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Hok Talk: Why can’t baseball movies do baseball right?

This is a kids game. So why does it always look so dumb in the movies?

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics
Former Royal Wally Joyner was in a movie, once!
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

I was initially planning to write about a baseball episode of Necessary Roughness this week. It was a show I’d never seen, and I had no idea what to expect going in. It turns out I hate the whole thing, and it was more about sex than baseball, and I didn’t feel like writing anymore about that. One thing did catch my attention, though; a fan was describing the play of her favorite slumping athlete and declared that in the previous night’s game, he swung at 12 pitches and missed all of them.

To put this into context, I looked at the top five batters in 2020 by swinging strike/total pitch percentage, otherwise known as SwStr% on FanGraphs. The MLB average is about 10%; these guys were all closer to 20% on the year. Only Luis Robert, the league leader in SwStr%, ever swung and missed at significantly more than half the pitches he saw in a game. And in that game, he still went one-for-four. As hard as it is to hit a baseball, it’s even harder for a professional to swing and miss twelve times without fouling one off or deciding to watch one. I can’t imagine there is any self-respecting big league hitter out there who wouldn’t think that after striking out three times on three pitches each that maybe he should watch one.

All of this made me wonder, “Why do television and movies always get baseball wrong?” When Max and I talked on a podcast a few months ago about the movie Major League we discussed how it seemed to have much better baseball action than other films. Still, even then, we acknowledged we saw problems with it. Baseball is a sport many of us played as children. It’s not something foreign to writers, directors, or actors. They manage to make fantastical beasts and amazing technology that we can only dream about seem lifelike. But they struggle with this comparatively mundane sport.

The first reason it looks terrible is that the characters the actors are meant to be portraying are almost always supposed to be professional athletes. That makes them one of the very best at baseball in the entire world. And just because a kid plays a game doesn’t mean they’re the very best in the world. If they were just people playing a game, it wouldn’t be quite so awkward, but they’re supposed to look as clean and polished as the guys who have trained for it most of their lives. It just doesn’t work. The second part is that they aren’t just playing. They’re trying to play in such a way that what they do fits into the story.

What that means is a guy isn’t just swinging a bat - or maybe he is, but he shouldn’t be - the story calls for him to hit a home run, so for it to look believable, it needs to come off the bat as a flyball and have a certain velocity to it. But there is rarely time in the filming schedule to just film a guy swinging at pitches until he gets one just right. Especially since if and when that finally happens, something else about the shot might be wrong for some reason. So they take a shot where the ball comes off the bat in a weird way compared to where it’s going.

These problems could be solved with CGI, but during the heyday of baseball movies, CGI wasn’t nearly as widely used as it is today, and now the baseball movies that are getting made don’t have the budget for special effects like those. Also, it’s nearly effortless to put a guy on a mound and another in a batter’s box and have them attempt baseball. Why would you CGI something that you don’t even need stunt doubles for?

Beyond the physical aspects, however, there are the common problems movies and TV shows always have when it comes to real-life jobs. Baseball isn’t unique among things that never seem to be done right. Video games, legal scenes, medical scenes - the list goes on. If you’ve got a job or hobby depicted on-screen, you’ve probably noticed this for yourself. It’s never quite right. So what’s going on there? Lack of knowledge and the need for drama.

You know how you spent years in college, trade school, or just on the job learning before you actually knew what you were doing at your job? Writers spent that time working on their writing. So they don’t know all the details of how your job works because they don’t have that experience. In many cases, of course, they bring in experts to help advise them on these topics, but the reality is that most of their audience is not going to be an expert in whatever the given subject is. Most of us aren’t doctors, lawyers, or computer programmers, after all. So writers know it’s OK to dumb it down.

Then there is the need for drama. There is a somewhat infamous episode of the TV drama NCIS where the team’s resident computer expert discovers her computer is being hacked.

Now, I don’t know enough about networking or hacking to tell you exactly how much of the technobabble is complete nonsense, but I know enough that I can tell you that at least some of it is. I can also assure you that two people typing on a keyboard would not improve matters. But most of their viewers don’t know that much about computers, and it sure is dramatic! The same thing happened in that episode of Necessary Roughness; pro baseball players don’t swing and miss at twelve straight pitches. But it sure is dramatic to say it happened.

This is where I’d typically try to pitch you on a solution to the ‘problem,’ but there isn’t a solution that can ‘fix’ this. This is just kind of how stories are going to be told. The one thing writers can do is write their stories well enough, make the characters interesting and complex enough that we, as audience members, all agree to overlook the small flaws.

P.S. Is there a movie - baseball, sports, or otherwise - you’d like me to write about? Drop it in the comments below! I intend to write a lot about pop culture this off-season unless baseball gets a lot more interesting than I expect it to.