It may have celebrated its silver anniversary last year, but the classic film Bull Durham remains as fresh as spring training and as profound as the game it celebrates. I have made a tradition of watching Bull Durham every Opening Day. I do this not because it somehow prepares me mentally for another season of baseball. I do it because it helps me understand life’s deeper lessons a bit better each year. This isn’t just a baseball movie, anymore than The Big Lebowski is just a film about bowling. It isn’t just about a guy who figures out he’s washed up in baseball and finds love along the way. It’s much more than that. Just as I could not understand, until I had a son of my own, the pain and power of the scene in The Iliad when Hector leaves his boy Astyanax never to return, a deeper appreciation of Bull Durham escaped me until I reached middle age. Now, wiser and humbled by life, I get it.
There are undoubtedly many ways to watch the film, but perhaps because I am nearing fifty, I see more of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the story each time. Catcher “Crash” Davis, played by Kevin Costner, is an almost over-the-hill lifer in the minor leagues. As the movie opens he has lost his way in the middle of his life’s journey. There is no Virgil to accompany Crash, but he is nonetheless guided by providence to the Durham Bulls, a struggling Single-A team on the lowest rung of minor league baseball, to mentor the uncontrolled and immature pitching phenom Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh.
The baseball term used to describe wandering players like Davis, “journeyman”, reveals the allegorical nature of the Davis character, but unlike the exiled Dante—or perhaps that most famous wanderer, Odysseus—he has no home to which he seeks to return. Crash’s tragedy is that he never, except briefly, found a spot behind home plate in the major leagues. Instead, his journey has been circular, much like the game he plays: an endless moving from first around to home, or from minor league team to minor league team. If the goal of baseball, according to former MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti, is “to leave and to return home”, then Crash is cursed by being barred from the major league home he dreams about, beyond the outfield fences of the small parks in which he plays.
In this sense, Bull Durham provides a false salvation right at its start, and Crash must learn to discern truth from falsehood. As aging groupie Annie Savoy narrates in the beginning of the film: “The only church that truly feeds the soul—day in, day out—is the Church of Baseball.” As enticing as Susan Sarandon makes it sound, this is misleading; no one wants to spend a whole career in Durham, North Carolina, playing for the Bulls. The real church of baseball is in the major leagues, whose “ballparks are like cathedrals”, as Crash later relates to his dreaming young teammates. Once we understand that, we understand why Crash is lost. He is in a dark wood because he cannot yet accept that he worships a false and unattainable god.
We may root for Crash, but we are also expected to pity him because we can see what he at first cannot: He must give up his quixotic quest to reach the majors in order to reach a better, attainable end. But Crash doesn’t know how to do anything else but stay true to his nature and his talents: a ball player trying to reach the majors. He is caught between following this nature and the one truth he refuses to accept: He will never make it to the bigs as a player. He is thus at first a tragic hero. He doesn’t give up even when he knows his fate is to spend his entire career in the minors.
Ours is a less religious age, so Bull Durham reinterprets Dante’s depiction of Paradise from an encounter with God to a search for the life best fitted to our nature in this unfair world. This almost Aristotelian end, when reached, leads to a cessation of suffering and journeying alike—in a sense, to a true coming home. But Crash can’t read the signs of this higher journey on his own, so he must be brought down to Durham to begin the climb upward.
Crash learns right in the beginning of the movie that this time is different, and that he is not suffering the divine punishment of being sent back to Single-A ball simply as a condemned sinner. His new manager tells him why his Triple-A contract was bought out:
SKIP: We want you to room with [Nuke] on the road and stay on his case all year. . . . He can go all the way.
CRASH: And where can I go?
SKIP: You can keep going to the ballpark and keep getting paid to do it.
This realization that he is no longer merely a player but is now a mentor is the beginning of his journey. Crash must transcend his desire to remain a player trying to reach the big leagues—in other words, to reject his false god—so as to move toward another, better end for himself.
As the season progresses, Crash climbs his own Mount Purgatory, and as he does so he sees in the Carolina League all those poor souls doomed to spend eternity in Single-A hell. They may not occupy nine circles, but they all share one trait that links them to Crash: They’re simply not good enough to make it to the “Show.” The one exception in these depths is the least deserving of all, the nutcase Nuke LaLoosh.
For Nuke, the lower levels are but a small stop on an uninterrupted journey to the Show. But he is unformed and unworthy of his gift, unlike Crash, who is formed and worthy but comparatively ungifted. Nuke is ignorant, arrogant, and immature, but, more important, he is the antithesis of what the game means to Crash, the searching purist. It is not simply a matter of experience versus inexperience or humility versus arrogance. It is, at base, about virtue and excellence, principles whose supreme importance endures no matter the field of human endeavor on which they play out.
Nuke is, in a way, a sophist as Plato portrays one: He plays the form of baseball and thinks he understands it, but in reality he does not understand it at all. He is a creature of his environment, believing baseball to be a quick way to riches and fame. Nuke sees nothing wrong in using baseball as a means as opposed to an end in itself, and he is ignorant of what true value is: “I got a Porsche already. A 944 with A.C. and a quadraphonic Blaupunkt”, he proudly announces to Crash. The older man, on the other hand, is not just a mentor or tutor in the relationship but a Socrates-figure, challenging and refuting Nuke’s beliefs and bringing him, in both body and mind, closer to the true game.
