Walt Whitman called baseball “our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” Anyway, that’s the close paraphrase of Whitman’s panegyric by Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), a keen student of the game and its minor-league players in Durham, N.C., and one of the most liberated, lubricious females in the history of movies — certainly of sports movies, where the usual function of females is to stand at ringside or courtside and cheer their men on. Groupies in America’s former national pastime are known as baseball Annies, of which this Annie is the glorious apotheosis. Each spring, she auditions new players from the Durham Bulls before taking one as a beau for the season. The finalists: Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a former major leaguer playing out the string, and Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLouch (Tim Robbins), a young comer with a 100-m.p.h. fastball but no discipline, on the field or in bed. It’s Annie’s job to teach him the secret of outdoor and indoor sports: that “making love is like hitting a baseball. You just gotta relax and concentrate.”
Writer-director Ron Shelton, once a minor-league player, knows the subtleties of this strange game with no clock and the defense (the pitcher) in charge of the ball. So does Annie. “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time,” she observes, “but it’s also a job.” If Nuke is to make a career of his natural gift, he needs Crash — his catcher and competitor for Annie’s affections — to help him. Bull Durham was the first of Costner’s three baseball movies, followed by the elegiac, some would say sappy, Field of Dreams and, a decade later, For the Love of the Game. But this wry comedy is the one with all the magic, and a mature understanding of a million kids’ lifelong pursuit.