For Love of the Game (1999)

Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Dana Stevens

For Love of the Game is one of those films which my memory holds in pretty high regard, for one reason or another. The exercise of this marathon, returning to many baseball classics I have already seen, has thus far served me very well, recalling some great classics which I may even hold in higher regard now than I had before. With For Love of the Game, a film which has caught the ire of some over the years, and yet I stood by it, may be a film which doesn’t quite hold up as well as my memory serves. However, I remain a staunch defender of the film’s validity in the baseball movie universe. It is not nearly as horrid as some reviews I have read make it out to be, and in fact contains many redeeming qualities of the baseball movie.

It may be surprising to find out that this film is directed by Sam Raimi, as it certainly stands out as a strange entry into his filmography, because it attempts to merge the genres of baseball movie and romance, with mixed results. Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) has been the star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers for almost 20 years. With a decision on his retirement looming, and his on again, off again relationship with Jane (Kelly Preston) reaching an important fork in the road, Billy takes the mound at Yankee Stadium at the end of a poor season, with just 27 outs standing in the way of himself and history.

What sets this film apart in a marathon full of baseball movies is actually the baseball storyline. Too often it surrounds a team striving to win the pennant, especially in more recent 90s baseball movies, but with For Love of the Game it focuses on the career ups and downs of one player, and how everything in his life has built up to the possible, improbable, perfect game at Yankee Stadium. The baseball action and drama is among the best in the marathon, and is aided by the great Vin Scully as the announcer of the game. My attention was always piqued when the focus was on the game, and JK Simmons and John C. Reilly play great roles as the manager and catcher, respectively.

But what drags the film down, and I mean drag, is the rather standard and drab romance between Billy and Jane. I’m not sure Costner and Preston have much chemistry, but that’s not even really the problem. The romance is just not all that interesting to me. Raimi uses the flashback device quite well, creating an interesting structure surrounding the game as we remember along with Billy important points in his relationship with Jane and how everything has built to this day. But where I found myself called to attention when the baseball action was happening, I also found my mind wandering when the film cut back to show Costner and Preston flirting. These sections felt long, and insincere, making the 137 minute runtime feel even longer at times.

But what I also take from this film is the romanticism of the game. While mixing baseball and romance is likely a box office folly (baseball fans won’t want the romance, romance fans likely won’t want the baseball), the two actually go hand in hand. As Brad Pitt’s character in the upcoming Moneyball says, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” and For Love of the Game gets this part of the game so right. And I’m talking about the romanticism of the game, not between Billy and Jane. Yankee Stadium, a perfect game, an old veteran who plays because he loves the game, not for the money. There are so many parts of this story which ring so very true for this loyal and passionate fan of the game. It’s just a shame the other side of the movie detracts so much from the overall product.

*** – Good

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