|Talent for the Game|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 04 March 2003|
Spring has rolled onto the calendar again, blowing away the dragging remnants of winter, scouring the streets with rain, and delivering days of warm sunshine that, like a siren’s song, draws men and boys onto green grassy plains marked off in geometric patterns in white lime chalk. Baseball is the essence of the magic of spring for many people. Anything can happen in baseball, and anything can happen in spring.
In “Talent For The Game,” Virgil Sweet (Edward James Olmos) has probably the second-best dream job of any boy or man who has dreamed of throwing heat or knocking the long ball over the fences. Nope, Virgil isn’t a baseball player, but he is a talent scout for baseball players. He gets to drive the highways and byways of America in search of the holy grail of baseball scouts: the phenom. Most of the up-and-coming baseball players that have played in big league high schools or colleges are known quantities. Those players already have teams and contracts and a phalanx of lawyers waiting on them. The phenom, though, he’s the player that nobody knows about. He’s the kid who has dreamed of doing nothing but playing baseball but hasn’t gotten the chance to really shine. Unless he’s found by a talent scout or gets the gumption to trek to the nearest — or even a favorite — professional baseball stadium, the phenom is doomed to milk cows, pump gas, or buck hay. Success isn’t guaranteed to the phenom or even to the talent scout who finds him. A lot of temptation and soul-searching lies ahead.
Chapter 1 opens up with Virgil Sweet arriving at a coal mine and taking the elevator down into the shaft. The creaking and shuddering of the cage’s descent rockets through the subwoofer and the surround sound system with grim intensity. Water sluices along the cavern walls, and the surround sound pulls the viewer into the scene, making us feel like glancing down to make sure we aren’t standing in a puddle. Moments later, we discover why Virgil is in the mine. He sets up a folding home plate, pulls on a catcher’s mitt, and goes to work. The applause of the surrounding miners as they cheer one of their own on crackles through the surround sound system. If you love baseball, you may find yourself scooting up on the edge of your seat as you watch the young man kick his cleats through the mud in an effort to find solid ground from which to pitch. Virgil whispers encouragement, then the ball pops into the catcher’s mitt with a leathery snap that is like no other sound to anyone whose ears have been trained for the game. Unfortunately, the young man isn’t quite the phenom Virgil had hoped for, but he lets the prospect down easily.
Back in his ‘60s model red Mustang, Virgil heads through the wheat fields. Baseball diamonds in all the small towns are host to gatherings of other hopeful scouts. Even among them, Virgil is shown as a dinosaur. He doesn’t buy into the radar guns and other sophisticated trappings that gauge a pitcher’s speed. He knows the kind of young man he’s looking for: someone hungry and talented, someone who can become a miracle. There’s no real music score to keep the story moving along. The quiet conversations that Virgil has with friends, colleagues and hopefuls provide a backdrop and mission statement to his life as a talent scout. Chapter 2 opens up with a nice scene where Virgil is waiting on his girlfriend, Bobbie. To kill time, he’s playing baseball with the cat, wadding up papers to make balls to pitch. The meeting with Bobbie, after Virgil’s 63 days on the road, is romantic and funny, underscored by Johnny Rivers’ “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu,” revealing why Virgil never made it to the Big Show himself.
When Virgil walks into the California Angels stadium, we feel his hunger and longing. Called into his friend Timmy’s office, Virgil learns that the team has been sold to a billionaire. Also, the new owner is planning on shutting down the scout program, which will put Virgil in the unemployment line. Timmy tells Virgil he only has a little while to come up with a phenom before he’s shut down and frozen out. Driving rain hammers through the surround sound system to open Chapter 3. Virgil figures out a way to have the new prospect pitch from one barn to another. Both men, pitcher and scout, are hopeful, and we feel the tension as Virgil talks to both the young man and himself. Virgil shares his erosion of faith with Bobbie, who tells him she believes that everything happens for a reason, and it’s her faith that holds them together. Just when things look bleakest, the strident and enthusiastic yells of a baseball game draws Virgil on.
In Chapter 4, Virgil finds his phenom. Sammy Bodeen is a quiet, unassuming young, probably very much like Virgil was in his youth. He’s also the son of a church minister who has plans for his son to follow in the family tradition. The rumble of the bus seems startlingly out of place in the quiet town in Chapter 5. The snarling diesel engine noise breaks the laidback chirping of the birds and the quiet peacefulness of the town streets. Once Sammy’s dad agrees to let him go to California, Virgil brings the young pitcher onto the field himself. In Chapter 6, the distinctive grinding of cleats against cement echoes through the surround sound system. From this point on, everything appears to be on the line: Sammy’s future as well as Virgil’s future and his own desperate grasp of his morals and sense of himself.
Originally made in 1991 and only recently transferred onto DVD, “Talent For The Game” was written by David Himmelstein, Tom Donnelly, and Larry Ferguson. From all the nuances of character and dialogue, the use of the baseball field and the behind-the-scenes peeks at the way the business of baseball is done, we can tell that the three writers are conversant with and admirers of the sport. Unfortunately, the sound of the movie’s original score wasn’t pumped up much to take advantage of a surround sound system. Also, although billed as Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, the movie was originally recorded in Dolby Stereo. Some distinctions in sound as well as enhancements have been made, but not enough to make this disc an audio winner. But this isn’t a movie wired for sound. It’s a movie about baseball and dreams and the men who chase them. On these levels, the film succeeds admirably, even though the story feels overly familiar at times.
“Talent For The Game” is a quiet but deep story with a plot that every baseball lover will know by heart. But all of those baseball players, wannabe superstars, and baseball fans would enjoy a nice evening at home. With the PG rating, the film is fun for the whole family and doesn’t have any violence, language, or sexual situations that might offer any real offense. If you’re still waiting on the season to start in your neck of the woods, or if you’re rained out one night and end up stuck at home when the baseball field seemed like the place to be, “Talent For The Game” serves as a great rental for relaxed watching. Fans of Edward James Olmos might want to add this one to their collections, because the actor delivers one of the best gentle performances of his career.