For The Love of The Game

1999/Universal Pictures/Rated PG-13

Most people have heard the old adage — you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Billy Chapel learns it the hard way during the 1999 film “For the Love of the Game.” It’s No. 18 on the full-count film countdown of the all-time greatest baseball movies.

Kevin Costner has a plethora of sports movies on his résumé. (It won’t be the last time you see his name on this lineup of films.) His character this time around is at the end of a Hall-of-Fame career for the Detroit Tigers and learns that the team has been sold. He has to decide whether to continue the game he loves with another team or go out on top after a rough season.

At the same time, he wrestles his off-the-field relationship with Jane Aubrey, played by Kelly Preston. The movie concentrates too much on this connection instead of the one with baseball. Too many flashbacks involving their troubles turn it into a romantic drama. But the baseball scenes are shot well and include the sweet and smooth velvet tones of the legendary Vin Scully. That alone keeps it on the list.

It seems Costner has played every sport on the big screen except toting a pair of skates, but he quickly finds himself on thin ice with Jane during this film.

Jane tells Billy she is moving to London on the day of his final start of the season. He gets to face the Yankees, who will win the pennant with one more victory. Even in the movies, the Yanks are dominant.

This particular picture is the baseball movie version of “Cast Away.” Costner stands alone, isolated on his own island — the pitching mound. He propels his inner monologue during at-bats, he reminisces about old teammates and he recalls his interactions with Jane. He stays alone in his thoughts as several characters in the movie have no more than a handful of lines.

As his recollections go along, so do the scoreless innings for the Yankees. The news that his days as a Tiger may be coming to an end, bringing with it baseball mortality, has finally caused Chapel to look at his life in different light. For most of us, fame and fortune will never brighten our day, but one would assume that lifestyle would consume your daily direction. The game is always bigger than the player but sometimes you can realize too late. It should never dominate your life.

John C. Reilly, the “Shake” of “Shake and Bake” from the movie “Talladega Nights,” is Gus, Chapel’s catcher. He scores the game’s only run after a leadoff double, which Scully refers to as his first since the Reagan administration.

The baseball makes a strong comeback in the final quarter of the movie. Chapel’s 40-year-old right arm starts to fade in the seventh inning and the pressure builds. You can find the symbolism at this point. He is pitching the game of his career and he can only think about one thing. Before he heads out for the ninth, he decides to retire for the love of the game. He finally figures out he wants something more.

Scully gets the line of the movie with three outs to go to complete Chapel’s perfect game: “Don’t let anybody tell you or Billy that life begins at 40. Forty-one hundred innings Billy Chapel has walked to the mound in a brilliant 19-year career, but never before in all those years or all those innings has he had a date with destiny as he has right now.”

“He will make the fateful walk to the loneliest place in the world … the pitching mound at Yankee Stadium,” he adds, “in quest of the pitcher’s dream, the perfect game.”

Vintage Scully. I imagine writers did not have much involvement in the scripting of those words.

Of course, the perfect game is completed before Chapel gets to the airport to find Jane, where she has spent all day with a terminal full of rabid Yankees fans.

Chapel finds that his greatest win pales in comparison to the greatest victory in the game of life.

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