Shell Shocked: My favorite sports movie
I love a good sports movie, especially one where the hero is triumphant at the end. My favorite sports movie of all time is “The Natural” with Robert Redford. In it Redford plays Roy Hobbs, once a young promising baseball player who meets up with a strange woman on a train and is shot by her thus shattering his dream to become the best baseball player who ever lived.
Years later, we see Hobbs showing up at the clubhouse of a New York City major league baseball team asking for a try out. The wily team manager, Pop Fisher, played by Wilford Brimley, is hesitant at first. It’s clear that Hobbs is along in years for a baseball player and has come out of nowhere to boot. Fisher senses something different about Hobbs. He’s given try outs to many aspiring ballplayers along the way but none as mysterious and confident as Hobbs.
“Hit some out,” says Fisher and has a pitcher throw to Hobbs. Hobbs blasts each ball thrown to him into the right field seats with a sting and sound that’s almost paranormal. He has Hobbs shag some balls in the outfield and signs him up as a substitute destined to languish on the team bench. Not so.
The regular right fielder gets hurt while chasing a ball down in the outfield and Fisher looks over his bench with Hobbs sitting way at the end. “Hobbs get out there.” Hobbs hasn’t played a single inning since joining the team and recognizes the opportunity. He takes his glove and sprints to the outfield. The next inning he’s up with two men on base and his team behind. The opposing team’s pitcher senses that he has an easy out coming his way. He winds up and throws his best fastball. Hobbs swings gracefully and accurately and sends the ball four hundred feet into the right field stands. He trots around the bases as though his route is familiar and long forgotten.
The Brimley character Fisher is both shocked and exuberant. What the heck have I latched onto he thinks. Whatever the reason this guy picked my team to try out with I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. He claps along with the paltry number of fans in the stands.
The next few months are magical. Hobbs becomes the new sensation in New York sports. His heroics during his very first game turns out to not be an aberration at all. He is a natural slugger and he delights New York sports fans by slugging timely hits and home runs consistently. The team goes from last place to first and is now in contention to win the pennant. Attendance surges from near empty to full house.
But toward the end of the season Hobbs’ past injury comes back to haunt him — the bullet wound scar inflicted by the deranged woman on the train — opens and blood seeps out. He is taken to a hospital and it appears that he won’t be able to play again during the team’s drive toward the pennant and then the World Series. But our hero isn’t to be denied.
The team is tied for first place on the last day of the season. Hobbs has checked himself out of the hospital to try to overcome his wound and help the team. But he is obviously in pain and sits out the game — up to that point. The team is behind by one run in the bottom of the ninth inning with two men on base and two out.
Fisher has an important decision to make. Should he let the scheduled batter hit? Or does he hope for a miracle and call on Hobbs to pinch hit. He looks down the bench and hears Hobbs mouth the words “let me hit, I can do it.” Brimley shouts out “Hobbs, get in there.”
Hobbs saunters out of the dugout and chooses his favorite bat, “Wonderboy,” one he carved out himself. The other team brings in its best relief pitcher, a phenom who is credited with having the best fastball in all of baseball. He’s typically brought in to face other teams’ best hitters and usually has his way with them.
It’s David and Goliath time. It’s Samson versus the Roman army. Hobbs is handicapped with a wound that epitomizes his life as a baseball professional. Can he save the season for the team and reward the manager who took a chance on him when no one else would?
He steps to the plate. A ferocious fast ball with the speed of a roaring train crosses the plate almost making the catcher wince in pain. “Strike one,” calls the umpire. Hobbs hadn’t swung and recognizes that all that stands between him and victory is a pitcher who can get anyone out almost at will.
The next pitch is in the strike zone. Hobbs swings, fouls it off and breaks his favorite bat, Wonderboy. A bad omen? The crowd turns silent. It knows what this bat has meant to Hobbs. Hobbs views the splintered bat for a moment and summons the batboy, a rotund teenager.
Hobbs says, “Bring me your best bat, kid.” The batboy obliges. The two eye each other. This is the moment. The pitcher, sensing victory, throws his best pitch, a fastball that indeed is faster than a speeding bullet. At this point, the crowd can see red stains on Hobbs’ uniform as his wound begins to open. Hobbs swings through the pain — and connects. The ball goes soaring into the night and travels more than four hundred feet to the furthest point in the stadium. It shatters a bank of floodlights high above the field and as its sparks of glass scatter and fly through the nighttime sky Hobbs trots around the bases. His team has won the pennant. The movie ends shortly thereafter. We’ll never know if Hobbs is healthy enough to play in the World Series but this we do know. Hobbs defied all the odds by returning to the game he loved as a youngster and was deprived of playing for a number of years. Until New York.
I’ve watched this movie countless times. Although I’ve practically memorized all the scenes, the one near the end where Hobbs hits the home run off the best pitcher in baseball to win the pennant always registers with me. Heroic feats are common in sports. But to my mind none is as heroic as the scene in which Hobbs hits the long home run, crashes the lights and trots around the bases, with blood on his uniform, into the waiting arms of his teammates.