Sports-themed movies that fill the void

Clockwise from top left, The Bad News Bears, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, Lucas, and The Rookie

The Bad News Bears (1976)

The Bad News Bears stars Walter Matthau as a sad-sack ex-baseball player who agrees to coach a Little League team of outsiders. The premise of the film is that the team and its coach deserve each other as some sort of mutual punishment. Coach Morris Buttermaker is a drunk who cleans pools for a living, and the children are introduced as the dregs of society: the nerds, the fat kids, the runts, the black and brown kids, the juvenile delinquents, and — worst of all — a girl, played by a post-Oscar-win Tatum O’Neal. The movie doesn’t dance around the kids’ shortcomings. Indeed, the language used by some of the characters to describe their teammates is, at best, no longer acceptable in polite society. At worst, it’s racist. But this isn’t a movie for kids; it’s a movie about kids. The way they deal with it is a reason to watch. And for all its throwback vocabulary, The Bad News Bears wrestles forthrightly with a few tough topics, like child abuse and adolescent sexuality.

The Bears are accustomed to being told that they’re not good enough and never will be. O’Neal’s Amanda — arguably the team’s most talented player — is treated as a freak simply for being able to throw a ball and be a girl at the same time. In 1976, it seems, it was important for undesirable children to know exactly where they stood in the social hierarchy (and, often they were being informed of their station by adults). Watching this classic sports film about the triumph of underdogs from the vantage point of 2020 is as much about cheering the team’s eventual athletic achievement as it is about recalling a bygone era of American childhood, for better or for worse. The Bad News Bears predates the existence of participation trophies. It was made during a time when a Little League coach swilling bourbon and beer before practice was seen as mildly pathetic (and an open door to redemption) rather than a reason to immediately review the league’s hiring practices. Comedy/drama, PG, 102 minutes, Starz (Jennifer Levin)

Lucas (1986)

“The males who demonstrate physical prowess are the most attractive to the females,” so reasons nerdy, awkward, and underprivileged high school student Lucas (Corey Haim). He hopes to win the heart of the beautiful young redhead Maggie (Kerri Green) by joining the football team, even though it could mean suicide. Maggie befriends the eccentric Lucas after meeting him one summer while he’s conducting an entomological expedition in the suburbs of Chicago. After spending the season together, Maggie joins the cheerleading squad to get closer to her newfound crush, a star player on the field named Cappie (Charlie Sheen). Along with all the other jocks, Cappie used to bully Lucas until the precocious teen helped him improve his failing grades, but now Lucas sees him as his romantic rival.

Although Lucas is out-sized, out-muscled, and inept at football, he makes up for it with sheer courage. The bigger members of the team, especially Bruno (Tom Hodges), do everything they can to scare him off, making him the butt of their cruel jokes. But Lucas is determined. “You can’t make me quit,” he shouts.

This family-friendly, coming-of-age story also features Winona Ryder, in her first screen role, as Lucas’ mousy friend Rina, who harbors her own secret crush. It was written and directed by David Seltzer (The Omen, Shining Through). It’s big on heart and sends a clear anti-bullying message. It explores the vicissitudes of young love with humor, tenderness, and respect for its solemnity. Lucas is a stand-up-and-cheer kind of movie. Even Bruno might win you over. Romantic comedy/drama, rated PG-13, 100 minutes, Amazon Prime. (Michael Abatemarco)

The Rookie (2002)

As major league baseball limps into empty stadiums this summer, some fans may need a little cinematic substitution to get by. This based-on-a-true-story film does what sports movies do best by dipping into our desires for not only success against the odds, but redemption. Dennis Quaid plays a 40-something Jimmy Morris, whose high school injury cut short a childhood dream to pitch in the Majors. Instead, he grew up, got married, taught at a small-town high school and coached its baseball team, which, being in football-crazy Texas, was underfunded and unloved. A motivational bet with the players leads Morris, who still has a heck of an arm, to a try out for the minor leagues. Will he make it? You may be able to guess, but director John Lee Hancock sets it down in a series of gemlike scenes, including Morris’ reluctant audition among men easily half his age.

The journey from a man making the most of his lot — which includes a wife (the great Rachel Griffins) and three adorable kids, and a father he still calls sir (Brian Cox in a terrific performance) — is human, yet surprisingly lyrical, the kind of film that can leave you aglow with hope if you let it. But despite its Disney provenance, it’s also a trip complicated by Morris’ yearning and doubt. Does he deserve to chance to fulfill an uncertain dream? “My grandfather once told me that it’s OK to think about what you want to do,” his dad tells Morris as he considers the gamble, “until it was time to do what you’re meant to do.” Quaid does Quaid here, if with more genuine earnestness and less devilish smirking. Carter Burwell’s score plays an important role in the storytelling as well, reinforcing the magical nature of the whole dang thing. Drama/comedy, rated G, 127 minutes, Amazon Prime (Tracy Mobley-Martinez)

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)

Sports films about Black athletes and teams are more of a cinema staple now, but after 1953’s soporific The Joe Louis Story, more than two decades went by with just one film involving a Black sports figure (Gale Sayers in the football film Brian’s Song). Bingo Long, which was produced by Berry Gordy for Motown Productions, focuses on the hardscrabble conditions faced by Negro League players circa 1939 and demonstrates that such a film could have wide appeal.

When Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) reaches the breaking point with autocratic team owner Sallison Potter, the ace pitcher bolts, and starts his own barnstorming team. Packed with star players, its success threatens the establishment so much that Potter and his fellow team owners agree to a one-game playoff. If Bingo’s All-Stars win, they would become an official team in the Negro League; if not, all his players return to their original teams. The All-Stars win, of course, and right afterward, two White scouts offer a contract to their best young player, Joseph Calloway.

Calloway was an amalgam of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, while Bingo sported attributes of Leroy “Satchel” Paige. Leon Carter ( James Earl Jones) was modeled on hard-hitting catcher Josh Gibson. Several All-Stars were former major leaguers, adding verisimilitude to the team’s ballplaying, and Richard Pryor had a field day as Charlie Snow, boning up on his Spanish in an attempt to crack baseball’s color barrier as Carlos Nevada.

Bingo Long has its faults (including cartoony villains and a too- indulgent attitude toward the Harlem Globetrotter-esque clowning that the team is forced to adopt at one point as a survival technique), but it’s also boisterous fun. Best of all, it shined a light on the Negro League and its great players, who had been scandalously overlooked for almost a century. Comedy, PG, 110 minutes, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Fandango, Netflix, Vudu (Mark Tiarks)

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