy Turner, coach of the league’s perennial champs, one can’t help but think of the screenplay Bill Lancaster would go on to write a few years later, John Carpenter’s classic The Thing.
After some brutal losses and a few thunderous hangovers, Buttermaker bribes the daughter of an ex-girlfriend to pitch on the team. Tatum O’Neal, the glow still radiating off her Oscar for Paper Moon, plays Amanda Whurlitzer, the cute as a button pitching maestro who owns a curve ball that would have made Doc Gooden jealous in his prime. Amanda also possesses a distinct psychological edge on the mound. With her womanhood about to blossom any day now, no boy on the verge of his teenage years can afford to look foolish at the plate against her. If she strikes you out on the mound, there will be no kissing behind the monkey bars, kid.
The last part of the winning formula comes in the shape of diminutive power hitter and professional juvenile delinquent, Kelly Leak, played by Jackie Earle Haley. He hits home runs like Mike Schmidt and loans money like Vito Corleone. He is the type of kid that was finger blasting older girls already in high school when you were still doting over your G.I. Joe collection. Tired of being chased from the field on his Harley dirt bike by Cleveland and Roy Turner, Kelly flicks cigarette butts in the face of their authority and shows them that he is the best in the league. He also shows the audience that there is a good kid who just wants to belong, trying to slug his way out from beneath the boyhood Brando motorcycle gangster exterior.
Watching Ritchie and the gifted Matthau play the field with the convincing child actors is a joy to behold. Like many of us did when we were away from parental supervision, the kids use profanity as if it were a shiny new toy. They can be viciously cruel to each other and, when there aren’t too many others around, also stick up for their teammates in ways that elude almost every adult in corporate America. You can expect to hear racial slurs that will mock almost every person and religion out there. These are good things, people. The softening of society, the catering to the instantly and fatally offended, could push us all into very dark places. Humor strengthens us and helps us prepare for life’s pitfalls. And there are enough of those to keep Indiana Jones hopping over shit for a long time.
Everyone doesn’t get a trophy in life. We all aren’t allowed to stand in the victory circle. Everyone’s not a winner. Ricthie’s The Bad News Bears is, however.
Get used to it.