Oh, men. It’s hard not to pity them pretty much every day of the year.
But February 14 is especially tough for the fellas. Valentine’s Day is meant to celebrate mutual love, but we know it’s really all about the estrogen. So suddenly the pressure’s on for kiwi bouquets and “chocolate” (translation: brown. Brown?) diamonds, when we’d just love it if they shaved.
But guys need love too, so why not give him a movie night featuring a sports flick with a romantic twist for you? Here, based on my highly scientific poll of Facebook friends and my local bar, are my top 5 selections for romantic sports movies, plus a few honorable mentions.
Gene Hackman plays Norman Dale, an abrasive coach with a checkered past, who takes over the tiny Hickman (Ind.) High School basketball team in the early 1950s. His star player has quit, and his assistant coach is the town drunk (Dennis Hopper). But slowly they win the respect and confidence of the town, whip the players into shape, and lead the team to a state title. (Coach Dale’s tape-measure demonstration of the championship court’s dimensions will inspire anyone feeling overwhelmed by a challenge.) Hopper earned an Oscar nomination for his performance.
#4 Field of Dreams (1989)
This beloved tale of a flailing Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark in his cornfield is much more than a baseball movie. It’s a story of family, faith, and redemption as the spirits of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) and the other players of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal come out to play one more time. Also look for James Earl Jones as a curmudgeonly writer and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as extras in their pre-Oscar youth. Best of all, it is a proven fact this film makes every man cry.
(For more about the gangsters and gambling that brought down the 1919 World Series, I recommend Eliot Asinof’s excellent book “8 Men Out,” also a 1988 movie starring John Cusack, David Strathairn, and even good ole Charlie Sheen—who actually had serious professional ball aspirations before acting took over his tiger blood.)
#3 Jerry Maguire (1996)
It had us at “hello.” A love story cloaked in the cutthroat world of pro football player management, this film follows the rise, fall, and rise again of agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) as he begins living according to his conscience, not his wallet. Along for the ride is quirky single mom Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger) and her son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki). But the sweetest sub-story is the fierce love between Arizona Cardinals’ receiver Rod “Show me the money!” Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Maguire’s one last client, and his indomitable wife Marcee (Regina King). Watch for a cameo by Eagles lead singer Glen Frey as the Cardinals’ general manager.
By the way, “Jerry Maguire” is not Cruise’s first sports movie. In “All the Right Moves” his Stefen “Stef” Djordjevic is a talented high school defensive back trying to escape a Pennsylvania mill town. Cruise met future (ex) wife Nicole Kidman on the set of NASCAR flick “Days of Thunder.” And my college volleyball teammate Dana lobbied for “Top Gun” based on the famous jeans-shorts beach volleyball scene. Positive, Ghost Rider.
#2 Bull Durham (1988)
That low rumble you’re hearing is every man reading this questioning why this 1988 baseball classic isn’t number one. Sure, it seems like a home run. A veteran catcher mentoring an upstart rookie pitcher for the Durham (N.C.) Bulls. A sassy groupie with a literary degree and lingerie she…shares with the team. Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins (the latter two partnering on set for a real-life, 20-year relationship). The Church of Baseball, lizard eyes, the soul, the small of a woman’s back, good scotch, and “long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.” Kevin Costner even hit two home runs while filming. But it’s still not our number one…
Let’s pause here because I could compile a list of romantic baseball movies alone. A few more…
- In “The Natural,” Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) returns to baseball 16 years after being shot by a beautiful stalker, then leads his 1930s baseball team to the top with his lucky bat, “Wonder Boy.” Kim Basinger and Glenn Close play his leading ladies. Also look for Robert Duvall and Darren McGavin (Ralphie’s “old man” in “A Christmas Story”).
- In “The Rookie,” Dennis Quaid portrays real-life pitcher Jim Morris, a 35-year-old Texas high school teacher and coach who rediscovers the wicked fastball his father had dismissed as a silly dream. With support of his players and a devoted wife, he reaches the pros as the oldest rookie in 40 years. And of course patches things up with the old man.
- And in “Major League,” aging catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) joins “Wild Thing” pitcher Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) and Willie “Mays” Hayes (Wesley Snipes) to revive the cellar-dwelling Cleveland Indians and reclaim his lost love Lynn (Rene Russo). Look for now-Allstate spokesman Dennis Haysbert as very scary voodoo disciple and hitter Pedro Cerrano.
#1 Rocky (1976)
Long before his Rambo bandana and machine gun, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa only had his southpaw (left-handed) fists, a meat locker, and a dog named Butkus. A poor, kind-hearted Philadelphia debt collector and part-time fighter, Balboa falls in love with the frumpy, virginal sister Adrian (Talia Shire) of his friend Paulie (Burt Young). In the meantime, he is selected by the current heavyweight champ Apollo Creed for a U.S. Bicentennial match-up, intended to be more of a public relations stunt—until Rocky goes the full 15 rounds. He doesn’t win, but he does land his most treasured prize, the love of Adriannnnnn!, who blossoms before our eyes through the love of a truly good man. Stallone wrote the movie, which was shot in only 28 days but won three Oscars, including Best Picture.
Also, find Burt Young as Leo Poplar, a dementia patient seeking help from struggling attorney and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) in the heartwarming “Win Win.” Flaherty’s world is crumbling when Poplar’s tattooed, chain-smoking teen grandson appears on his doorstep with a mysterious past—and a hell of a talent for wrestling.
Finally, if you really want to show your man you care, my guy friends strongly (strongly) recommend the following sports comedy classics:
Caddyshack: A group of country club workers take on some testy members in a golf tournament as Rodney Dangerfield cracks his groaners and dullard groundskeeper Bill Murray hunts down groundhogs. Boogers and turds also guest star.
Slap Shot: Thanks to Washington Capitals broadcaster Sky Kerstein for requesting this Paul Newman hockey picture, every fan’s favorite about a failing town’s failing team that turns to full-on violence to sell seats. (Also features Melinda Dillon, the mom from “A Christmas Story.”)
Tin Cup: Among others, my buddy and sports guru Bob Somerville voted for this golf love story as a top-5. But since Kevin Costner has already claimed two spots, we’ll tee him up here. Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy is a former star now drinking and lazing around his Texas driving range. But when Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo) and her pro-golfer boyfriend David (Don Johnson) come along, McAvoy finds renewed purpose for his game and his lovelife. Also features cameos by real-life PGA players.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story: OK, this one’s mine, but I love it. Thin Vince Vaughn. Ben Stiller as a hypercompetitive owner of a mega-gym. A beautiful attorney with a mean arm (Stiller’s real-life spouse Christine Taylor). And a national dodgeball competition where they all lay everything on the line. Also features my high school pal Missi Pyle as menacing, unibrowed “Purple Cobra” Fran Stalinovskovichdavidovitchsky.
Sports are about more than winning. They are about character. Determination. Forgivenes. And love, which is what makes these movies (and many others I’ve left off) so enduring. We all want the trophy, but love is the real triumph, and I hope you find it this week.
Or at least some of these movies on Netflix.