But here, the teacher learns as well. Crash’s relations with Nuke unexpectedly allow the older player ultimately to reject three of the sins encountered in Dante’s Purgatory: pride in his own ability despite its limitations and his age; envy of Nuke; and wrath at the fate that has kept him a minor leaguer essentially forever.
Crash’s wrath directed toward fate is complex and provides one of the more poignant moments in the film. Drunk at a local pool hall, he is accosted by Nuke, who has come to tell him that he has been called up to the Show. Crash tries again to instill humility in his younger charge, at the same time revealing his sad anger at the ways in which the heavens deny to man that for which he yearns when he worships a false god:
You know what the difference is between hitting .250 and hitting .300? I got it figured out. . . . You get one extra flare a week—just one—a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail—just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium!
Crash believes he knows from bitter experience that failure does not derive from any personal shortcomings. It is instead impersonal. It is about the Fates. But it is no less painful for so being.
The scene is so powerful precisely because Crash now sees that this hard-earned knowledge no longer matters, that fate can no longer affect him as a player, for he is on a different path than the one that marked his life before his return to Durham. Nor can he really envy Nuke now, for he knows he is no longer in competition with him. Crash’s false god is Nuke’s true god, since LaLoosh has achieved what Crash cannot and will now play in the cathedrals of the major leagues.
But if Crash ultimately moves away from Nuke, he moves toward Annie Savoy. Annie is a sort of inverted Beatrice, not the allegorical figure of theology who helps Dante finally to perceive God, but one fixed in place in the lower level of existence that is Durham. At the same time, Annie does represent the ultimate coming-to-be for Crash, whose journey to try to reach the majors has left him alone in life. His instant attraction to her, at a bar where the Bulls’ players gather, is tested by her self-proclaimed role as a carnal guide to one promising player each season, in this case, Nuke. Annie and Crash share the same goal of perfecting Nuke’s ability to play baseball, but she does so primarily through a heightened appreciation of the physical realm, with some Walt Whitman thrown in for good measure.
But Annie, too, knows that she is in thrall to a false god: “[The boys] make me feel safe. And pretty. What I give them lasts a lifetime. What they give me lasts 142 games.” Annie clearly needs redemption as much as Crash does, for she, too, is on a road with no end, endlessly trapped with young players. She guides him, not explicitly but implicitly, when he learns to return to her. And when she learns to accept him, they both finally achieve a salvation based in humility and reality.
Before this happens, however, Crash must undertake one last journey. As soon as he has succeeded in helping Nuke reach the majors, he is released by the Bulls. But he is no longer the same man as he was when he arrived in Durham. Having progressed up Purgatory, he has put his pride and wrath aside. This new level of growth, of worthiness, is represented by his substituting the unattainable dream of playing in the big leagues for the attainable, and still heroic, one of breaking the minor league home run record. We know this because once he attains this goal, his sins are cleansed, and he quits playing baseball.
Crash’s journey is now almost complete, but he must take a final step. While still being true to his nature, he must metamorphose from being a baseball player to being a better man, and specifically a man of baseball, a manager. It is his acceptance of this end that shows he has glimpsed the Good toward which his journey has brought him. He now realizes the error, not of Dante but of John Milton’s Satan, who advised: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heav’n.” Just not so, Crash finally sees.
The scene in which this happens, containing the last line in the movie, is particularly powerful. Crash has returned to Durham, and sits on Annie’s porch in a drenching storm waiting for her to return. One can imagine that these cleansing waters are from the River Lethe, from which Dante drinks in Canto XXXI of the Purgatorio, inducing a forgetfulness of past sin. Crash explains to Annie that he “hung up” his cleats after breaking the minor league home run record, and then reveals that he now knows his real strengths and what his true end should be, sharing that “there might be an opening for a manager at Salem next year.” Plaintively he asks her, “You think I could make it to the Show as a manager?”
The films ends in some studied ambiguity. Has Crash really completed his journey, or will this next one be as quixotic as the one that marked him before Durham? It is at least a safe bet that he has indeed reached Paradise, for, in addition to returning to Annie, he has shown throughout the movie that managing and not playing is his special talent. By no longer being a player, he no longer needs to endlessly circle the bases. He has found the “straight way” to his salvation.
Viewing Bull Durham through the lens of The Divine Comedy shows us a lost adult finding his way to Paradise: a way to do in life that task for which he is best fitted and that he loves, but with humility and wisdom, and without the false hopes that led him into the dark wood in the first place. The lesson is clear: Paradise is not merely accepting who we are, but joyously apprehending our nature and excelling in what is best for us. And so says Crash: “I’m tired and I don’t wanna think about baseball. . . . I don’t wanna think about nothing. . . . I just wanna be.” At a certain age, don’t we all?